From Grazing To Gazing

When parents and caregivers asked for a nature program for small children, staff at For-Mar created “Knee-High Naturalists” for little ones 3 to 6 years old. Photos Courtesy Of Genesee County Parks, Flint, Mi.

When parents and caregivers asked for a nature program for small children, staff at For-Mar created “Knee-High Naturalists” for little ones 3 to 6 years old.

Photos Courtesy Of Genesee County Parks, Flint, Mi.

Fifty years ago, Forbes and Martha Merkley ran a successful dairy farm just a few minutes east of downtown Flint, Mich. It was a magnificent spread of land, a gently rolling landscape with open meadows, mature forests, wetlands, and ponds. In the 1960s GeneseeCounty commissioners were looking for property to convert to parkland, and the Merkleys were making plans to retire. It was the perfect partnership.

The Merkleys donated 383 acres to the county with instructions for its development; the family also included a trust fund to help develop and sustain the gift. Using a combination of their names, the land became For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum. It opened in 1970.

Martha Merkley was quite specific in designating how the property was to be used. A lover of nature and wildlife, she wanted part of the land to become a nature preserve. Since all of the acreage had been used for field crops and pasture, she also decided that a good many trees should be planted to create an arboretum. In fact, for the first 10 years, all funds from the trust were to be used only to purchase trees so the arboretum would be established quickly.

Kearsley Creek meanders through the property, which offers a natural way to divide the preserve from the arboretum. Martha’s “vernal pond” was enlarged, and a second pond was created.

Martha lived for more than 15 years after For-Mar opened, and she watched her dairy farm evolve into a beloved community resource. In the ensuing 40 years, the city and its suburbs have spread, and For-Mar has become an urban oasis with 7 miles of hiking trails and barrier-free walkways, mature ponds, a sugar bush, a museum, a bio-diverse arboretum, and a large visitor center. In this peaceful setting, members of the community can get away from all that feels hurried and demanding and replace that with a quiet retreat.

Bringing The Past Forward

While the Merkleys’ home was very nice, it was not configured for an education center or offices, and Martha had put restrictions on its use. Eventually the house was taken down, and a large mantle was saved and installed in the new visitor center, along with a photo of one of the Merkleys’ champion dairy cows.

The original horse barn is now used as a maintenance facility, and an old Quonset-style building is used for storage.

Full Speed Ahead

The visitor center, built in 1995, has classroom space, plus displays with dozens of live and mounted plants and animals. Hands-on

Members of the community can get away from all that feels hurried and demanding and replace that with a quiet retreat at For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum.

Members of the community can get away from all that feels hurried and demanding and replace that with a quiet retreat at For-Mar Nature Preserve and Arboretum.

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