One Hundred Years of Conservation in Shawnee State Park

Gov. Harry L. Davis and the Dedication of Ohio’s Theodore Roosevelt Preserve

The Theodore Roosevelt Preserve was dedicated at 3pm on December 5th, 1922, by Governor Harry L. Davis. It began with 20,000 acres as a "game and reforestation preserve." At the time of its dedication, the preserve had about 2,000 ring-necked pheasants and several hundred wild turkeys, with plans to add "deer, bear, partridges, and dozens of other kinds of wild game."

Of the original 20,000 acres, 15,000 was purchased through funds contributed via hunting license fees. An additional 5,000 acres was purchased by the state agricultural extension division, "specifically for reforestation, however the entire tract" according to Governor Davis was "to be used jointly for both purposes." The state paid on average $5 per acre.

Davis told the gathered crowd, "Ohio's completion of this work for the re-establishment of wild life and for protection and replenishment of natural resources is being watched throughout the country, as ours is of the first and certainly one of the largest state enterprises of this kind in America. The state plans a gradual extension of the scope of these activities until every acre of land in the state that is now lying waste will be contributing to our food supply and to the production of timber. From every standpoint this utilization of land … is an investment which will bring its returns a thousand fold to us and succeeding generations."

Some in the press had called for the new preserve to be named for Governor Davis, himself, for his role in supporting its creation. One writer of a letter to the editor of the Portsmouth Times called for the preserve to be named for the Shawnee Indian nation, a suggestion that may have eventually led to the naming of the state forest lands that were adjacent to the preserve and came to encompass it in the early 1950s. But, Governor Davis believed that it should be named for the father of the American conservation movement.

Davis told the assembled crowd, many of whom had traveled by automobile from Portsmouth: "With this event, Ohio launches upon a definite program for the conservation of its natural resources. It is a purpose that at once recalls the greatest figure in modern history - great sportsman and outdoor enthusiast, and bitterest foe of nature's despoilers - who began and waged the national fight for conservation of natural resources - Theodore Roosevelt. Because of this close association of what was cherished by Roosevelt with what we are trying to carry out, I am convinced, Roosevelt, if alive today, would be pleased to see this work go forward and to have his name chosen to honor this great state enterprise."

In 1934, during the Great Depression, 400 acres of the Roosevelt Preserve were set aside for the creation of a state park, originally known as the Roosevelt State Park. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a jobs program for unemployed young men and World War I veterans, would build the original infrastructure of the park and forest. In time the park's name would be changed to Portsmouth State Park, before finally taking the name Shawnee State Park in the early 1970s.

This memorial, which includes the likeness of both Roosevelt and Davis, was originally located near the entrance to the Preserve's Headquarters at the intersection of Forest Road 1 and State Route 125. At some point, after the development of the state park, when the public visitation shifted from the preserve to Roosevelt Lake and its campgrounds, the bronze plaque was placed in storage, until it was forgotten. Then, in the 1990s, Park Manager Kevin Bradbury discovered it in a maintenance shed. Thanks to Bradbury's efforts, the original memorial plaque was given a new home on the shores of Roosevelt Lake, near the Park Campgrounds, where visitors can now easily appreciate its words.

In August 2022, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Roosevelt Game Preserve with the erection of a new historical marker. The ceremony included a dedication speech by Mary Mertz, the Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Mertz told a gathered crowd of some one hundred people:

"After World War II, state lawmakers consolidated the assortment of state lands to provide consistent management and administration of public lands and facilities. Ohio’s modern system of state parks was officially formed 73 years ago - in 1949 when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was created. Since then, ODNR has been proud to manage lands from Lake Erie to the Ohio River – and everywhere in between. And today, 100 years later, through careful conservation efforts and the support of sportsmen and women, Ohio is a state rich in wildlife.

"Sportsmen and women and people who love outdoor recreation are the catalysts that drive conservation in Ohio and across the nation – so thank you for your work, thank you for being here, and thank you for your commitment to protecting our natural resources!

"But for us at ODNR, it’s not just about the land – it’s about showing the connection between our natural world and people and the historic events that brought to us to where we are today. Before the mountain biking trails and campsites, there were people and events that breathed life into the beautiful places across the Buckeye State."

The words of Director Mertz reminds us that our state parks and forests are rich not only in natural beauty and biodiversity, but also in human history, a history that connects Shawnee State Park and the old Roosevelt Game Preserve to the original conservation movement embodied by the life and legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt.