A new nature center on the Grand River Conservation Campus of The Nature Conservancy in Rock Creek will receive its first visit from elementary students this week.
Jacqueline Bilello, Central Lake Erie Basin Project Manager for TNC, says 85 Grand Valley Middle School students will descend upon the nature center to learn about the unique habitat and geology of Ashtabula County. Next week, the center will host 50 students from Rock Creek Elementary.
This is special land, and TNC’s attention to it is endorsement of its character and the privilege of preservation. The 58-acre campus is part of the greater 1,300-acre Morgan Swamp Preserve, which TNC owns. A hemlock yellow-birch forest community, one of Ohio’s rarest swamp forest communities, grows here.
“We’ve had a presence here since 1985,” says Karen Adair Seidel, who was the project manager at the time plans were developed for the property. “It became really clear to us that there was this huge need for a place where we could show visitors what makes this county so special … and restore some pride to Ashtabula County.”
In addition to its unique habitat, the land has an interesting cultural history, going back to its settlement by the New Englanders who drained the swamps and converted the forest to farmland. One family, the Callenders, was associated with the land on which the camp was built. They had a public picnic grounds along the river and sold baked goods. For a short while, a steamboat provided excursions on the Grand River, stopping at the Callender picnic grounds. An out-of-state judge built the hunting lodge, which has a few legends connected to it, and a Jewish group from Cleveland owned the property and operated a camp there. Cleveland City Mission had a Christian camp on the property for decades before abandoning it and gifting it to TNC.
After the transfer was completed in early 2011, the conservancy held an open house to gather input on what to do with the place. After all, it included much more than just Grand River habitat that needed to be preserved. There was a huge dairy barn, former hunting lodge, field house, cabins and administration building—25 buildings in all.
“There were 130 ideas generated,” says Seidel. “We understood what people from the community wanted us to do with it, but we were not in a position to act on it at that time; still, we were able to get a handle on it.”
Seidel says that it took the staff about three years to downsize the campus to a somewhat manageable size. The field house is made available for rent to groups that can use a gymnasium space; the barn remains a barn for equipment storage; Lake Erie College is involved in a project at the lodge; and the administration building is about to become a nature center, The Dr. James K. Bissell Nature Center. Administration and volunteer offices will be part of the nature center building, as well.
(Naming the center) was really actually pretty simple. Any person from the conservation community of Northeast Ohio knows Jim and the contributions he’s made to the region and state.
Center honors Jim Bissell
“(Naming the center) was really actually pretty simple,” Siedel says. “Any person from the conservation community of Northeast Ohio knows Jim and the contributions he’s made to the region and state.”
A botanist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Bissell is an Ashtabula County native who chose to live in the county even after getting the job in Cleveland. His work has gone far beyond tracking down the state’s most unusual and endangered species; he’s been an advocate for preserving the habitat where the plants are found, or were once abundant.
“Jim doesn’t stop until the places that need protected are protected,” Seidel says.
Seidel says that Bissell’s ability to inspire land owners to conserve or sell their special habitats and persistence in protecting the region’s special places have won him the respect of both farmers and business executives.
“One of the best things about Jim is that he has this way of making people feel special, and he makes their land special—which it is. He just has this effect on people, so it is kind of a no-brainer that we honor him by naming the nature center after Jim.”
At the heart of the center: Volunteers
Volunteers will staff the center, whose exhibits and learning activities were developed with an understanding of the science component of the state’s core curriculum. Bilello says that with school districts strapped for field trip funding, and the site being somewhat remote, the campus must be more than just a pretty place to visit and hike.
“It had to meet a need, not a want,” says Siedel. “It can’t be about a want, it has to meet needs.”
Seidel and Bilello say that volunteers drove the Nature Center Project from concept to reality, from selecting exhibits to putting drywall over the block walls and building bookcases.
The core group of volunteers has many teachers in its ranks. The group consists of Dolly and Doug Anderson, Joanne and Bob Bevacqua, Joyce Campagna, Dave Flaum, Lorna Greicius, Dough and Janet Grout, Ken and Mary Kobelt, Ben Lutz, David Orndoff and Nancy Patterson. Many more have since come along beside them to offer specialized skills as the project demanded. Known as “Team Nature Center,” the teacher volunteers studied the 128 pages of curriculum and pulled out those parts that the nature center could play a role in illustrating and reinforcing.
“(The volunteers) saw the need and really stepped up and made this a reality,” Bilello says. “It’s not just a nature center, but a place where (children) can explore … get a little bit dirty, flip over some logs and explore nature and the environment.”
Exhibits include live rattlesnake
The exploration starts in the center itself, where one wall depicts the beaver pond and the ecology of the habitat. Another exhibit depicts the various kinds of life supported by a rotting log. A large, illuminated panel explains the geology of Ashtabula County, as well as the cultural heritage aspects of its covered bridges and lighthouses.
The Morgan Swamp, a Nature Conservancy property, is known habitat for the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, venomous but reclusive reptile. Bilello says a malnourished, injured specimen was collected at the site some time ago and has undergone rehabilitation. Unable to survive in the wild, the snake will have a home, inside a glass enclosure, at the nature center.
Bilello says every exhibit in the center will help students increase their comprehension of concepts that are part of the state science curriculum. Volunteers traveled to other museums and viewed scores of exhibits so they could design a nature center that will augment and reinforce what the region’s schools are teaching.
“It was marrying our interpretation goals with what the kids needed,” Seidel says. “Our volunteers played huge roles in this and spent months traveling on their own. They even included nature center visits into their vacation plans.”
The Civic Development Corporation of Ashtabula County (CDC) assisted the project by providing signage for interpretive trails at the campus, which covers 58 acres and includes access to the Grand River, a state scenic and wild river. The trails follow the river, pass through open meadow, loop around a beaver pond and descend into the forest. A pond at the center will be used for macro invertebrate sampling and study.
The plan is to have the Bissell Nature Center open Saturdays and Sundays for the public to explore. Hours will be 1 to 5 p.m. Several special events are planned for those Saturdays through the end of the season and include a story hour, presentation on the county’s glacial history and a December children’s hike.
Bilello says additional volunteers who are passionate this special habitat we call Ashtabula County are needed to staff the center and assist with tours. Call 440-563-3081 for information.
Even better, attend the dedication of the center and hike the trails with conservation and natural sciences experts on Oct. 21. A presentation is at 10 a.m., followed by hiking and tours from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. The center will be open until 5 p.m.
The Grand River Conservation Campus is located at 3973 Callender Road, Rock Creek. Take Route 45 or Windsor-Mechanicsville Road south to Callender.