Growing up, it was very common for my parents to take the family on an afternoon ride to explore the back roads of Central Pennsylvania. One of the more popular afternoon drives was along Route 144. In the years of traveling up and down Route 144 I knew this marker was just south of the Fish Dam Run Overlook, but due to one reason or another we never stopped to see what the marker was all about.
It was not until recently that I stopped to investigate the marker. Though the area immediately in front of the memorial had been recently mowed, tall grass surrounded the it. Next to it, a path followed an ancient road across the field and into the forest beyond. The stone had a plaque that announced this as being the “Site of First State Game Refuge 1906-1946.” The stone, placed here on October 16, 1954, remembers an important piece of state history that saved Pennsylvania’s wildlife from complete extinction.
I had thought I knew the history of Route 144, but this was new information for me. I could not remember anybody talking about a game refuge here. In doing research over the years, I had uncovered another state game refuge in the Seven Mountains near Coburn, but had never encountered mention of one being in the remote wilds just south of Renovo.
The game refuges were among the first steps taken to bring wildlife back to the wilds of Pennsylvania. By 1890, unregulated hunting had wiped out the wildlife within the borders of the state and in 1895 the Pennsylvania Game Commission was created. It would not be until two years after its creation that the General Assembly approved a number of game laws to protect endangered wildlife and with them the first game protectors were hired. Note: While today many of the species are taken for granted, in 1890, deer, turkey, and bear were all endangered while elk, wolves and cougars were officially listed as extinct in Pennsylvania.
On May 11, 1905, Governor Samuel Pennypacker authorized the Pennsylvania Game Commission to establish game preserves for the protection of wildlife. Known as Penrose Refuge, the preserve along Route 144 was opened in 1906 and named in honor of Dr. C. B. Penrose, who was the head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission at the time. The idea of a refuge would be that it gave animals a safe place to thrive and would allowed the Pennsylvania Game Commission to introduce game animals into an area where they would not immediately be hunted. Once the game animals left the refuge and entered the public lands that surrounded it they were permitted to be hunted.
Each refuge was roughly two to three thousand acres in size and would be located on State Forest Lands. The refuges would be surrounded by a twenty-five-foot-wide fire lane with a single strand of wire running the entire border of the game refuge.
However, the cost of establishing a refuge came with a price. Once the land was selected, it was cleared of all predators; weasels, foxes, bobcats, and any other predators in the area were – killed through trapping, shooting, and poison. Once the predators were exterminated then game animals were stocked onto the refuge.
The October 9, 1928 edition of the Harrisburg Telegraph describes the preparation of the game refuges for hunting season. Roughly six hundred and fifteen miles of land surrounding the game refuges had to be prepared by the refuge keepers and their helpers: “the trails abut the refuges have been thoroughly brushed out. The wire about the refuges has been repaired and new no-hunting signs have been put up.”
At the height of the program, there were thirty-five primary refuges and sixty-nine secondary refuges in Pennsylvania. By 1946, the game refuge system had allowed wildlife within the area to successfully thrive and was no longer needed. The lands were opened and hunting allowed on them.
Leaving the marker hidden along Route 144, I headed back to the vehicle, thankful for those early steps to protect the state’s wildlife. Those refuges were a success and brought back the animal populations to our state that had either vanished or were rapidly disappearing. These days we take the wildlife around us for granted, but without these early steps, we would not be able to enjoy the wildlife that abounds in the state today.
Note: While doing the research for the first game refuge, I found an interesting conflict of names. Most newspapers refer to it as the Penrose Refuge. However, the Lock Haven Express consistently refers to the refuge as the Kalbfus Refuge after Chief Game Protector Joseph Kalbfus. What I think is going on with the name is: the preserve was named in honor of Kalbfus, while the refuge within the preserve was named in honor of Penrose.