An uninhabited island with a history reaching back a couple of centuries will come back to life this spring, thanks to a state grant and the efforts of Historic Forks of the Wabash volunteers.
A $56,000 grant, which was presented to the Historic Forks of the Wabash board of directors on Tuesday, Feb. 5, will be used to tie the island to the Forks property by means of a walking path and footbridge.
Campsites will be developed to cater to canoeists and kayakers who want to take a break from their travels down the Wabash River, and other visitors will also be welcome to wander the island.
"If only that ground could talk," says local history buff Jean Gernand. "The stories it could tell."
Ehler Island - named for the family that once owned and farmed it - is separated from the Forks of the Wabash property by a narrow channel, says Jim Hollar. Hollar, a member of the Historic Forks board, who helped assemble documents used in the grant application.
The island is located south of the Forks property at U.S.-24 and Ind.-9 and is separated from River Road by the Wabash River.
"It was farmed at one time," Hollar says. Farm equipment was taken across the shallow channel to the island.
"At times in the summer, you can walk across it," Hollar says of the channel. "In late spring and early summer, it's sometimes just six inches deep. They could take wagons and tractors across."
Gernand says farming on the island ceased about 1985 after the death of a previous owner, Luke Scheer.
Scheer, a Huntington resident, had a deep interest in the area's original inhabitants, the Miami.
The island also offers a view of the nearby "chimney property," Hollar notes.
That property, located across the Wabash River south of Ehler Island is also owned by the Historic Forks but is not developed. The large chimney is all that's left of a cabin built by Miami Chief Jean Baptiste Richardville for his daughter Susan and her French husband, Gernand
says. The site became a pay station, where members of the Miami tribe gathered to receive pay due to them through treaties with the United States government.
The view to the west of Ehler Island includes a larger island, known as Brebaugh Island, which Gernand says was once home to a boatyard that produced canoes.
"Many different military troops passed through there," she says.
The area was part of a footpath leading from Fort Wayne to Lafayette, Gernand explains.
"There is some belief that William Henry Harrison and his troops camped there," she says.
An Army general, Indiana governor and United States president, Harrison led his troops to victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe.
Ehler island itself is "just beautiful," Gernand says. "There are gigantic trees around the edge."
More trees have sprung up in the center of the island since farming ceased in the mid-1980s, she says.
The $56,000 grant from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, will again open the island to visitors.
The Historic Forks board was required to provide a 20 percent match for the project, and the Huntington County Community Foundation has made a $4,000 grant that will be counted as part of that match.
The remaining $10,000 of the local match will come in the form of in-kind donations of labor, use of equipment and other items used in the construction of the project, says Denise Wertenberger, a member of the Historic Forks board.
No actual cash outlay from Forks of the Wabash general funds are anticipated, Wertenberger says.
The work itself will probably begin in the spring, says Dave Hacker, who serves on both the Historic Forks of the Wabash board and the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission.
The work will include the construction of a paved trail beginning near an outdoor pavilion on the Historic Forks property leading to a footbridge over the channel between the main property and Ehler Island.
Pathways and campsites will be developed on the southeast tip of the island. The campsites will have no amenities.
In addition, a launch sites for hand-carries carried watercraft such as kayaks and canoes will be installed.
The Forks of the Wabash project is one of five grants totaling $420,983 through the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission.
Other grants will be used to develop trails and camping facilities in parks throughout the state.
Funding for the grants comes from royalties for oil and minerals extracted from beneath the Wabash River. The 19 counties along the Wabash River, Little River and the historic portage to the Maumee river are eligible to use the funds.
Complete caption: Dave Hacker (left), a member of the Historic Forks of the Wabash board and the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, and Jim Scheiber, president of the Historic Forks of the Wabash board, display the check for a grant that will allow the development of an island adjacent to the Historic Forks property.