Twenty-five years ago next Tuesday, Oct. 29, construction began on the Maple Wood Nature Center, a place that has become a favorite spot for many visitors, due in no small part to the maple syrup made there.
The parks department acquired the original 39 acres from Dr. Kenneth and Genevieve Lehman. “The parks were young and the Lehmans decided to donate it to the parks department,” Parks Director Mike Metz said. Mrs. Lehman had been a council member, Metz noted, and was familiar with what the parks department was doing.
The department was able to use the value of the purchase toward a Land and Water Conservation Grant through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. “The grant was for $80,000, which was the first major grant we got,” Metz said.
The department looked at the land donated and saw the potential for a place that would allow them to host programs in the park. Along with the plan for the building came the hiring of the department’s first naturalist, Sharon Partridge. Foster Brown took over that position later and was instrumental in starting the park’s biggest festival, Maple Syrup Days. “That raised the awareness of the parks and of Maple Wood,” Metz stated.
The first festival attracted around 300 people. Over the past few years, attendance has been around 3,500 annually.
The department taps maple trees throughout the park and makes its own maple syrup, demonstrating for numerous school groups and festivalgoers. The original sugar house was the Lehman’s cabin. A larger sugar house was built several years ago as attendance continued to increase for the festival.
Schools have also utilized the park and nature center over the years. “The gift from the Lehmans has introduced tens of thousands of students to wild habitats,” said current naturalist Scott Beam. “We’re now doing programming for children of the children who first came here. We’re into the second generation of understanding that wild land matters.”
Beam uses the Lehmans’ gift to show others that there is great value in wildlife. “Things with value aren’t necessarily an economic value,” he said.
Maple Wood has also grown in size, with ACRES purchasing 26 acres to the east of the park, which the department manages. An additional 66 acres to the west, consisting of wetlands and some woods, was added with funds from local foundations and the Heritage Trust, bringing the total acreage to 131.
The park has trails for visitors to explore and, for those quiet and patient enough, wildlife to see. “Some come out here and their eyes are opened to things they haven’t thought of. They discover that wild animals do live close to them,” Beam noted.
The park remains, 25 years later, a favorite destination for those from the county and beyond. “We have a lot of regulars that visit. It’s part of their healthy mind and body routine,” Beam said.