Ralph Ramey: Icon for an Era

Ralph Ramey, who served as director of Glen Helen from 1973 to 1990, returned to Glen Helen to speak in October 2007. He shared his thoughts and perspectives on the arc of his experiences here, and how Glen Helen not only influenced his life, it also shaped the way that we think about, and relate to, our environment. Ralph reached the end of his life in May 2019, at the age of 90. His remarks appear below.

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“I first visited Glen Helen in April of 1960 when the Ohio Academy of Science held its annual meeting at Antioch. At the time I was a pharmaceutical representative spending my days in doctor's offices, pharmacies and hospitals. I had earned a degree in wildlife conservation from OSU ten years earlier and had maintained a membership in the Academy and each year tried to attend the annual conference at least on the day that the Conservation Section met. From that meeting, I have slides of Ken Hunt at the Yellow Springs telling how, fifteen years earlier, it had been built constructed following Louise Odiorne's design and Carlos Ricciardi's hard labor. I also have the classic Glen Helen picture, Birch Creek looking upstream at the Cascades.


Cascades on Birch Creek on a rare day when it has frozen solid.

In spring of 1972, as an adjunct instructor at OSU, I taught two courses in the School of Natural Resources, and visited Trailside Museum as a part of a field trip with my students. I had only recently been elected as chairman of the Ohio Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Ken Hunt was on the Board of TNC. I had no idea that a year later Jean and I would be preparing to move to Yellow Springs to become the Director of the Glen. Suffice to say, therein began the best years of our lives, living and working in this loving community and beautiful place.


I could reminisce for hours about our seventeen years at the Glen but I shan't. What I will relate is few anecdotes about the place that we grew to be such a part of.


Former Antioch College President Jim Dixon once told me that he considered the Glen to be held by Antioch in private trust for the public. A place of natural beauty, it attracts nature lovers and outdoor recreation enthusiasts of all sorts to its tree-lined trails. With a babbling brook at its core, it provided the soothing sound of falling water, and with the main trails in a gorge below the level of the town, the ever-growing noises of civilizations were screened out. It was used by the college as an outdoor lab for courses in natural sciences and by students as a retreat from the pressures of dorms and classroom. Villagers and folks from miles away were drawn to it wildflower-lined trails and bird-laden woods. Since the fifties, it had become a place where hundreds of children from surrounding school districts were first introduced to the world of nature. It was, and is, a place that works its way into your soul. A place that draws you back. A place that never leaves your memory.


For many it gave definition to their life's work. I meet folks wherever I travel that spill out their stories of how their life-long interest in all things natural began with an experience at Glen Helen. It's a very special place to a great many people scattered all other the planet. Last week at the national conference of the Natural Areas Association more than one conversation started with, "you probably don't remember me, but I was at the Outdoor Education Center in…" or "I was your Trailside manager in…” or "I got interested in birds through Jim Howell's morning bird walks in the Glen…" or “I got interested in nature which led to my life's work when my 5th grade class spent a week at the Outdoor Education Center.” This happens not only at meetings but also at nature centers that I visit or places of all sorts where I give slide talks. And it as likely the case with some of you, even if what you came away with was not a professional pursuit but a life of caring about the environment. And how people over the last seventy-five years have left Yellow Springs and/or Antioch determined to establish a place just like Glen Helen at the college or community where they establish a career and/or home?


Down through the years, many conservation, preservation and advocacy groups of significance have been spawned or wet-nursed by Glen Helen. Some that come to mind are the Riding Centre Association, the Cedar Bog Association, the Ohio Prairie Association, the Natural Areas Association, the North Country Trail Association, the Beaver Creek Wetlands Association, and the American Volkssport Association. Glen folks have been advocates for natural area protection, rails-to-trails, greenways, environmental education, conservation easements, regional planning, bikeway development, trail development, stream preservation and restoration, historic preservation, canal preservation, and more.


Let me speak a bit about threats to the Glen. They have been present from day one. As chief of the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves I learned that as guardian of public natural areas, it was necessary to be constantly vigilant. Someone somewhere was always after your land to use for what they thought was a better purpose. It might be a firehouse, a playground, a sewer line, a highway, a leaf dump, a school, or dozens of other equally worthy purposes. That was also true at Glen Helen. In the late fifties, the fight to prevent a US 68 bypass through Glen Helen brought together opponents into what was to become the Glen Helen Association. Their clout somehow convinced the powers-that-be in Columbus to de-journalize that project. Only months later, the village fathers began talking about sewer line through the heart of the Glen. Once again, the power of the people including the Glen Helen Association, alumni around the world, and local citizens like Serge Vernet fought until an alternate solution was found. Threats come from within and without. The stories of pot plantations, deer blinds, dog runs, gardens, wood piles, trash disposal and semi-permanent campsites around the edge of the could fill a book.


The South Glen barn, which burned down over a decade ago.

Another self-imposed problem was the development of the farm in the south Glen which Ken felt would help pay for the operation of the northern part of the Glen. Somewhere in the files there is correspondence between Dr. Hunt and Louis Bromfield expressing the desire to make the south Glen into an operating farm like Malabar Farm. Trouble is, the Glen didn't did not have the book royalties and movie residuals of Bromfield. The legacy I inherited from that effort was a grazing contract paying less per year than the taxes we paid and 125 cattle where the contract called for 50. Oh yes, and the cattle waded in the Little Miami River, often leaving their manure in the river... at a time just after Arthur Morgan had been one of the original incorporators of Little Miami. Inc., the pioneer save-the-river organization in Ohio. Didn't make sense.


Cattle in the South Glen

Also, we know a great deal more about the effects of fragmented habitat than we did when Ken became the first director of the Glen and established the farming program. Fracturing the southern part of the Glen into fields and small pieces of woodlot slowed the return to the neo-tropical birds that surely must have nested there at one time. Had the field along the river and elsewhere been planted with assorted native tree species, the Glen might be a nesting area for many the species of warblers, vireos, and thrushes that generally will not nest within 100 meters of the edge of a woods. I reforested several of the upper meadows along the border fence, and the inability to get around to mowing others has helped, but wouldn't it be wonderful to have started reforestation in 1930?


Ken Hunt made a valiant effort to protect the Glen from its neighbors by starting the Country Common, a years-ahead-of-its-time open space program. He also got an application off to the National Park Service requesting 250 acres in the north Glen be named a National Natural Landmark when that Federal program got under way in the mid-sixties. The Park Service approved it, providing protection from Federal funds being spent on any project that would harm that area of the Glen.


Let me talk a moment about my encounters with Arthur Morgan.


Relocated covered bridge over Yellow Springs Creek.

When I was with State Parks in 1967 or 1968, a neatly hand-printed letter arrived from Arthur Morgan and made its way to my desk. He wrote to complain that the State had just spent thousands of dollars rebuilding the two footbridges across the Little Miami in John Bryan State Park but that they had failed to repair the small footbridges a few yards further down the path from each bridge. I made a trip to the park. He was, of course, right. The footbridges were replaced within weeks. I have since read of the famous Sunday morning breakfast hikes Morgan took with breakfast makings in his pack during the years when he was college president. He is said to have left home at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning and stopped along the way to build a fire and cook his meal. I dearly hope that can still walk that wonderful hepatica-lined trail in the spring of my ninetieth year.


The next visit I remember was in 1974 when he wanted to show me the yellow ladies slippers blooming behind his house. At that meeting, he told me that he remembered a plant called climbing fern growing in Kentucky from his days with TVA and that he had always wanted some in the Glen. He asked if I knew where to get it. Later that fall, I was hiking in Kentucky's Red River Gorge and I came across some. I brought some home, and planted it downstream from the pine forest, personally hoping that it would not take hold. I did report back to him that I duly added climbing fern to the flora of the Glen. Of course, it’s an acid soil plant that is normally found growing on the slopes below sandstone cliffs, so I was pretty certain that it would not become an invasive plant in the Glen. I am not one to move plants to where they are not known have originally grown.


At that time, I had no idea that Morgan had no qualms about doing just that. After Morgan's death, when Margot Ensign was curating Morgan's papers, she brought me a copy of a letter he had sent to friends and colleagues around the country telling of the acquisition of the Glen and asking them to send wildflower seeds and plants. I have no indication of what the response was, if any, but I've seen pictures of the old fields to the east of Yellow Springs Creek with nothing but pasture and an occasional red cedar. I can believe that the present vegetation may be a result of more than just wildflowers and hardwoods growing from what was in the seed bank.


I have always enjoyed sharing my love of nature with others and over the years, I led many walks in the Glen. Some focused on the flora or fauna, others on the historical aspects, some on the time of day or year like "full moon" walks or winter solstice walks. I also liked to share the joy of discovering special natural settings around Ohio and the Midwest. That led to trips to Illinois to see Greater Prairie Chickens and to the Texas Coastal bend to see Whooping Cranes. In 1983, we brought a Smithsonian traveling Exhibit about the Galapagos Islands to the Glen and it occurred to me that perhaps we could put together a trip to that magic locale. For next six years, we did a trip once or twice a year. We were on the leading edge of the now huge business now known as Ecotourism. The trips earned money for the Glen and opened the eyes of the participants to the wide, wild, world. We traveled to Alaska, Costa Rica, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and the wintering roosts of the monarch butterflies in Mexico. Wonderful trips that provided memories of people and places that will never fade.


What have I been doing since I left the Glen? From here I moved to the position of Director of the Miami County Park District where I expected to remain until I retired. But, after a year there, I was asked by the Director of Natural Resources to join ODNR as Chief of Natural Areas and Preserves, a job that I could not turn down. One that took me home to Columbus and closer to OSU and my beloved Buckeyes and The Best Damned Band In The Land Alumni Band. In 1994, I retired from ODNR but didn't stop my involvement in worthy organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Cedar Bog Association and the Ohio Prairie Association. I also served nine years on the Ohio Historical Society board of trustees.

Along the way, I wrote a new edition of Fifty Hikes in Ohio, a book originally written during my last year at the Glen. I also wrote Walks and Rambles in Southwestern Ohio and Fifty More Hikes in Ohio. A year ago, my publisher asked me if I would prepare a new edition of Fifty Hikes in Ohio, and, after explaining that I was approaching 78 and now had braces on both legs, I agreed to take the project on. During July and August, I camped seven weeks and solo walked twenty-seven trails, including Glen Helen, with camera and micro-cassette recorder in hand. Then I spent all September writing as many as l2 hours a day. The third edition of Fifty Hikes in Ohio reached me the first week of April, and it has been selling well ever since.


Am I ready to revise Fifty More Hikes in Ohio next summer? I'm non-committal on that. But I am still above the sod, not moving as fast as I once did, exploring Ohio alone on foot as often as I can, still camping under Ohio skies, and still playing with the TBDBITL Alumni Band, but only on the sit-down gigs.


It's great to see all of you this evening and to know than the Glen is in good hands and that there are still lots of folks like you who care dearly about that precious 1000-acre natural area.”



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