In 1929 Kentucky distiller and philanthropist I.W. Bernheim directed the creation of a foundation and a fund bearing his name. He intended for this corporation to oversee the development of an arboretum, natural forest, and nature center on a 14,000-acre tract in Bullitt and Nelson counties. This privately-financed development would be open to the public to strengthen its visitors' love of natural beauty.
Bernheim's specific plans for this project apparently originated during the early 1920s, as he reflected upon his life and family during long walks in the woods that surrounded his home. He envisioned the creation of a place where wildlife and forest would not be managed for production, but left basically unspoiled. Perhaps Bernheim had been influenced by the growing public concern for conservation of natural resources as America's frontier period came to an end. He undoubtedly believed that nature provided a tonic for the corrupting influences of society. Within the bounds of Bernheim's wooded legacy, discussion of religion and politics, the sale of merchandise, and racial and economic discrimination would be prohibited.
The founder's wonderful vision for the forest outran the funds available for its development. During their first decade, the trustees of the foundation devoted their primary attention to work on the wilderness aspects of Bernheim's dreams: the construction of fire lanes, building of access roads, and enforcement of game laws. Personnel problems, strained relations with the forest's neighbors, and confusion about the founder's goals and wishes impeded their progress. By the end of the 1930s, however, the trustees had sponsored several studies outlining the area's future development, gained a more realistic understanding of the task ahead of them, and made substantial improvements in the tract from a forester's viewpoint. Yet little had been done to develop the park-like provisions that Bernheim envisioned: an arboretum, recreational facilities, and a nature museum.
During the period after World War II, the development of Bernheim Forest came into better focus. Bernheim died in 1945 at age ninety-six, at which time his long-time personal secretary Robert Paul became executive director of the foundation. In 1950 Frank Bunce became the chief forester and provided solid leadership for many years thereafter. This period saw the regular opening of the forest to the public, the building of a nature museum, and the development of an arboretum. A growing concern with the quality of the environment, coupled with increased leisure time and greater mobility, strained all the nation's parks during the post-war period. The administrators of Bernheim Forest were not strangers to this development. By the 1960s, a growing interest in camping, picnicing, and other outdoor activities frequently taxed their resources.