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History of the Refuge

“Natural areas are requisite to our way of life, for it is to nature that man frequently turns for inspiration.  Also they furnish the only true background against which to measure the changes that civilization has wrought in our environment.  They often help us to understand and tolerate such changes.  As living museums of an earlier day, they provide unsurpassed opportunities for studies in the natural sciences”
Official brochure, 1965.  CKWR

According to Bill Kemper, one of the founders of the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge, the idea for a nature refuge originated at a dinner party one evening in the early 60’s.  Guests were discussing their various interests in nature and a desire to have a place to view wildflowers, birds and other native wildlife in a natural setting.  After listening to some of the ideas, Mr. Kemper noted that the Knob region was such an interesting and unique area of the local countryside, it would be nice to buy some acreage there as a preservation effort.  Dr. Mary Ashby Cheek declared that to be a splendid idea, and added that Mr. Kemper would be just the right person to pursue obtaining such property.

In searching for Knob property, Mr. Kemper was aided enormously by Dr. Roy Ellis, a native of the Forkland area within the Knobs, and a professor of physics at Centre College.  A 480 acre tract of land was procured for the sum of $32,500.  Local banks joined forces to loan money for the purchase, and a Board of Directors was formed.  Articles of Incorporation for the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge were signed on September 9th, 1965.  The CKWR was formed as a non-stock, non-profit Corporation.  Initial Directors were William Kemper, Roy Ellis, E. Wilbur Cook, LeRoy Ullrich, Mrs. James F. (Martha) Clay, Jack B. Stith, Joseph Mattingly, Jr., S.R. Cheek, Mrs. Bowman (Margaret) Myers, and Joe Frankel Jr.

In an effort to raise funds to pay off the mortgage, a brochure was written and published, explaining the purpose and vision for the Refuge.  Noted artist Ray Harm produced the cover of the brochure, and came to Danville as guest speaker at a fund raising dinner.

Meanwhile, out at the Refuge, trails were being developed, primarily following old logging roads.  The logging roads were from many years past, and in the intervening years natural forces yielded toppled trees and resurgent vegetation to the extent that trailblazing was necessary.  Some trails went around the base of the knobs, while others wound up the slopes and along the crest of the knobs.   The acreage below the knobs would continue to be farmed, both in an effort to preserve knob life within the Refuge, and also to use the farm income to reduce the mortgage debt. Part of the Refuge’s purpose was to serve as a place where nature could be studied and observed.

While there were streams on the property, there was no standing body of water in which to observe aquatic life and habitats.  In 1969, Island Pond was constructed, followed by Woodland Pond in 1972.  The construction of these ponds allowed students working on projects to compare life in quiet waters with that in the nearby streams. Starting in the early 1970’s, thousands of White Pine and Virginia Pine trees were planted to provide increased winter coverage for wildlife.

There was a family living on the original property when it was purchased to create the Refuge.  They served as the first caretakers more from the standpoint of being there as from being selected.  Over the years, the role of caretaker of the Refuge was developed and enlarged.  It was agreed that the person in that role should live on the property, and in 1975 a home was built to be the residence for whoever served as caretaker.  Several families have served that role admirably, including John Stamper, Rob and Dee Pendygraft, Robert and Susan Anderson, Jim and Rose-Marie Roessler, Rob and Dee Pendygraft (again), and Aaron Roessler (who lived several years there with his parents) and his family.

The home underwent a major repair and renovation in 1995.  Along with the other duties of the caretaker is maintenance of the Bird Blind.  This building was constructed in 1975, and is situated in front of the caretaker’s home.  There is a path from the Refuge parking lot down to the Bird Blind.  There is stadium-style seating with a large window outfitted with one-way glass.  A large group of feeders with different openings for different birds sits in front of the window where visitors can watch the various species feeding there year round. In 2009 the blind was renamed in honor of Dr. Fred Loetscher.

Two more ponds were developed in the 1980s.  The Cheek Wetlands Pond is in a somewhat more remote setting and is designed to attract a variety of water fowl.  The Green Heron Pond is along a trail and has a bridge which affords a better overhead view of the pond life.  Along these ponds, as well as beside some of the trails, various bird-houses have been erected to promote the existence of bluebirds and other varieties of birds in the Refuge domain.

The Mary Ashby Cheek Nature Center was built in 2000 to encourage the study of wildlife and to provide a structure to house technology and exhibits.   Classes from area schools regularly come out for programs and a chance to observe the habitats of all the creatures in the Refuge.  Thanks to the presence of such an excellent structure, it was decided to establish the position of Education Director in order to better utilize the facility. J. P. and Jane Brantley have filled this position since April, 2005. Also in 2000, the Benjamin Bright Moran Observation Platform was constructed by friends and family in memory of Benjamin.  It overlooks Island Pond and provides a restful, covered viewing area.

Within the pages of the original 1965 brochure created to announce the inception of the Wildlife Refuge was a section titled:


1. To set aside an area that will provide refuge and assure a permanent sanctuary for plant and animal forms native to Central Kentucky.

2. To replant, and where necessary alter conditions to provide the habitat required for sustaining native plant and animal life.

3. To provide a field laboratory easily accessible to school age children and others, where plant and animal life may be studied within a concentrated and protected area.

4. To make available land and technical assistance so that worthy conservation practices can be carried out by schools and other organizations.

5. To provide an area for conducting biological research.

6. To set aside a permanent island in Central Kentucky, open to all on a free admission basis, where nature may be studied, observed, and enjoyed by any and all persons.

7. The sanctuary is intended for study, conservation, and observation and is not intended to be a general recreational area.

Thanks to the vision and efforts of those early advocates, as well as the earnest work on the part of many coming thereafter, the Central Kentucky Wildlife Refuge fulfills the original purpose more than 50 years later to offer an irreplaceable resource to both the people and wildlife of this area.

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