The earliest known history of the 205 acre Asbury Woods property is recorded in the Native American Indian arrowheads and stone tools found there. Once abundant with deer, turkeys and other wild game, the land was a popular hunting ground for its original inhabitants.
Beginning in the early 19th century, the primary land owners of the area were the Nicholson, Von Buseck and Weis families. The pond behind Asbury Park Barn is the remnant of a bog iron mine excavated during this period and subsequently filled with spring water. Later a portion of the Nicholson holdings became the Asbury Woods Nature Center, while local businessman Douglas James acquired part of the Von Buseck acreage and donated it to Mercyhurst College as part of the Greenway.
In 1898, brothers Otto and Ernst Behrend arrived in Erie from Germany to set-up a paper mill that became the Hammermill Paper Company. Thirty years later, the paper business had done well enough for Otto to begin to look for a country retreat near Erie. In 1920, he purchased a tract that became known as Asbury Farm. Dr. Behrend began to reforest and upgrade the farm fields and in 1931 replaced an older cottage with a Dutch Colonial-style cottage.
Behrend’s country retreat was a working farm with horses and dairy cattle, fields planted in corn, hay, wheat and oats and orchards producing apples, cherries, pears and peaches. The Farm’s produce and dairy products were sold to the Erie Club and local markets. In life and in death, the Behrend brothers established a reputation for supporting educational endeavors. A portion of Ernst Behrend’s estate was used to found the Penn State Behrend campus. Likewise Otto Behrend, in the 1950’s, donated 10 acres at the corner of 38th Street and Asbury Road, for the construction of an elementary school.
When he died in 1957, Otto, through his will, bequeathed his 100-acre Asbury Farm, cottage, barn (now known as Asbury Barn), fields and orchards to the Millcreek Township School District for educational and recreational uses. Shortly after the receipt of his donation, the School District converted the cottage into Asbury Woods Nature Center. Today we are all grateful for Otto Behrend’s foresight and generosity which established one of Erie’s most treasured public assets – our Asbury Woods.
Brown’s Farm with its farmhouse and 1920’s barn became the second Asbury Woods component when it was purchased by the Millcreek Township School District in the 1980’s. Because the tract was not suitable for a new school building, the property became a center for recreational and educational activities.
In 1993, Erie corporate leader Douglas James donated pastureland previously owned by the Von Buseck family to Mercyhurst College to create the Jean B. and J. Douglas James Wildlife Preserve. Two years later, two smaller tracts along Walnut Creek were donated to the School District, connecting the northern and southern sections of the future Greenway. Situated in a steep creek valley, with cliffs rising above pools of water, these properties are especially beautiful. And with remnants of old gristmills, this is also an area of historic importance.
In 2000, the “Friends of the Asbury Woods Nature Center” formed to launch a campaign to raise money for improvements to Asbury Woods. As a result of the “Friends” successful $3.8 million capital campaign, a ”new” Asbury Woods Nature Center opened its doors on November 2005. While retaining its original cottage look and hometown nature center feel, the renovation included a 7,800 square foot state-of-the-art “green” addition that models sustainable design with a focus on energy conservation. Each renovation design element was based on the following 4 E’s: Environment impact, Economic value, Experience for the visitor and Educational value.
A highlight of the Nature Center addition is the 4,500 vegetative “green” roof that greets visitors as they enter the building. Students and visitors also enjoy the new modern classrooms and greatly improved nature exhibits
In addition, the Campaign together with additional grants funded the pedestrian bridge that crosses Walnut Creek and connected the Asbury side of the Woods to the Brown’s Farm side of the Woods. The Brown’s Farm barn also was renovated as part of the overall improvements to Asbury Woods.
Once the capital campaign concluded and the improvements were completed, the “Friends” became The Asbury Woods Partnership, Inc., which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The original intent was for the Partnership to continue to assist the Millcreek Township School District with funding of Asbury Woods. However, in 2009, the Partnership and the School District entered into an Agreement under which the Partnership assumed responsibility for the community programming at Asbury Woods.
In 2012, the Partnership and the School District modified their 2009 Agreement. Under the modified Agreement, the Partnership became a fully independent operating organization. The Partnership is equipped with its own staff, and is now better positioned to serve the community and expand the programming offers to the public.
In 2016, the Asbury Woods Partnership purchased 115 acres from the Millcreek Township School District, including the Nature Center and adjacent properties and Brown’s Farm Barn and adjacent properties. The Asbury Woods Partnership became solely responsible for the ownership, maintenance and programs of Asbury Woods.
In 2018, Asbury Woods announced the successful completion of the Preserving a Legacy Capital Campaign. The campaign was launched in 2015 and raised $5.2 million, surpassing the goal of raising $4.5 million to protect Asbury Woods now and into the future. Major gifts to the campaign include a gift in excess of $1 million from Andrew J. Conner, which constitutes the largest private gift in Asbury Woods’ 61-year history. The Nature Center at Asbury Woods was rededicated during the Preserving a Legacy Capital Campaign celebration reception on October 9, 2018.
Today, Asbury Woods serves more than 13,000 school children each year from all across Erie County, employs 12 people and allows more than 100,000 people each year to have a nature based experience through environmental education programs, outdoor recreation, summer nature camps, adult learning opportunities and more.