Asbury Woods History
The 216 acres of conserved property that make up Asbury Woods is rich with geologic and archeologic evidence that tells the story of the changing landscape over the past 400 million years.
Reaching back to the Devonian period, roughly 360-420 million years ago, large swaths of what is now Asbury Woods was covered by an ancient saltwater ocean. Geologic and fossil evidence along present-day Walnut Creek tell the story of shale rock once covered by water and fossils of long-extinct ancient fish.
By the time the first human inhabitants had reached what is now northwestern Pennsylvania, roughly 10,000 – 15,000 years ago, the last ice age had ended and Walnut Creek had formed. Evidence of indigenous peoples living and hunting here includes a variety of arrowheads and stone tools found on the property over the years. The land would have been abundant with deer, turkey, and other wild game.
By the 1600s when Europeans began to invade the area, the Eriez people were a distinct group with their own cultural traditions and history living on the southern shores of Lake Erie, utilizing Presque Isle and the banks of Walnut Creek as a rich hunting ground.
Property records dating to the early 1800s show that the Eriez concept of communal land had been supplanted by the notion of private land ownership. Landowners of the tracts that eventually became Asbury Woods were the Nicholson, Von Buseck, and Weis families. Various portions of the property were used for the industries of the day including a bog iron mine, farming, and a slaughterhouse.
In 1898, Asbury Woods history intertwines with the history of the Erie community when brothers Otto and Ernst Behrend arrived in Erie from Germany to set up a paper mill that became Hammermill Paper Company. After thirty years of business growth and success, Otto began to look for a country retreat. In 1920 he purchased a tract of land that had become known as Asbury Farm. He set about reforesting a portion of the farm fields while continuing to run it as a working farm with horses, dairy cattle, corn, wheat, oats, and fruit orchards. Many of the trees planted by Otto remain standing on the parcel of land surrounding the Nature Center. In 1931, Otto replaced an existing cottage on the property with a Dutch Colonial-style cottage that is part of the present-day Nature Center.
The Behrend brothers had a reputation of generosity in the Erie community, with a particular affinity for supporting education. In the early 1950s, Otto donated 10 acres of his property located at the corner of West 38th Street and Asbury Road to the Millcreek Township School District for the construction of a new elementary school. When Otto Behrend died, his will bequeathed the remaining 100 acres of Asbury Farm, the cottage, barn (now known as Asbury Barn), fields, and orchards to the Millcreek Township School District for educational and recreational purposes. Within just a few years of Otto’s death, Millcreek Township School District began to realize Otto’s vision by utilizing the property and cottage for school students to gain valuable hands-on lessons about the natural world. Otto’s generosity set a standard of philanthropy that has helped Asbury Woods evolve into the organization it is today.
The Browns Farm portion of the property was a working farm from the early 1800s, first by the Weiss family, then the Thomas family, and finally the Browns, until 1970. Evidence abounds as the use of the land for agriculture purposes when noting the open meadow, the relatively new growth trees in the forested areas, and, unfortunately, the household items and farm implements that have been recovered from the banks of Walnut Creek. The farm operated during an era of out-of-sight, out-of-mind when it came to trash disposal. While the environmental impacts of discarded household goods and farm items were detrimental to the Walnut Creek watershed as they deteriorated on the banks, the archeological story they told in their recovery offered a glimpse into life on a farm.
The Browns Farm parcel which includes the farmhouse, barn, and meadows were acquired by the Millcreek Township School District in the early 1980s with the intention to build a school. It was ultimately deemed not the ideal location and instead, the district used it for other education and recreation purposes. Browns Farm Barn which sits on the site dates to 1928.
Erie businessman Douglas James donated pastureland, previously owned by the Von Buseck family, to Mercyhurst University in 1993 to create the Jean B. and Douglas James Wildlife Preserve. This 40 acres of land includes frontage to West 38th Street and was a key piece in building a continuous greenway to connect the Nature Center with the Browns Farm parcel. In 1995 two smaller tracts of land along Walnut Creek were donated to Millcreek Township School District for final pieces of land which would become the future Greenway Trail.
In 2001 the nonprofit Asbury Woods Partnership was formed to assist Millcreek Township School District with fundraising projects to support Asbury Woods. The Asbury Woods Partnership led a campaign to raise money for improvements at Asbury Woods, resulting in a $3.8 million campaign that allowed for the renovation and expansion of the Nature Center. The renovated Nature Center opened its doors in 2005, retaining the original cottage look while adding 7,800 square feet of new space that included innovative, sustainable design concepts. The new space included a live animal exhibit area, new classrooms, a gift shop and a vegetative roof. The campaign also included a gift from Rear Admiral Charles A. Curtze (Ret.) and his wife, Louise Vicary Curtze, that funded a pedestrian bridge spanning Walnut Creek, thus completing the Greenway Trail connecting the Browns Farm parcel to the grounds surrounding the Nature Center.
After their successful campaign, the Asbury Woods Partnership entered into an agreement with the Millcreek Township School District in 2009 to provide nature-based programming to the community at Asbury Woods, thus expanding the programming impact beyond school groups.
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, farmhouse and adjacent properties, thanks to another successful campaign, Preserving a Legacy, which raised $5.2 million. The Asbury Woods Partnership became solely responsible for the ownership, maintenance and programs of Asbury Woods. Millcreek Township School District retained ownership of the parcel of land that includes Asbury Barn and Asbury Park, leased to and administered by the Millcreek Township Parks and Recreation Department. Mercyhurst University remains the owner of the 40 acres of the James Wildlife Preserve. This dynamic partnership between Asbury Woods, Mercyhurst University, and Millcreek Township Parks and Recreation Department is the foundation of the 205 acres of property that is open for public recreation and nature exploration along the five miles of trails.
In 2018, a gift in excess of $1 million from Andrew J. Conner, which constitutes the largest private gift in Asbury Woods history, resulted in the rededication of the Nature Center in his honor.
Since its inception in 2001 and since its ownership role in 2016, Asbury Woods Partnership has invested heavily in growth and new opportunities at Asbury Woods including a new boardwalk, installation of a low ropes course, serving new audiences through partnerships, new signage, land restoration projects, expanded community programming and more. As Asbury Woods carries forward Otto Behrend’s intent of the land being used for education and recreation, the future is bright for Asbury Woods.
Today, Asbury Woods serves more than 13,000 school children each year from all across Erie County, 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.