This sandstone quarry in the middle of nowhere is abandoned now, making the 157-acre Fern Cliff Nature Preserve a quiet place for deer, turkey, quail, rabbits, nature lovers, hikers, and…historians.
For years prior to 1915, it was loud. The metal claws of early industrial digging and stone-smashing machines belched smoke as they scraped sandstone from the ground. No doubt thousands of fossils were destroyed forever as pulverizers softened stone back into the sand that lined prehistoric rivers. After 1915, it got even louder. Big business came for the unique sand once it became the source of Coca-Cola’s green bottle.
In 1915, the Trustees of the Coca-Cola Bottling Association voted to spend up to $500 to develop a distinctive bottle. Eight glass companies across the U.S. received a challenge to develop “a bottle so distinct you would recognize it by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” With that simple creative brief, the competition was on, and Terre Haute’s Root Glass Company won the prize.
The Root team designed its bottle based on an illustration of a cocoa bean, which has an elongated shape and distinct ribs. Glass is made from melted sand, and Root’s first sample bottles were light green due to the prehistoric composition of sand from this particular quarry.
Root’s design and light green glass were winners, and the quarry operated until it was tapped out and technology allowed the color to continue for decades without sand from this now-quiet hole in the earth. It’s a fascinating history and interesting that the story isn’t told in what is now Fern Cliff Nature Preserve. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980 and dedicated as a State Nature Preserve in 1988, it’s owned by The Nature Conservancy.
West County Road 375 South, about 15 miles southwest of Greencastle, is a winding road, and the small Fern Cliff parking lot is easy to drive by. Prepare for a relaxing trip through history by enjoying the countryside and taking it easy on your way.
With a 1.5-mile lightly trafficked out-and-back trail, the area is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking and offers really cool cliffs and the remains of the quarry. Parts at the end of the trail are medium/difficult even though the trail is rated easy.
The cliffs are pretty sheer but, once you get to the floor of the old quarry, there are two separate areas to explore. The little creek flowing through this lower level gives dog lovers a good place to give their side-kicks a breather.
The trail can easily be turned into a loop by following the rock walls surrounding the quarry floor. It’s worth exploring because the foundations and remnants of the quarry working area are there. Just behind this old work area you can make a short, easy climb up to the top of the ridge and work back to the main trail to the parking lot. It’s small, but it’s big in substance.
The preserve’s steep, forested sandstone cliffs, lush wooded ravines, and a profusion of ferns and bryophytes make it a botanist’s floral paradise. Its mesic upland forest is dominated by oak, beech, hickory, sugar maple, ash, wild cherry, tulip, and other trees. The preserve is open for hiking, photography, and bird watching on its moderate to rugged terrain. Rock climbing and rappelling are not allowed. It’s open year-round, dawn to dusk, but it’s gated to prevent vehicles from entering. For those on foot, simply walk around the gate. For old time’s sake, pack a Coke.