What started with a wood duck and a small flock of Canada geese has grown into an area with hundreds of varieties of wildlife.

A couple of years after Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1966, about 20 deer were spotted on the property east of Seymour. Then 30 coveys of quail were spotted in 1970.

Since then, turkeys, beavers, herons, river otters, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, sandhill and whooping cranes and other animals have been spotted there throughout the years.

Story continues below gallery

Today, more than 280 species of birds, 37 species of mammals, 44 species of reptiles and amphibians and 75 species of fish are known to at least — temporarily — live on the nearly 7,724-acre refuge. Also, 33 dragonfly species, 60 species of butterflies, at least 24 species of mollusks and five species of crayfish have been found.

It’s no wonder nearly 172,000 people from all over the country visit the refuge on an annual basis. It’s one of only three national wildlife refuges in Indiana — the oldest in the state — and is among more than 560 in the United States.

“This is a national treasure,” said Donna Stanley, who has been a park ranger at the refuge since 1983. “A lot of us who live around here don’t realize what a unique place it is. A lot of people make refuges destinations to see wildlife and birds.”

On Saturday, the refuge will celebrate its 50th anniversary. The day will begin with a guided bird walk at 7:30 a.m. Then at 10 a.m. near the visitor center, there will be a program with special guests, former landowners and others speaking. Lunch and cake will be served afterwards.

From noon to 3 p.m., Passport to Nature will encourage people to visit six stations throughout the refuge. Goodies will be passed out at each location, and a fully stamped passport will allow a person to receive a discount at the refuge bookstore.

Also, a commemorative booklet that looks back on the 50 years of the refuge will be given to those in attendance. Jane Hays, a member of the Muscatatuck Wildlife Society, put together the booklet, and 1,000 copies will be available.

Hays also is a member of the 50th anniversary committee, which she said has been planning the event since the beginning of the year.

“I hear from people all of the time that they have never been to the refuge or they drive by and always want to stop, but they’ve never been or they went there in school, but they haven’t been back,” Hays said. “This would be a perfect time for you to come and look around and meet people and see what it’s all about.”

She said doing all of the research for the booklet has given her a new appreciation for the refuge.

“I’ve been there hundreds of times, I’ve grown up with it, so seeing everything that all of these people did and sacrificed and worked on to make me be able to see an otter, that’s a big deal,” Hays said.

The property was discovered in 1956 when Harold McReynolds, a fisheries biologist for the Indiana Department of Conservation, and a coworker left Indianapolis and headed toward Scottsburg on a business trip.

The two men stopped for the night at the Trimpe Cabins near the junction of U.S. 50 and U.S. 31 in Seymour. While they were eating dinner at Sally Trimpe’s store, she mentioned that her brother often hunted ducks at the nearby Moss Lake.

McReynolds hadn’t heard of the lake and a week later checked it out with one of his close friends, Charles Scheffe, a land acquisition specialist with the Indiana Department of Conservation.

They tried to persuade state officials to establish a state waterfowl area there, but officials thought it was too far east since the highest concentration of waterfowl was in the western part of the state.

Both men wound up moving on to other jobs, and Scheffe later became involved when the push for a national wildlife refuge in Indiana started.

Even though other places were considered, Scheffe again tried to draw attention to the Moss Lake area. He later talked to Indiana conservation clubs, the Indiana Wildlife Federation and other groups to lobby for the new refuge to be near Seymour.

That included talking to James Endicott, president of the Seymour Chamber of Commerce and Dudleytown Conservation Club at the time. Endicott was instrumental in introducing the proposal to the community and gaining local support for federal funding, and he also networked with friends and service organizations in surrounding counties.

The work of Scheffe and Endicott paid off, as the Fish and Wildlife Service came through with a proposal to establish Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge.

Meetings and public hearings were conducted over several years, and on June 7, 1966, the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission approved the refuge proposal and allowed land to be purchased with Federal Duck Stamp money.

Scheffe became the refuge’s first manager. The first six months of operation primarily were spent assisting realty personnel with the acquisition of land and the sale of surplus buildings on acquired tracts.

The property had 106 land owners, and it was all agriculture.

Flooding of the creeks and nearby Muscatatuck River, however, made farming a challenge. Many years, the farmers lost crops, Stanley said.

“The people who lived there had done their best to get rid of all of the water and cut down all of the trees because they were trying their best to farm it,” she said. “It was very wet. It’s a natural wetland area. There were miles and miles of drainage tile everywhere.”

By 1972, the land acquisition was finished. That paved the way for buildings, trails, lakes, marshes and ponds to be constructed on the refuge property.

Refuge employees received a lot of help from volunteers of all ages in those projects. Several groups also helped plant trees.

Today, the refuge’s eight staff members focus on maintenance of the property and leading programs for the public. Volunteers, including the Muscatatuck Wildlife Society, continue to provide support to make the refuge a great destination, Stanley said.

Events like Log Cabin Day, Wings Over Muscatatuck Migratory Bird Festival, Wetlands Day, the Christmas Bird Count on New Year’s Day and Take a Kid Fishing Day draw hundreds of people to the refuge. Visitors also come to check out the bookstore and displays inside the visitor center and participate in bird walks, bird counts, butterfly counts and recreational activities, such as hunting and fishing.

All of these activities and the abundant wildlife make coming to work every day an enjoyable experience, Stanley said.

She often drives the 4-mile auto tour through the refuge to capture images of wildlife with her camera and share them on the refuge’s Facebook page.

“You never know exactly what your day is going to be like. It’s a great place to be. It’s a great place to work,” she said. “You can learn so much by just getting out and watching the wildlife.”

If you go

What: 50-year celebration of Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge

When: 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Where: 12985 E. U.S. 50, Seymour

Features: Guided bird walk at 7:30 a.m.; a program near the visitor center with special guests, former landowners and others speaking at 10 a.m.; lunch and cake served after the program; Passport to Nature with guests being encouraged to visit each of the six stations on the passport from noon to 3 p.m. (goodies will be passed out at each location, and those getting their passport stamped at each location will receive a discount at the refuge bookstore); a commemorative booklet that looks back on 50 years of conservation will be given to those in attendance; other special events are planned throughout the day

Cost: Free

Information: Call the refuge office at 812-522-4352 or the Jackson County Visitor Center at 812-524-1914

At a glance

Key moments in Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge history

1966: Refuge established

1967: First full year of operation; a temporary office was established at the Seymour Post Office

1968: First pond, Display Pond, and a trail built

1970: 1,000 acres opened to hunting; Woodcock Marsh/Pond and Mini-Marsh finished

1971: Lake Linda finished; 5,000 trees planted by volunteers

1972: Land acquisition finished; office moved into former home of Paul Richart; shop built on former Pfaffenberger farm

1974: Youth Conservation Corps present; first Christmas Bird Count conducted

1976: Visitor center constructed; last original buildings removed; paved entrance road finished; refuge open to year-round fishing

1978: Young Adult Conservation Corps present

1980: Richart and Stanfield lakes opened

1981: Moss Lake and Endicott Marsh completed

1984: Closed area established on 800 acres

1985: Hackman Overlook built

1986: 4,000 trees planted by Scouts

1988: Visitor center renamed Charles E. Scheffe Visitor Center in honor of refuge’s first manager; Chestnut Ridge Trail interpreted with markers; entrance fees began

1989: Muscatatuck Wildlife Society formed; self-guided auto tour opened; entrance fee program ended

1992: Kids fishing event began; Restle Unit dedicated

1993: Backyard Wildlife Habitat opened at visitor center

1995: First Conservation Field Days conducted

1996: New maintenance building opened; visitor center expansion finished; Myers Cabin renovation finished and dedicated during the first Log Cabin Day; McDonald Marsh dedicated

1998: Refuge named Continentally Important Bird Area; visitor center bookstore remodeled

1999: Spring Fling became Wings Over Muscatatuck bird festival

2000: Endicott Deck built

2004: Conservation Learning Center dedicated; 14,000 tree seedlings planted

2006: Conservation Learning Center renamed for Jim Roberts

2007: First Master Naturalist class conducted

2008: New visitor center exhibits and rain garden installed

2011: Junior Master Naturalist course began

2013: Nature Time program for preschoolers began

2014: Nature Discovery Area opened

2015: Discovery Pond fishing pier and sidewalk finished

2016: Refuge participates in bicentennial projects and celebrates 50th anniversary

On the Web

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge website: fws.gov/refuge/muscatatuck

Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook: facebook.com/MuscatatuckNWR

Muscatatuck Wildlife Society on Facebook: facebook.com/muscatatuckwildlifesociety

Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.