The History of Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary
Originally, the property was a hunting ground for the Delaware and other Native tribes prior to European settlement of the area. The Treaty of Fort Wayne bought land from the Native Americans in 1809, establishing a boundary, until around 1818, when central Indiana became opened for settlement. The Delaware and related tribes moved to Kansas in the early 1800s, then to Oklahoma, where they are presently located.
Robert P. Gray, born in Ireland, came to America in 1764. He fought in the American Revolution and moved to Fayette County in 1843 after purchasing land there. He and his wife, Agnes, died soon thereafter and were buried in the Gray Cemetery, which is located on the far west side of the sanctuary, among many other tombstones. Their son, John Gibson Gray, was born in 1789, and had a log cabin at the present site of the Delawana Camp on the west side of the property. His son, John Gibson Gray, Jr., built a home just east of the Delawana Camp. A tornado destroyed the structure in 1963, but the foundation is still there. John Gibson Gray’s son was Finly H. Gray, born in 1864.
Finly Gray married Alice Green in 1901, and their daughter was Mary Gray, born in 1902. (The files also noted that the last wild passenger pigeon was shot near Laurel, Indiana, which is close by, in the same year.) They only had one child, Mary, who contracted typhus at age 12, leading to a brain infection. She never recovered, and she spent her remaining years institutionalized in Richmond. She died in 1940.
Finly served in Washington, D.C., as a congressional representative from Indiana from 1911 to 1917, and again from 1933 to 1939. Prior to that, he was also a mayor of Connersville for two terms. After Mary fell ill, Alice turned to art and the study of nature to fill her time, seeking solace. Alice had many bird feeders and birdhouses and was a published author in Indiana and Washington, writing about birds and insects.
She became a sustaining member and kept up a correspondence and friendship with Mr. Brooks and other IAS members. This led to her leaving 251 acres of land in her will to the Audubon Society, to be kept in perpetual remembrance of Mary. In 1941, IAS accepted this gift, and received the land at her death in 1943. Upon Finly’s death in 1949, he bequeathed the remaining property in his will to IAS, but it took until 1951 to settle the estate. This led to 640 acres, including three homes and two barns. In addition, the Grays’ home, Canal House in Connersville, was also donated to IAS, but it was later sold to other groups to become part of Historic Connersville.
Presently, Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary has two homes for its caretakers and multiple outbuildings. Markle Barn offers meal facilities and an open area for meetings and receptions. Brooks Hall, named after Earl Brooks, has meeting facilities, displays, restrooms and storage. There is a primitive camping area with an outhouse and multiple campsites. A gift from Phyllis Yuhas added another 30 acres to the sanctuary in 1972. Also, the Delawana Camp is still there with a few buildings that the local Boy Scout troop has used.
The sanctuary is still owned and managed by Indiana Audubon. Recently, an interpretive trail system was set up with informational signs along the way, and plans are underway for an accessible bird blind. Throughout the year, the sanctuary is used for outdoor education for children and youth, as well as schools and other groups. Hummingbird and northern saw-whet owl banding also happens on the property. Indiana Audubon’s spring meeting is held at the sanctuary, and they host a Hummingbird Migration Celebration in August and an Owl Night in the fall. There is a MOTUS tower for tracking birds in migration, and multiple workshops and conferences are held there during the year. Over eight miles of marked hiking trails are open to the public, and members can fish in the ponds.
“…an interest in bird life, once quickened, is destined to live always. The more I study the birds, the more each one of these little hosts of the air becomes a source of pleasure, a curiosity, a mystery to me. I no longer feel alone in the country, those wings are no longer only feathers, those cries no longer only noises; they are arrivals, wayfarers, friends.
The study of birds has opened for me a treasure about an unknown world, and in knowing it better it has deepened in me the feeling of the mystery of life.”
Compiled by Dr. Joanne Guttman, M.D., retired family physician and IAS board member who also serves on the Sanctuary committee.