There’s a new icon towering above the Ohio State Fairgrounds this year.
On Tuesday, officials cut the ribbon on a fully restored and relocated wildfire lookout tower.
The 60-foot Armintrout Tower joins the OHIO Gate, Butter Cow, Sky Ride and talking Smokey Bear as a permanent fair landmark.
Located at the east end of the fairgrounds in the Natural Resources Park, the tower is the centerpiece of an expanded educational exhibit about preventing and fighting wildfires.
“It will help get our fire prevention message out,” said Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Director Jim Zehringer.
Erected in 1934 in Pike County by workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps — a New Deal employment program — the Armintrout Tower was one of 11 steel fire lookout towers that stood guard over Ohio’s public and private forestland between 1924 and 1978. Originally, the Armintrout Tower was 80 feet high.
Observers manned the towers during daylight hours, watching for wisps of smoke in the distant trees. Once a blaze was suspected, a circular mapping device called an Osborne Fire Finder helped pinpoint its exact location. That location was then radio to fire crews on the ground.
Pay was meager — 43 cents a day in Depression Era America — and the work was often monotonous. But it was valuable to restoring Ohio’s once-decimated woodlands.
“Citizens of Ohio can use this opportunity to learn about, remember, and pay respect to these individuals, without whom, Ohio’s natural resources would not be the beautiful, natural wonders they are today,” a ODNR handout says.
Monitoring via aircraft replaced towers and observers in 1978 and most of the structures fell into disrepair. Today, wildland firefighters depend on ordinary citizens with cell phones to report suspected blazes.
The Ohio DNR acquired the Armintrout Tower from the Pike County Public Service Trust earlier this year with the expressed purpose of moving it to the fairgrounds as a backdrop to Smokey Bear.
It was dismantled in April, according to agency engineer Troy Psurny, who oversaw the project.
Metal legs were sandblasted, dipped in acid and re-galvanized. Wooden landings and stairs were replaced with white oak from Zaleski State Forest.
Employees at Scioto Trail State Forest refinished the tower’s wooden cab inside and out and installed new window glass. Work to resurrect the structure in the Natural Resources Park ended last week, Psurny said.
Although it is open to the public, special permission is required to climb its stairs and inspect the cab and Osborne Fire Finder, Zehringer said.
The ODNR remains active in wildland firefighting both in the state and across the nation. Ohio records 500 to 600 wildfires annually, according to Bob Boyles, chief of the agency’s forestry division.
In 1986, Ohio joined an inter-agency compact, agreeing to aid other states in battling wildfires. Last year, 80 specially trained Ohioans traveled west to fight forest fires. Currently, four Ohioans are on fire lines in Colorado and elsewhere, Boyles said.
Jane Beathard is a contributing writer for The Madison Press.