FARMLAND — Martha Davis died in the summer of 1917, leaving a 385-acre farm that included a virgin oak forest to Purdue University.
The bequest required Purdue to preserve the trees and wildflowers as a bird sanctuary and example of a native Hoosier forest. The gift prohibited hunting and commercial timber cutting and named the woods the Herbert Davis Forestry Farm.
Worried about the extinction of plants and animals as Indiana's landscape was changing from forests to farms, Davis was serious about saving the woods. She specified that if the conditions of her gift to Purdue were broken, ownership of the property would transfer to the Methodist Missionary Society at 150 Fifth Ave., New York City, for safe-keeping.
Davis inherited the site from her father, a wealthy Delaware County farmer, school teacher and brick mason. She married Lewis Davis, a Farmland physician, in 1874. The couple had a son, Herbert, aka Herbie, in 1876.
Music, painting, religion, nature, travel, social events and her son were among Davis's passions, according to a letter written by a descendant. The letter at the Randolph County Historical Society says Herbie had more toys than any kid in town. But he was "never well" and died at age 19. Davis outlived not only her husband but her only child. The 52-acre virgin forest memorializes him.
It received national attention in 1975 and remains intact a century after she died. Purdue has left it alone.
Walking through the woods today "gives you a sense of what it was like to have been in an old-growth forest when that was normative," said Michael Doyle, an associate professor of history at Ball State University. "I had no idea our community harbored such remnants. It's difficult to imagine Indiana without corn and soybeans."