The old Sugar Maple on the rise has seen a lot in the last 100 years. From its perch on this low hill, the seasons, the years, the birds and even the people have come and gone. The hill used to have a view all the way to Route 62 without a tree to block the way. The story of this Sugar Maple is the story of Audubon. This beautiful, giant tree grew here before Audubon did and stood witness to many of the things that have happened over the years.
Recently, there have been many stories coming out about witness trees. Originally, the term was used for the giant trees that surveyors used as boundary markers when surveying the land. Today, the National Park Service and others are finding trees that were standing at historic events. There are trees, identifiable through old paintings and sketches, that were present at the war of 1812 or have bullets in them from the battle of Gettysburg. There is a tree in Oklahoma that was pummeled with shrapnel from the Oklahoma bombing and is now part of a memorial to the victims of that attack.
Audubon’s Sugar Maple stands near the Nature Center, but was there long before. It was there when people used the swampy ground at the base of the hill to dump their trash. It was there when a young Roger Tory Peterson walked through the marshy ground looking for birds. The tree already stood tall and proud when a very young local Audubon chapter purchased the land in 1963.
Soon, trails were added near the tree. Visitors began to walk past casually or with an occasional leader showing them around. New trees, mostly evergreens, were planted specifically to block the view of the highway that was just one third of a mile away.
Those trees also blocked the view of Audubon’s first building from that low hill, the Urban Pavilion. This cozy pavilion, with its stone fireplace, was the first building where visitors could get out of the weather. By 1971, school busses stopped there and dropped off chattering groups of children for field trips. Nine hundred people came to visit at an open house in 1974.
It was quickly apparent that more facilities were needed, and the maple tree sitting on the rise was the perfect place to build them. An amphitheater was built in the shade of the tree with the help of the Jamestown Rotary Club. People gathered there to listen to speakers, hear bands, eat lunch and learn more about the natural world.
Roger Tory Peterson, a world famous naturalist and author of the Peterson Field Guide Series, often came and gave talks and slide shows under the tree, but the amphitheater was not enough.
A new nature center was built on the hill near the tree. It mostly consisted of two large rooms: one upstairs for programs and one downstairs as a Discovery Room. A path ran from a new parking lot up to the front door, taking every visitor past the large showy Sugar Maple.
Some people walked past the tree daily as Audubon hired employees for the first time. Jim Yaich was Audubon’s first director. To this day, I can visit classrooms where teachers talk about how much they loved seeing him come in the door when they were students. Under his leadership, new
naturalists were hired, and more and more scouts, students, volunteers and visitors began to trek up the hill to the Nature Center.
There was a lot the tree couldn’t see as well. Some of those staff people were doing programs in local classrooms and preschools. Others were showing movies in local school auditoriums. Still more were leading field trips for families to fascinating places throughout the area. Audubon was very active and began to outgrow the nature center like a well-fed snake outgrows its skin.
A new wing, several times larger than the original nature center, was added in 1992. There was a lot of activity and chaos as school programs continued while noisy construction crews created the new space and attached it to the original building. Legend has it that a Black Rat Snake, which lived in the Discovery Room, escaped and terrified some of the workers building the new wing.
The building soon filled with exhibits and new staff. Much continued on as before. Scouts, students, families and more still visit the Nature Center and the giant Sugar Maple still sits on the hill. Liberty, an unreleasable Bald Eagle, came to live near the Nature Center in 2002
The tree witnessed many things, but one of the most important was volunteers. People came and planted shrubs like honeysuckle and Multiflora Rose. Others planted trees, mowed trails or dug out ponds with heavy equipment. More volunteers have built and painted picnic tables. Still other volunteers came and pulled out the roses and honeysuckle, now considered invasive plants, that other volunteers had planted years before. There are over 300 volunteers that regularly help the organization function each year.
Audubon Community Nature Center has changed a lot over the years, but one thing has never changed. It is an organization that is active in the community and provides a place for many to learn, work and grow closer together and to the world around us.
Come take a hike, explore the building or pack a picnic lunch for the fall. While you are there, look around and find the giant Sugar Maple on the rise. Audubon’s witness tree stands tall and proud to this day. You can become one of the thousands of visitors that trek past the tree each year.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at Audubon Community Nature Center. ACNC is located one-quarter mile east of Route 60 on Riverside Road between Jamestown, New York and Warren Pennsylvania. Visit auduboncnc.org or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.