TERRE HAUTE —
Keith Ruble is a man out of his century.
He is perhaps the only person in the Wabash Valley who hand-hews logs to construct log cabins, barns and even a gristmill at Fowler Park in Vigo County. He makes wooden buckets and carves wooden bowls as a hobby, often displaying his handiwork at the Indiana State Fair.
He’s also a man who loves nature — a testament to his life’s work. He has served as superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department since 1973. He’s just the third person to hold that title since the park department was formed in 1967.
“It is almost beyond comment what he has done. He has really made one of the finest park systems in the state and maybe in the Midwest,” said Marion T. Jackson, retired professor of ecology at Indiana State University, who taught Ruble while he attended ISU. Ruble holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in park and recreation management from the university.
“He really has pioneering skills. If I was on the frontier in the Midwest back in the 18th century, I would want Keith Ruble as my sidekick. He knows how to do everything outdoors. He is an amazing person for the outdoors,” Jackson said.
On Dec. 31, Ruble, 66, will retire from his position as parks superintendent. A search will be conducted for his replacement, with assistant parks superintendent Kara Kish being a leading candidate.
His cellular phone rings during a recent interview. The ring tone’s not a hit music song, or a classic dial phone ring or specialty gong. It’s the sound of a bobwhite quail.
“I just love nature,” Ruble said, reaching to turn off the phone.
His office has paintings and photos that show his mark on the county — the 1840s-era pioneer village at Fowler Park, along with the park’s wooden gristmill. A painting of people collecting wooden buckets hung on Maple trees used to made maple syrup. He started production of maple syrup 36 years ago at Prairie Creek Park, a park he designed.
There are also maps and drawings of improvements to various parks and nature areas, such as the state Wabashiki Fish & Wildlife Area. Ruble also largely designed Hawthorn Park along the eastern edge of Terre Haute.
Under his watch, the park department has expanded its oversight of park land from 140 acres to more than 1,868 acres, which includes 812.5 acres overseen jointly with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The department also oversees 141 acres of water.
The park system includes Fowler Park and Fowler Park Wilderness Area; Hawthorn Park and JI Case Wetland and Wildlife Refuge; Prairie Creek Park; R. Kermit Flesher Memorial State Nature Preserve; Lee Fields Park; South Seventh Street Park; George and Ida Smith Park (Prairieton Park); Markle Mill Park; and Wabashiki State Fish and Wildlife Area, with portions co-owned with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The county also is working on establishing a park area around a historic stone lock of the former Wabash & Erie Canal, near Riley.
“Mr. Ruble is most unique. He is the park and recreation program for west-central Indiana,” said Max Miller, who served with the Purdue Extension for 36 years in Vigo County and served as president of the Vigo County Park Board from 1970 to 1984.
“He can get out there and work with people at all levels, including staff, in terms of physical work that needs to be done,” Miller said. “He is well-known and people think so much about him in a positive way. He knows how to give leadership for park and recreational opportunities.”
“He is my friend and a good person all around. He has got the job done,” Miller added.
Retirement not in vocabulary
At age 26, Ruble was one of four full-time county park employees when he took the top position 39 years ago. The department grew to as many as 16 full-time employees at one time, but today, Ruble oversees nine full-time workers, with the possibility of adding another employee in 2013. The department also has many part-time workers in the summer and relies heavily on workers from the Terre Haute Federal Penitentiary.
During his tenure, Ruble started two sideline companies. He is licensed to use pesticides and other chemicals and operates Ruble Aquatic Management, which manages more than 500 acres of water. He practiced for that work using two ponds on his property.
There’s also Helms & Ruble Forestry, which provides timber management. Ruble, along with partner Ron Helms, science department chair at West Vigo High School, appraises trees for harvesting and sets up competitive bids for that lumber. They also prune trees.
It is in those two businesses where Ruble plans to continue to work.
“I will never retire — that word is not in my vocabulary,” Ruble said. “I will probably be one of the best volunteers for the parks department.”
Ruble is currently working on hewing logs to construct a wooden schoolhouse for Fowler Park and move and reconstruct a wooden barn, projects likely to extend into next year.
Fowler Park, named after Eugene Fowler, the first man from Vigo County killed in the Vietnam War, is the county’s first park, established in June 1967.
A log cabin was donated to the park in 1969. Today, the park has 19 historic structures, with the 20th being the new schoolhouse.
“As other cabins came in, I thought we could do something educational with this, as every child has to take history. It just ballooned from there. They are all authentic cabins” at Fowler Park, said Ruble, who has hand-hewed timbers or replacement roofs for nearly all of the structures.
“I was fascinated about pioneer skills and read a lot about it. There was nobody that I could find who could teach me or show me anything about how these things were done,” he said.
“I read up about it and taught myself, basically, after reading books” from research on early American history, Ruble said. “It was pretty simple once I got the idea of how to do it, but from then, it took many, many hours of practice. It is like learning to type; you don’t know where the keys are at first, but finally you do without looking at them,” Ruble said.
“A lot of the old crafts, people don’t have a clue about them. I just admire the old workmanship and the tools they had to work with,” Ruble said. “You take a modern carpenter today with the tools used back then, they couldn’t do it. It is too physical.”
One old craft example is Fowler Park’s gristmill. Built entirely from the ground up and completed in 1991.
Ruble built the mill’s cabin and ISU’s School of Technology, led by Clois E. Kicklighter, designed and help build the waterwheel and gears for the mill. “It is the only water-powered grist mill that I know around here made from scratch,” Ruble said.
Wooden gears were replaced this year. The original eight-sided wood axle, which Ruble hand-hewed, broke after more than a decade of operation and was replaced with a steel axle. Ruble had hoped to replace the axle with hedge, a tree that would last a long time, but he couldn’t find a straight or long enough example.
Ruble has built log cabins for Hoosier Prairie School, for the Indiana State Fairgrounds and one at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. He also restored a cabin in Bridgeton. Ruble’s personal property sports his love for pioneer life as well, with two cabins on the land and a third — a sugar cabin to be used in the production of maple syrup — in the works.
Ruble started the sugar camp in Prairie Creek Park in 1976, capitalizing on a natural resource that had never been tapped. Don Foltz, former director of the Indiana Department of Conservation, now the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, found a cabin in Vermillion County that eventually was given to the Vigo County park department for the camp.
Ruble had to build a new roof for the cabin. A kitchen was added on the back and the cabin has been remodeled over the years for compliance with health regulations.
“I started doing a little bit at home and that’s how I got knowing how to do it,” Ruble said of making maple syrup.
The department started with buckets, but they eventually were replaced with maple tubing. A vacuum pump system was added to increase the production. There are about six miles of tubing in the park’s woods.
“We make a real good product today. We have a reverse osmosis machine that refines the sap down to a lot higher percentage of sugar before it is boiled. We used to boil about 45 gallons of water [to make one gallon of maple syrup]. Now it is about 12 gallons of water to [make] one gallon of syrup,” he said.
Ruble’s career as superintendent has not come without low points. Thirteen years separate two deadly incidents, each claiming the life of a park employee who died as the result of a mowing accident.
Kenneth A. Conley died in July 1998.
“That is probably the only thing in my career that I just hate,” Ruble said of the deaths.
“At Hawthorn Park, I told the guys to stay off any banks. Kenney Conley wanted to clean an area near the spillway,” Ruble said.
Conley was driving a farming “B tractor” up an earthen dam when the tractor flipped backward, up and over onto him, killing the 41-year-old park employee.
A sign in Conley’s honor, who was a member of the Wabash Valley Blacksmith Association, hangs inside the blacksmith shop at Fowler Park.
Darlene Norman, who served as assistant parks superintendent from 1990 until August 2009, said the incident resulted in the department revamping its safety measures. Norman established the measures, approved by the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Organization (IOSHA).
“Park workers were no longer allowed to go up and down on a hillside and we got rid of all the B tractors, which was the problem. They are not stable on a hill,” Norman said.
In August 2011, tragedy struck again, when park worker Earl Slavens was killed. IOSHA determined improper towing techniques by a part-time park worker on a utility front-end loader tractor caused the tragedy. The operator of the tractor lifted the bucket of the tractor, which caused both the mower and tractor to roll over, pinning Slavens under about 4 feet of water.
After the accident, Ruble designed and installed ground-level circular markers, containing white rock flume and white limestone, to make a visible border around the lake. Riding mowers are not permitted past the markers. Lock boxes for keys of large mowers and tractors were installed at Hawthorn, Prairie Creek and Fowler parks, and can only be accessed by full-time workers who have extensive safety training in use of the equipment.
Ruble’s tenure saw many more good days than bad, and the job seemed tailor-made for him.
Norman describes Ruble as a naturalist.
“He is excellent when it comes to doing anything with nature, lakes, trees and paths and trails. That is a great big part of our parks in the county,” Norman said. “He is a nature lover. He is excellent at landscaping and also loves people, which made him fit well into his job.”
Ruble said many people have helped him develop as a park superintendent. He credits Marion Jackson, his college professor, with developing a true appreciation of nature and what it entails. He points to Max Miller as “a good mentor, but he is the reason my hair turned white,” he chuckled.
“Max has always been a promoter of what we do in the parks. Whatever he gets involved in, he sees it through. I owe him a lot for many of the things that have been accomplished,” Ruble said.
“Also Jack Ennis, who also was park board president. He used to have a TV sportsman show on Channel 2. He and Jack Kerins, an owner of McMillan’s Sports, had the Jack and Jack Show,” Ruble said.
“He loves the outdoors and, like Max Miller, was really good for the department,” Ruble said.
Yet above all, Ruble points to his wife, Susan, whom he calls Susie.
“I have been pretty lucky. My wife is probably the one person I owe a lot to because she had to put up with me being gone,” Ruble said.
“She told me one day that the ‘only time I see you is when your mouth is open…’” Ruble chuckled. “She said I was either eating, going to bed or was gone. I was gone a lot because I was involved in the parks and meetings. She put up with that. I am lucky to have her,” Ruble said.
Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org