The Freeman Prairie Arboretum: Perhaps the Area's Greatest Park

From its three sprawling ponds loaded with fish to a mile-long walking path that passes through gardens, native trees and grasses, over bridges and around an amphitheater, an interpretive center and island marked by a gazebo, the Prairie Arboretum is a glimmering example of what can happen when one man’s idea becomes another man’s passion.

The following is a consolidated and updated version of a three-part series by Freeman Courier Editor Jeremy Waltner.

Larry Horner, who came to Freeman Academy to become the school’s president in 1995, is credited with helping initiate the effort to create the Prairie Arboretum. It’s hard to fathom how 40 acres of pastureland south of Freeman Academy could so quickly become something so distinctively striking and part of community life.

From its three sprawling ponds loaded with fish to a mile-long walking path that passes through gardens, native trees and grasses, over bridges and around an amphitheater, an interpretive center and island marked by a gazebo, the Prairie Arboretum is a glimmering example of what can happen when one man’s idea becomes another man’s passion.

One of Horner’s friends and early supporters of the idea was Lyle Preheim, a farmer east of Freeman who had a love and knowledge of the prairie in general and trees in particular.

“The land told us what to do,” says Preheim. “The design was predetermined for us.”

Truth is, the 40 acres of pastureland on the southern portion of the FA campus were perfectly suited for a major excavation and the construction of ponds because of the low-lying terrain that ran through its center.

Preheim’s design took into consideration weather patterns; a rose garden, for example, would be built on a north slope behind the seating area at the amphitheater “to protect it from the dry and desiccating winds of summer.”

Sugar maples respond well to cold weather, Preheim said, so they would be planted in the less sheltered northeast portion of the 40 acres.

Conifers don’t like “wet feet,” so they would be located on the highest part of the arboretum.

“By paying attention to the land and listening to the land, it told us what to put where,” says Preheim, whose vision was far more extensive than planting a few hundred trees.

It was a bold design that included sprawling ponds that flowed into each other, where people could fish, an amphitheater with water separating the seating from the stage, an interpretive center to serve as an education resource, and much more.

James Unruh, a community native and an engineer, began working with Preheim on the concept and design, which included critical and tedious calculations regarding excavation, elevations and water removal.

Plans for the Freeman Prairie Arboretum were announced to the public in the June 24, 1998 edition of the Freeman Courier.

Design and engineering work continued through January of 2000, even as the land was being dewatered to prepare for the excavation of thousands and thousands of cubic yards of dirt - a process that began in May of 1999 and lasted three years.

“You can have a dream, but dreaming doesn’t mean a thing unless it’s shared,” says Lyle Preheim, the mastermind behind the design of the arboretum and a major player in the development of the land. “We were so fortunate to have people come to us and say, ‘I want to help out.’”

Unequivocally and indisputably, the key to getting the Freeman Prairie Arboretum off to a good start was the excavation process engineered by James Unruh of rural Freeman and facilitated by Doyle Becker Construction of Marion.

The area that was cut for the ponds was dug at a depth of 15 feet to allow for fishing; all of the dirt that was removed was placed on a large pile east of the Heritage Hall Museum complex and also in the southwest corner of the arboretum. Some was used to build a soccer field on the west end of the land. The rest remains where it was laid.

 “Once the arboretum was excavated, everything else was comparatively easier,” says Preheim. “Once you conquer something that is very difficult, everything else becomes much easier. It’s a good lesson in life.”

The first tree, an oak donated by Phyllis Bixel, was planted in May of 1999. By November of that year more than 60 rare and valuable young trees had been planted - all of which were donated.

In the years that followed, dozens of additional trees were planted. By the fall of 2000, as the largest of three ponds (180 feet x 500 feet) was being constructed, more than 200 native trees had been relocated onto the grounds of the arboretum, and by the spring of 2001 all primary collections had been planted. Today, between 500 and 600 trees and shrubs making up 150 species and cultivars help shape the Prairie Arboretum; there are plans for additional trees to be planted as needed.

“It’s been an ongoing process,” Preheim says of the tree work, “and it continues today.”

More than 400 tons of rocks were brought in to protect the pond shorelines from the natural process of erosion.

By late 2001 all the rocking had been done and, for the first time ever, the 40 acres of land on the southern portion of the Freeman Academy campus included well-groomed ponds that would give the arboretum its shape for years to come.

The Prairie Arboretum was dedicated on a sunny and comfortable Sunday afternoon, Sept. 22, 2002.

By then the land had taken on the feel of a landscaped and manicured area, complete with a gravel walking path a mile long that weaved through the trees and grasses, over bridges and along the three ponds that formed one sprawling body of water.

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Remarkably, the walking path was constructed in less than a month’s time almost single-handedly by one person: Larry Tschetter.

At a dedication ceremony, about 150 people gathered on the shore on the west side of the island, with the backdrop of a newly-built gazebo nearby. That gazebo has become a symbol of the Freeman Prairie Arboretum -- and to some extent the community -- over the years. It was donated to the project by Dawn Stahl and dedicated to her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Ernest J. Hofer.

While the dedication of the Prairie Arboretum marked its official opening, the project was far from complete.

In fact, some of the most visible and well-received aspects were yet to come.

One of those was the construction of the Prairie Rose Amphitheater in 2003 and 2004, made possible thanks to a gift from Freeman residents LaNae and LaVerne Waltner in memory of their son, LaMarr.

Following the sudden passing of LaMarr, who died of a brain aneurysm in January of 2002 at the age of 48, the Waltners chose to direct $45,000 in LaMarr’s memory to the amphitheater project, which includes seating for 400 and a permanent stage and soundshell across the water.

There have been other additions big and small over the years, from a sculpture work created by community native Norman Epp that stands north of the amphitheater, to the construction of the interpretive center, which was completed in the spring of 2006.

There’s little doubt that this community’s best-known 40 acres -- the plot of land that sat undeveloped and as a home to cattle prior to 1999 -- has significantly improved Freeman’s quality of life and resources offered here.

From organized events like the Freeman Fishing Derby and concerts at the Prairie Rose Amphitheater to random forms of recreation like evening strolls through the mile-long walking path that weaves around water, trees and various forms of landscaping, the arboretum is perhaps the area’s greatest park.

On any given night, when the flowers are in bloom and the smell of fresh-cut grass lingers in the air, you’ll find people enjoying the arboretum.

Countless others will enjoy Freeman’s finest 40 acres in their own ways, and still others will volunteer their time to keep it beautiful, whether it’s by planting and watering flowers, mowing the lawn or pruning the trees.

All of it adds up to form one of Freeman’s greatest stories and, perhaps, its greatest untapped resource.