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Audubon Center
Come One, Come Aull
On the 50th anniversary of one of the nation’s premier nature centers, our writer, who has frequented it for more than half of its life, reflects on its recipe for success.

Marie and John Aull

Two school buses appeared as splotches of bright yellow against the spring foliage along a road winding into Aullwood. Catching sight of them, a fortyish man named Chris Rowlands—naturalist, minstrel, bubbly clown, sporting a shaved head—picked up his guitar and called to several young women behind him, “Here they come!” He and the women, interns at the nature center, met the visitors at the curb, drawing a flurry of friendly waves from 60 first graders who stared curiously at them through the bus windows.

After an absence of several years I was again watching a familiar daily routine here in Dayton, Ohio: the interplay between the local community and a precious resource. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, a place I have explored and learned from for more than half of its existence. Named for Marie and John Aull, who, in the 1920s, established their home and a nationally famous woodland garden here on the site of an old farm, the center is a model of how to organize nature education, conservation action, and family entertainment throughout the year.

Naturalist Paul Knoop Jr. introduced a generation of kids to Aullwood, from its wildlife-filled ponds to its working farm.

There’s nothing intimidating about a visit to Aullwood, as those two busloads of kids were about to discover. Strumming his guitar and backed up by a chorus of enthusiastic interns, Rowlands soon has the kids singing, waving their arms, giggling, and calling out answers to his nature-based questions and nonsense riddles. “What do you call a fish that has no eyes? You call it a FSH! Get it?” (Moans and hoots of derision from the interns.) He ad-libs a song about “decomposers,” bringing in corpses and excrement (“poop” in the song), as well as the cleaner-uppers like beetles and fungi. The kids’ faces radiate interest, puzzlement, shock, pleasure.

Soon Rowlands organizes the small visitors into groups of 8 or 10 and sends them off, each with its own intern or staff naturalist, to explore the center. Indoors, they hold live box turtles, become acquainted with black rat snakes, look at rocks, and talk about which things are alive and which are not. Outside, in the woods, they look for signs of spring. The kids are good at detecting “creepy-crawlies” in the grass, a chance for their group leaders to begin weaning them away from “Yuk!” and leading them into seeing bugs with a more inquiring, or even admiring, attitude.

Naturalist Paul Knoop Jr. leading visitors through the grounds around Aullwood. 

A rabbit bounds through the nearby shrubbery; a sea of trilliums surges in white, pink-tinged bloom across a woodland clearing; a white-eyed vireo sings its clipped little song in the green canopy over the trail. From day to day now the advancing season hints at pleasures ahead. The visitors get their hands dirty and their feet wet. (“I’ve never seen a wet kid who didn’t eventually dry,” Rowlands comments.) At the center’s organic farm there’s an opportunity to pat a sheep. The kids can handle vegetable seeds and collect hens’ eggs, too. They have fun, and maybe even learn to wonder.

More than 110,000 people—tots, schoolkids, teenagers, and adults—came to Aullwood during 2006. Some 20,000 of them arrived on buses from 175 schools and 15 counties in the Dayton area for field trips and hands-on science projects: perhaps seining for fish in the nearby Stillwater River, or counting the teeth of a mammalian jawbone preserved in one of the center’s exhibition halls. Aullwood’s outreach program engaged an additional 31,500 kids in their own classrooms. In 2004 Aullwood received the Sol Feinstone Award, selected from 60 competing organizations, as one of the two finest nature centers in America. The award, which is sponsored by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, honored Aullwood as a “flagship” among nature centers, citing its contributions to promoting the wise use of natural resources and the spirit of volunteerism.

Early visitors enjoy Aullwood's working farm.

 

That’s precisely what Marie Aull had in mind when she created the center in suburban Dayton in 1957. After her husband’s death, she grew concerned about the future of the land they had nourished for so many years. In that post–World War II era, heavy industry and thousands of new workers were changing the area forever, while the farms that had characterized the rolling countryside disappeared under a tide of factories, shopping centers, and housing developments. John Aull had once said to Marie, “Remember that this land is ours only to hold in trust, to pass on to the next generation as beautiful as it was given to us.” A member of the National Audubon Society for many years, she approached its president, John Baker, about leaving the property to the society after her own death.

“We would like to have the land for a nature center,” Baker said after visiting the property. “And why wait until you are gone? Why not give the land now so that you can have the fun of seeing people enjoying all its benefits.”

Marie Aull treasured the beautiful trees on her property, especially this giant two-pronged sycamore.

He further suggested that Aull visit Audubon camps and nature centers across the country to acquaint herself with the society’s educational programs. Aull took this advice to heart, and it was while she was a “camper” at the Audubon Camp in Wisconsin that she met Dorothy Treat, a botanist and environmental educator who believed in dramatic presentations, delivering messages to children with the help of artistic materials and theatrical devices—stories, drawings, puppets—that contrasted with what were often the didactic, dry-as-dust nature programs of the time. Aull asked Treat to become the program’s first director. The two women developed a system of trails on the old farm that took visitors through a coherent succession of woodlands, native prairie, sheltered ponds, and other natural habitats.

I had come to know Marie during the early 1970s on visits to my wife’s family in the Dayton area. An early riser even in her nineties, she often invited Ada and me to join her at Aullwood for breakfast just after dawn, when she was already busy in the kitchen preparing fruit, bacon, pancakes, and coffee. We filled her in about Audubon affairs, and she described the satisfactions of her close involvement in the center’s daily routine. The long room, with its bank of windows, looked south onto her lawn and billowing shrubbery, and beyond to the mixed legions of wildflowers she kept as an integral part of the deciduous forest. Strangers often wandered there; although the garden wasn’t part of the nature center, Marie had always kept it open to the public. “As you can see, all along I have been the one to benefit from what has taken place here,” she liked to say.

Marie Aull gave the land for an Audubon center so that Dayton's urban citizens might learn about and halp conserve its plants and animals.

As expanded programs brought on budget shortfalls in the 1970s, Marie met the challenge. Turning to the community, she oversaw the creation of the Friends of Aullwood, made up of interested and influential people who set out to raise money and spread public awareness in Dayton about the green treasure that lay in its midst. Aullwood became self-supporting and established a new, more autonomous management relationship with National Audubon. Marie gave the Friends $500,000, a sum she asked them to match in a fund-raising campaign, and they did.

 

Charity Krueger, a onetime natural history teacher and president of the Ohio Audubon Council, became the center’s executive director in 1982 and now celebrates her 25th year in the position. With Marie Aull’s gradual retreat from close oversight of the center and her eventual death in 2002 at the age of 105, Krueger supplied the strong hand needed to bring Aullwood into its high place among this country’s nature centers.

Her first step was to establish the site as a major exhibition space to attract the urban population. “I knew that if we were asking for funds, we had to rebuild the infrastructure, we had to fix the holes in the roof, so to speak,” Krueger recalls. “I wanted to bring in more children, more family groups, even moms with children in strollers, and make this an active and exciting place every day of the week. That means not only creating a variety of programs but also exposing children to multiple experiences here, time and again through their school years. The average local child now visits Aullwood 12 to 18 times.”

The Antrim farmhouse, the residence for farm manager John Stedman.

At the greatly enlarged and renovated Marie S. Aull Education Center, Krueger has tripled the interpretive space, providing a mix of inner-city and suburban children with their first real experience of the natural world. The sound of running water, the presence of accessible skins and skeletons of native animals, and a succession of community festivals celebrating the changing year all speak graphically of the natural world to children and adults. By nourishing such familiarity with nature, Aullwood stimulates many visitors to environmental activism. Some of them, for example, have been involved in the restoration of a former uranium processing site. Others took part in blocking a plan for a facility in a low-income community that would have treated the U.S. Army’s nerve agent, a hazardous waste.

For the past 12 years Aullwood has served as the national headquarters of the Association of Nature Center Administrators. Developers of new centers, or those intent on upgrading their programs or trail layouts, often invite Krueger to inspect and appraise them. Site by site, the Aullwood pattern is replicating itself across the country.

Aullwood’s education coordinator for the past 15 years has been Tom Hissong, 53, who, like Chris Rowlands, is a native of the Dayton area who has been coming to the center since he was a child. Hissong directs Aullwood’s workshops and leads adult birding tours in the area as well as to Canada and the Florida Everglades. With increased costs often forcing schools to curtail bus excursions for their students, he sometimes accompanies Rowlands on bringing the center’s programs into classrooms as well. “The smell of a nature center is what grabbed me as a child,” Hissong says. “It’s a combination of smells—aquariums, study skins, terrariums with live fish and turtles—that still evokes strong emotions in me. That and the memory of having fun. Now what I ask of the other staff is to provide kids with a fun, exciting time from the moment they arrive here. Be enthusiastic!”

As big as Aullwood’s staff is—there are 14 professionals and 35 part-time employees—it’s dwarfed by 800 volunteers from the community. Typical are Barbara and Mike Runyon. Several decades ago they enrolled their children in Aullwood’s programs, and now their grandchildren are regulars at the center. Barbara greets visitors at the front desk, and when Mike retired as a firefighter for the City of Dayton, he decided to contribute time to Aullwood, too. Appropriately, I found him on a ladder, installing a panel in a restroom ceiling. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades here,” he says. “When I finish this job, I’ll drive the tractor mower over at the farm.”

The Marie S. Aull Education Center

“Volunteers make it happen,” says volunteer coordinator Nina Lapitan, who performs the complex job of arranging the schedules of a great variety of local people to fit conveniently into Aullwood’s programs. “In a sense they are almost more important than donors for us. Because they come from all walks of life, they give us a solid base in the community.”

Marie Aull always hoped that the land she and John cherished would reshape the attitudes of local people toward the natural world. It may be that the creation of a functioning community of like-minded people is Aullwood’s most enduring lesson for nature centers across America.

 

The Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm is located at 1000 Aullwood Road, Dayton, Ohio 45414. To learn more, call 937-890-7360 or click here.
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