FINEVIEW — With a renovation project envisioned six years ago now realized, Matthew B. Elliott, president of the board of directors of the Friends of the Nature Center, can relax a bit, along with other board members, knowing that their vision has become reality, putting the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center on firm footing for the future.
“We knew that not much had been done in almost 50 years to update the nature center,” Mr. Elliott said. “It was really all about how to interact with the modern kid who has access to touch screens and TVs, but we didn’t want technology to take over the nature center.”
Mr. Elliott was seated in back of the nature center at the new C. Michael Elliot Terrace, named after his father. It’s a scenic vista that overlooks Eel Bay and Sargent and Flatiron islands. In back and to the right of those islands, one can see segments of Wellesley Island State Park and to the left, is Grindstone Island. Chairs dotted around the terrace invite guests to sit and take in St. Lawrence River views, from ospreys fluttering overhead to sailboats casually plying the waves.
The Minna Anthony Common Nature Center is one of the largest nature centers in New York’s state park system. It sits on a 600-acre peninsula of Wellesley Island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Its 8 miles of hiking trails and 7 miles of cross-country ski trails are a facility highlight.
“The nice thing is that nature doesn’t change,” Mr. Elliott said. “The museum needed an update to catch up with the times. We just wanted to bring it into the next century; to make sure we have a state-of-the-art facility, whether we have students here on field trips or a camper staying at a park, a summer resident, or importantly, a local who lives in, say, Clayton or Alex Bay.”
The public is invited to a 50th anniversary celebration of the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday. Special programming throughout the day will include sketching and coloring book activities, reading and storytelling. The day’s events are hosted by the education committee of the Friends of the Nature Center.
“We wanted a day to celebrate the actual physical dedication that happened here on August 14,” Mr. Elliott said. “But we wanted to do it surrounded by what we do best, which is environmental education.”
Friends of the Nature Center initiated the project to update the center in the fall of 2015 and, after months of planning, the Parks office’s regional maintenance staff and other workers began renovations in 2016.
The state allocated $750,000 toward renovating the center’s interior and exterior and expanding it with more activity, storage and office space along with improved heating and cooling systems.
“It’s one of the first partnerships of its kind in the state,” Mr. Elliott said of the partnering of the “Friends” group with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The Friends of the Nature Center raised nearly $900,000 for the project through grants and donations. The Northern New York Community Foundation was one of the agencies that saw value in the project. The Foundation made a $50,000 grant toward the campaign as well as provided an additional $25,000 matching grant to help build the center’s permanent endowment fund within the Community Foundation.
“In this way, we are helping now and thinking toward the future,” said Rande S. Richardson, executive director of the foundation. “This was also an opportunity to build upon a successful public/private partnership that has worked effectively for the benefit of the Center and our region.”
Mr. Richardson said the center is a regional asset “that uniquely and effectively combines education and the environment” across the generations, and seasons.
“I remember the imprint it made on me as one of many children who went there on school field trips,” Mr. Richardson said. “For many, it’s played an instrumental role in creating and fostering a lifelong interest in and respect and appreciation for the many ways the area’s natural resources contribute to our lives.”
For the renovation, the Friends chose interconnection, or the “web of life.”
“For the actual nature center itself, we wanted to pretend what it would be like, when you walk in on the path you entered, if you started there and walked to the river,” Mr. Elliott said.
Therefore, as guests enter and make their way north through the building, they travel through areas representing forests, wetlands and finally, the river.
“We wanted everything to be touched and manipulated; interactive displays so that no matter what age you are, when the child is playing with an exhibit, the parents can be reading and learning something,” Mr. Elliott said.
The main point of the project, Mr. Elliott said, is to get people out on the center’s trails.
“The most important thing is, yes it’s a museum, but we wanted to make sure that it’s something you’re going to see on the trail and it’s going to teach you about something when you’re out hiking,” Mr. Elliott said.
The site for the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center was purchased in 1962 by the Thousand Islands State Park Commission from the Thousand Island Park Association. A feasibility study for the center was conducted by the National Audubon Society in 1966. The report described the location as “the finest location for a nature center in New York state.”
The center’s founders decided that it should be dedicated to conserving natural resources, promoting environmental awareness and providing recreational programs.
The first guided trail walks were given to park campers on Memorial Day 1968. The nature center building was dedicated Aug. 14, 1969.
The name of the center relates to Minna Capron Anthony Common. Her Anthony family ancestors were among the early settlers of the town of LeRay in 1803 and moved to the town of Pamelia in 1837 and later to Watertown. Catherine C. Johnson, a noted artist and naturalist and matriarch of the Johnson newspaper family, was a daughter of James Allison and Minna. Mrs. Johnson, who died in 2004, was a leader in the creation of the Friends of the Nature Center, a nonprofit organization established to “allow a pathway for people to donate to the center.”
“Catherine Johnson is the one who made this happen, the catalyst that made this park happen and made this nature center happen,” Mr. Elliott said.
A new central exhibit, which greets people as they enter, describes the work of Minna and the influence her lessons had on Mrs. Johnson.
“We wanted to tell the story of Minna, who loved nature, loved the river and taught her daughters to love the river, along with the daughter who helped protect it and made things happen,” Mr. Elliott said.
Edward P. and Melissa L. Stalica from the Binghamton area stopped by the nature center on the afternoon of Aug. 2. After hiking the trails, their children were enjoying a scheduled program in the cool of the building involving crayons and a “time capsule letter”to be opened by them in 10 years. The Stalicas had been at the center previously, but not since its renovation.
“I’m very impressed,” Mrs. Stalica said. “The learning experiences and the hands-on activities are very nice.”
Mr. Stalica said they hiked a trail for about 2 miles.
“It was great views, nice and cool with lots of shade — a perfect summer trip,” he said.
Mr. Elliott said one of the center’s main goals is to get the word out about it. For example, a billboard advertising the facility has been placed on Route 81 north.
“It’s a gem, and in many ways, it’s a hidden gem in the north country,” he said.
More than 1,700 school students on field trips visited the center this past spring.
“The kids know about it, so what we’re trying to do is make sure they tell their parents about it so they come check it out as well,” Mr. Elliott said. “We have fantastic educators and wonderful programs, but we want to make sure that people know that this is happening and it’s available to the public.”
Families have been a backbone to the center’s success. Mr. Elliott’s grandfather, Charles J. “Chuck” Elliott, who died at age 90 in 2016, retired as regional director of Thousand Island State Parks in 1991 and began his career with the parks in 1953. Charles J. passed his love of the river onto his son Charles Michael Elliott, who died at the age of 63 in 2014.
One of the reasons that Matthew Elliott joined the board of the nature center was to honor his father and grandfather’s dedication to the river and the love for it that was passed on to him. And on Aug. 2, he was visiting the center with his wife and three children.
“I fell in love with this place,” the board president said. “It’s really easy to be passionate about it and it’s a wonderful thing to teach, not just to the next generation, but to every generation about this wonderful river and nature and how we have to protect it and honor it.”