Cedars of Lebanon State Park has always been “Cedar Forest” to me. Whatever you call it, if you spent your childhood in Wilson County, chances are, you have fond memories of our state park. Summers spent frolicking in the pool, church gatherings at the picnic pavilions, romping on the playgrounds, and hiking to Jackson Cave are experiences many of us share. As well as we may think we know it, a closer look yields some surprises.
For example, the “cedars”, associated by settlers with the trees of the same name in the Bible, were actually juniper trees. Regardless of their real name, they became known as red cedars and through this association our county seat gained its name. Who knows what Lebanon might have been called if those trees had been correctly identified by the area’s early inhabitants?
The second fact many may not know is that the forest we visit today, is not the one those settlers found. Cedar trees were used for everything from telegraph poles to pencils, and the demand was high throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. By the 1930s the area had been cleared of most of the trees that could be harvested for commercial purposes. It’s hard to imagine, but the forest that seemed to go on forever was replaced by several farms, struggling to get by working the rocky soil Wilson County has in such abundance. As is often the case, good things can come of hard times.
We have President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal to thank for the park we can visit today. Largely to provide work opportunities, a plan was developed to reforest the area with cedar trees. The Lebanon Cedar Forest Project was born.
The next few years saw major changes in southwestern Wilson County. The Works Project Administration, using many local farmers hired as labor, planted hundreds of thousands of cedar seedlings. They constructed cabins, picnic shelters, and a multi-purpose lodge from the indigenous cedar and limestone. The forest that had been diminished almost to the point of elimination was helped back to its feet and turned into a place to have fun enjoying nature.
In 1937, Lebanon Cedar Forest was opened to the public. That’s surprise number three: “Cedars of Lebanon” was not its first name. That didn’t happen until 1939, so when we say “Cedar Forest”, we are simply referring to the park by its original name.
In 1955, the State of Tennessee obtained ownership of the land from the federal government, and since then has managed both Park and Forest. Surprise number four: Cedars of Lebanon is both a State Park and State Forest, and very few of us have ventured into the State Forest. For those who have, it’s a treat.
The State Park, at 900 acres, is dwarfed by the over 8000 acre State Forest. This land is undeveloped, so don’t expect parking and restrooms. Do expect to be surrounded by nature in all its glory. This area is remarkable for its cedar glades, where the soil is thin enough that only cedars and smaller plants can grow. These glades have gained national significance due to their ecology and the inclusion of several endangered plant species.
The best way to be surprised by Cedars of Lebanon is to visit. It’s a lot of fun to have a picnic, to enjoy a softball game or push the kids on the swings. The camp sites are pleasant, and the pool beckons on a hot summer day. But we would do well to get away from the buildings, cars, and commotion every once in a while. Only then can we experience the forest itself.
The park has eight miles of hiking trails, and surprises are around every bend. Sinkholes, springs, caves, and thickets of cedars surrounding each glade’s sunny expanse are all there waiting for you to discover. If you prefer to do your exploring by horseback, the well equipped stable can provide a reliable mount; it’s a memorable way to see the park. It’s too much to take in on one visit; one must return to begin to perceive the life of the forest, how it looks and feels in spring as opposed to fall, how it is restfully quiet in winter and how it teems with life in summer. One must slow down and open the senses; not just looking, but hearing the wind in the trees, smelling the fragrance of the cedars.
If I begin to sound poetic, it’s because I love this park. My experience with it is probably similar to many; Cedar Forest has always been a favorite destination, and the pleasure I find there today recalls the pleasures of yesterday. As a child, I picnicked there, saw how high I could swing, how fast I could spin the merry-go-round. As a youth, I played softball and camped, sitting around a fire and gazing over seasons, never tiring of the experience.
As a young man, I learned how to ride a motorcycle in the depths of this forest, through the trees and up and over limestone formations. Sadly, this is no longer permitted due to abuse by the thoughtless and the careless. This brings up the challenge of Cedars of Lebanon, one that the Departments of Forestry and State Parks must continually face: how can we best protect the forest while still making it available for public enjoyment? This question has no easy answer.
Cedars of Lebanon State Park and Forest is a source of pride to Wilson County. One of the first state parks in Tennessee, it is a na-tional natural landmark with buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. It boasts of a rich and interesting history and significant ecology. We can also be proud of the people who worked hard to create it, and those who work hard today to sustain and protect it.Cedar Forest: like a familiar friend, no matter how well we become acquainted, it retains the ability to surprise us.