MARCELLUS | How did Baltimore Woods Nature Center get its name?
The sprawling beacon for outdoor recreation and education that spreads out from 4007 Bishop Hill Road, Marcellus, is made up of five or six different parcels that were acquired at different times, Camp Director Tom Meier said.
At one time, the original 99 acres belonged to the Reagan family, Meier said, and either that family or a previous owner used the land for pastures to raise cows.
During that time, he said, farmers sent their cows to slaughterhouses in New York City for processing, but legend has it, this particular farmer had some disagreement over pricing with those establishments and sent his animals to Baltimore instead.
“So, it was Baltimore cows and Baltimore farm and, eventually, Baltimore Woods,” Meier said.
Local historians, however, suggest that the legend is just that, he said, and do not seem to see much truth in that tale.
“But, nobody has a better story,” Meier said.
Though there may be uncertainty about the name, one thing is for certain about Baltimore Woods — the nature center celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The organization today known as Baltimore Woods was founded in 1966 as Onondaga Nature Centers — the organization that also developed Beaver Lake Nature Center in Baldwinsville and Cayuga Nature Center in Ithaca.
In compiling the history of the nature center a few years ago, Meier said he went through the nature center’s archives that include old photographs and newspaper clippings going back to the start in May 1966.
“In that process, just digging through everything, it was interesting to see how it came about and who was involved,” he said. “It was from the very beginning just the work of some very dedicated community members that wanted to see this happen.”
That group, he said, started Onondaga Nature Centers and included SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry professors and other prominent people.
“They had this vision, this idea, that the central New York nature is just interesting and amazing and they wanted to get people connected to it,” Meier said. “They wanted to create nature centers in communities.”
Initially, the group looked at 13 likely places to locate nature centers — Beaver Lake was on that list, Meier noted, but Baltimore Woods was not — and worked with Onondaga County to create “something more or something different than a recreation center” at Beaver Lake.
In the late 1970s, the Save The County Land Trust — now called the Central New York Land Trust — found the chance to acquire Baltimore Woods as it protected natural areas throughout the region. That group raised the funds and had Onondaga Nature Centers come out to host programs at Baltimore Woods.
When the county took over what is now Beaver Lake County Park and Cayuga Nature became its own entity, "that's when things really started to pick up out here at Baltimore Woods," Meier said. At the time, Onondaga Nature Centers was reaching 40,000 students across five counties with its programming.
Onondaga Nature Centers subsequently changed its name to Centers for Nature Education to avoid confusion with the new county park. In 2008, Centers for Nature Education changed its name to Baltimore Woods Nature Center since nobody knew what Centers for Nature Education meant.
“We’d been doing programs out here for decades,” Meier said. “We hadn’t started any more nature centers in the area, which was our original mission. There wasn’t an opportunity to do that for a long, long time.”
With that name change, he said, Baltimore Woods embraced its identity and kept growing — returning to its roots in terms of outreach and involvement.
“A nature center can be more than just the place,” he said. “It’s about the people in the community that it reaches and that are involved in it.”
Executive Director Mary Kate Intaglietta said Baltimore Woods has seen much growth in the past three to four years with expanded programs and, particularly, opportunities for children — including its 30th year of summer camp.
“For 8 weeks, we have hundreds of kids on site really having wonderful opportunities to connect with nature,” she said. “We’re fully focused on nature play to be able to inspire that sense of wonder in the environment. We’ve seen a tremendous number in the past three years.”
Baltimore Woods also expanded its Nature in the City program to reach about 10,000 students in grades K-6 in the Syracuse City School District and kindergartners and first-graders at Casey Park Elementary in the Auburn Enlarged City School District.
In terms of on-site programs, Intaglietta credited Meier with starting Nature’s Little Explorers, which brings preschoolers to the nature center for educational play, and a homeschooling program with the same premise.
But, when thinking of the 50th anniversary, Intaglietta said she looks beyond the programs and at the number of people who came together to support the nature center and came to know one another in the process.
“It is amazing and inspiring to think of all of the friends that Baltimore Woods has who maybe did not know one another," she said. "To think about the amazing things that happen when small groups and large groups of people come together when they’re really committed to a mission or a cause."
The executive director pointed to the campaign to name the pavilion after former Executive Director Patty Weisse, the nature center’s growing endowment and camp scholarships for children in Onondaga and Cayuga counties as recent examples of volunteer support.
She also pointed to the “A-team of volunteers” that visits the nature center every Wednesday but also comes at other times during the week and gets together for breakfast Tuesday mornings.
"Very few of them, if you ask, really knew each other before they came to Baltimore Woods," Intaglietta said. "What’s inspiring for a lot of us in the work we do is ... to see what that’s done for the organization in the past 50 years and to see what they’re excited about for the next 50 years.”
In the next 50 years, Intaglietta said she has “dreams for the Woods” and draws inspiration from a dream that came true — a group of volunteers recently put a back deck around the interpretive center that people of all abilities can use to birdwatch or to host a party.
“I look at the back deck and what’s been done in the past year and a half, and I look at the opportunity there,” she said. “The only way to get to it if you weren’t able to do steps was to come through the building, where now we have a ramp that stretches around the building and it’s completely accessible.”
The executive director said she appreciates what the Baltimore Woods education team does in the community and would like to see it continue to grow the on-site programs. She noted the nature center saw more than 1,000 students in Onondaga and Cayuga counties visit during field trips in 2015.
“When you think about it, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “For some of them, that may have been their first real introduction to being in an environment like Baltimore Woods.”
Meier recalled a visit from fifth-graders in the Syracuse City School District.
“For a lot of them, that was the first time they’d ever been out of the city, off of their street, to come out and see the forest and the creek and everything like that,” he said. “That was really neat to watch.”
Intaglietta added that many of those students have grown up with Nature in the City, so coming to the nature center allows them to connect with the educators who come into their classrooms.
“We’ve really started to identify some programs that are more geared toward adults and some that are great for families and some that are great for little ones too," Intaglietta said. "It’s a pretty special thing to be able to come out to the Woods and participate in one of our programs and explore."
For Meier, the anniversary means “50 years of a community rallying around the nature center and around the nature of central New York and just really embracing that idea,” he said.
He pointed to “the dark ages” for the nature center in the early 1980s when it experienced financial difficulties and the executive director was a volunteer before the staff gradually built back up to what it is today.
“If you look at all the ups and downs the organization has had over the years, there’ve always been community members ready to jump in and keep it going and keep it moving forward,” Meier said. “Every step of the way, it’s been that committed volunteerism.”
He also pointed to “how many people over those years have connected with" Baltimore Woods and nature as a whole, especially with 30 years of summer camp that sees former campers now bring their children to the program.
“I’ve had campers grow up to be counselors,” Meier said. “That connection that people have with this place and with nature on a larger scale because of what we’re doing here, inspiring that sense of wonder and stewardship, is really cool.”
For Intaglietta, the anniversary means “honoring the work that I think all of our predecessors did before us in our roles,” noting that many of them still live in the community, take an active interest in Baltimore Woods and offer their advice.
“It’s wonderful to be able to connect and hear that they’re excited about the growth of the organization and to see that we still honor and praise the work that they did,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of growth in 50 years. It’s something that we’re all very, very proud of.”
But, it all boils down to community. Though Baltimore Woods is a nonprofit organization that relies on memberships, sponsorships and some public funding, it truly relies on “community members coming together,” Intaglietta said.
“It is the community that really keeps us going year after year and inspires us to dig deeper and reach farther to continue the work that we do,” she said.