Nature’s Notebook: Bernheim’s Historic Fire Tower, 88 Years of Service

By volunteer

Fire Tower WinterI spend nearly every weekend (and more than a few weekdays) in Bernheim’s historic fire tower. This tower has a long and important history that I enjoy sharing with our visitors.

The initial land purchase for Bernheim Forest was made by Isaac W. Bernheim in 1928.  This was the first step in fulfilling an idea that Mr. Bernheim had for many years.  He had long hoped to create an arboretum that would be open to the public on the 300 acres he owned in Anchorage, Kentucky.  Sadly, that plan was interrupted when he lost his beloved wife, Amanda, in 1922.  Six years later, at the age of 80, Mr. Bernheim resurrected and expanded his plan by purchasing approximately 12,500 acres of land from The United States Trust Company (more land would be added later; the forest now covers 14,673 acres).  His plan could now include a large block of land to be preserved as a natural area as well as an extensive arboretum and facilities to be enjoyed by visitors.

The Isaac W. Bernheim Foundation was created in 1929 to fulfill this plan.  Much had to be done.  Roads were built, trails designed and constructed, thousands of plants were purchased and planted in the Arboretum, lakes and ponds were carved out of the land, and so much more.  Before all of this, the first major project was building the fire tower.

The construction of the fire tower in 1929 demonstrated Mr. Bernheim’s exceptional vision.  In 1929, this land was not a forest.  The trees had been harvested in the previous century and numerous families had attempted to make a living by farming in the knobs and valleys we now hike through.  Mr. Bernheim clearly saw that the forest would return and it would need to be protected.

The tower was purchased from Aermotor Windmill Company and shipped in pieces by train from their factory near Chicago.  It was assembled on the knob where it now sits and for the next 51 years was manned by foresters and rangers to protect the emerging forest from fire.  In 1980, it was retired from that role when the United States Forest Service provided protection by using small planes to fly over the area.  The tower is now open for the benefit of our visitors who wish to share the great view of the forest and the surrounding area.

Much is to be gained by sharing this view and the realization of Isaac Bernheim’s vision.  His guidance to the trustees and directors of the I.W. Bernheim Foundation in 1929 included the following “To all I send the invitation to come from city, village, hamlet, and farm, to re-create their lives in the enjoyment of nature and the many blessings she gives with open hand . . .”  In a letter, two years later he provided additional guidance by emphasizing that there should be “No discussion of religion or politics” and “No distinction will be shown between rich or poor, white or colored”.  The staff and volunteers of Bernheim are proud to help fulfill those words.

Please, come and join me or one of our other volunteers in the tower and share the view, knowing that all are welcome, appreciated, and treated with respect.

Ken Johnson, Bernheim Volunteer Naturalist

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