Every Sanctuary Has a Story: Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary
By Dave Wendling, Published April 2009 in the Michigan Nature Association Newsletter
Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary is a living example of how the forests were when the first settlers came to Michigan. The sanctuary is a spectacular natural area because the majority of the property has never been plowed or clear-cut, there is an incredible species diversity. Wildflowers, trees, birds, and other animals flourish here, and the great size of the woods is a factor vital to their survival. Thanks to a 150-acre addition in 2008, the sanctuary is now the largest in the Lower Peninsula.
Plants flourish at Dowagiac Woods in countless numbers, with more than 50 species of wildflowers that bloom in the spring. Here is a plant community that shows what a forest floor free from human development looks like.
Nearly 50 species of trees have been found, and at least 49 different types of birds nest here. The woods is also a haven for nine plants and animals classified as in danger of becoming extinct in Michigan.
Since Michigan became a state in 1837, Dowagiac Woods has experienced only two major alterations. In the early 1840’s, the Dowagiac River, which runs along the sanctuary’s southeast boundary, was channeled and straightened. Prior to the channelization, there were many meanders of the river. Today, one remains as “Crescent Pond”, which can be seen at the north end of the River Trail.
The other change was the selective cutting of timber. This began in the early 1940’s and ended in 1961. Fortunately, the owner Joseph Jerue, selectively logged the woods and used teams of horses to pull the logs out to a sawmill that was located where the pines are currently standing north of the parking lot.
The woods have never been plowed or grazed, nor has it been planted except for the pines and some other trees around the parking lot. It is said that the pines were planted to serve as a barrier to hunters who were in the habit of driving their Model T’s into the woods to shine deer at night.
There have also been a few minor disturbances. Square Pond was created by the Standard Oil Company and was used for water when they drilled for oil in the late 1930’s – early 1940’s. The company never found oil, but hit a brine well which spouted out onto the woods. Some of the brine settled in depressions in the woods and killed the plants and trees growing there. It took years before things began growing again. The well, located southwest of Square Pond, has since been capped.
Dowagiac Woods was well known by Isaac “Ike” Hunter, a local farmer and naturalist. He was a birder and belonged to the Cass County Audubon Society. He was also a member of the Michigan Nature Association, and when the property came up for sale he notified the Michigan Nature Association. He knew its significance and that the blue-eyed Mary grew there.
In MNA’s book “In Retrospect” Bertha Daubendiek, one of MNA’s founders, reminisced:
“It was my privilege in 1981, as we were studying the woods before acquisition, to visit it every weekend for six weeks from the last of March through the first of May. It was an exciting and uplifting experience I have never forgotten. At first a green fuzz appeared everywhere on the ground. Somewhere else, this would have turned into grass, but it soon became apparent that at Dowagiac Woods every tuft of green was topped by a wildflower bud. The progression was slow but steady, until everywhere there were flowers, all jammed together. Some other woods have two peaks of bloom, in April and in the middle of May. But not at Dowagiac. No matter what day you go in that six weeks’ period, blooms are everywhere.”
On January 3, 1983, the Michigan Nature Association purchased 220 acres of this fabulous property.
The Cass County Audubon Society played a very important role in both the fundraising and in the care of Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary. They held various fundraisers to raise money to buy a section of the woods. They were not alone in this effort – residents of Cass County raised 20% of the money needed to purchase the sanctuary, quite an accomplishment during hard economic times.
“Titmouse Tales”, the official minutes of the Cass County Audubon Society wrote in 1982:
“July brought a lot of extra activity on the Dowagiac Woods Project as Bertha Daubendiek cracked her whip and we jumped into action. Isaac Hunter became a qualified tour guide, Carl Biek became chief engineer and recruited help in building a bridge across the creek, Gene Fuessle recruited help from his students who helped as guides and in any way they could, Frank McKaye became so involved in lecturing and showing film strips that Millie almost divorced him on grounds of desertion, Ann and Naomi Biek took care of registration and the distributing of fact materials and became an accomplished trail hiker. Other members did their part by providing articles to be raffled off at our meetings, and Gretchen Lenz was invaluable at plant identification. The monthly raffles continue to bring money toward our pledge for the woods.”
The Audubon Society formed a Care Committee that became involved in maintaining the trails, building boardwalks and making bridges. The committee often led groups of local Boy Scouts on work days and one of the scouts constructed the largest bridge at the sanctuary as an Eagle Scout project. The bridge crosses a tributary of the Dowagiac River that was named “Hunter’s Creek” in honor of Ike Hunter after his untimely death.