A walk in the park: Asbury Woods Nature Center

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

This is our first stop on Road Trip 2015: Destination Tennessee.

asbury woods pa (14)ERIE, Pa. — Our little girl said she wanted to go to the spooky woods.

She’d been watching Into the Woods during the drive, so the request wasn’t completely out of the blue. I mean, I did expect her to be creeped out at first. But I guess I should know her better.

It was hot and the air was thick with storms circling Erie, so we left the choice to the 3-year-old: the children’s museum or the spooky woods. We’ll go to the museum next time.

It was midafternoon when we arrived and the sun was attempting to shine on the little 1980s-style playground. But a couple hundred feet away, the mouth of the trail was dark and gloomy, shades of deep green barely discernible in the dark shadows. Our little girl ran into those woods like she was going home.

asbury woods pa

To my delight, there were other shadows: those of a paper dynasty among the trees, there on the land donated by the Behrend family.

“In an early issue, Mr. (Ernst) Behrend wrote a letter to his employees, and they published it in Polish, Russian, German, English, and other languages just to make sure that he accounted for the different nationalities of his workers,” Penn State reference librarian Jane Ingold is quoted on the Behrend College blog.

Immigrant brothers Ernst, Otto and Bernard were engineers, as were their four sisters. They settled in Erie and promptly opened a paper mill named after their father’s back in Germany: Hammermill.

The Behrends transformed the industry in the early 1900s, becoming the first mill to make writing paper from wood pulp rather than cotton.

Even more revolutionary was the way in which they treated their workers, awarding bonuses and ensuring those who had to leave for health or family reasons would not end up on the street.

Ernst Behrend’s philosophy was “Teach. Don’t boss,” and indeed the entire family was preoccupied with education — their name is associated with many Erie-area learning institutions.

Asbury Farm was Otto’s retreat, a former bog iron mine that he reforested in the 1930s. He bequeathed 100 acres to the school district for educational purposes and his memory was honoured, as the district spent the next 80 years developing learning programs, building a nature centre and expanding into the adjacent Bridge Farm.

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three wheels

Asbury Woods gets three stroller wheels from us (out a completely arbitrary five).

Despite the thunder and rain we walked all 4.5 miles of trails. Though parts of the trail are accessible, there were plenty of bits that required picking our way over roots and fallen trees and skirting around giant puddles.

We saw dozens of snails, a beautiful translucent salamander and various birds on our two-hour walk. The best part was Walnut Creek and the wide pedestrian bridge that spans it. While the water rushes far too fast for swimming, we found a good place for wading and cleaning off our clay-packed feet.

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