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Two decades after plans for the Prairie Arboretum were announced, the Courier continues to offer a look back at its winding path forward

The June 24, 1998 Freeman Courier front page story announcing “Plans unveiled for arboretum” introduced area residents to the concept of transforming pastureland to a unique community recreational area.

The news reflected the vision of a small handful of individuals who had the idea to convert the 40 acres of pasture located south of the Freeman Academy campus into “an area of beauty with water, trees, shrubs, native grasses and flowers.”

The idea began with Larry Horner, who came to Freeman Academy in 1994 to become the school’s president and who saw the pasture’s potential as part of his larger campus improvement efforts. Not only would it benefit the school, Horner saw it as a way to create something the entire community could enjoy.

Several individuals had joined Horner as the steering committee for the project — Lyle Preheim, John Schrag and James Unruh — tasked with soliciting funds and moving forward with the significant design and engineering efforts required for the transformation.

But the logistics to accomplish that were daunting. While the low-lying terrain that ran through the center of the proposed arboretum made the location ideal for the ponds, trees and grasses that were envisioned, it also posed unique challenges.

Establishing elevations and the excavation and necessary water removal required securing permits and approval from a host of entities and agencies. That included the city of Freeman, the Hutchinson County Commission, the Hutchinson County Conservation District, the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the State Historical Preservation Office. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for the excavation of three acres of wetland and the filling in of another 2.5 acres.

Unruh, who was a local engineer, was a key to the technical aspects. Design and engineering work, which had already started when the announcement was made in June 1998, continued through January of 2000. The land had to be dewatered to prepare for the excavation of thousands of cubic yards of dirt — a process that began in May of 1999 and lasted three years; it was facilitated by Doyle Becker Construction of Marion.

The area 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. 

“Once the arboretum was excavated, everything else was comparatively easier,” says Preheim, who was an early enthusiast for the project and instrumental in designing the arboretum. 

The first tree, an oak donated by Phyllis Bixel, was planted in May of 1999 just south of what is today the interpretive center. By November of that year more than 60 rare and valuable young trees had been planted, all of which were donated, and 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. 

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 the years to come.

The Freeman 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 mile-long gravel walking path that weaved through the trees and grasses, over bridges and along the three ponds that formed one sprawling body of water. Remarkably, the walking path was constructed in less than a month’s time almost single-handedly by one person: Larry Tschetter.

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

Lonnie Tjaden, then mayor of Freeman, spoke at the dedication and praised the efforts of the original planners for their vision and diligence.

“We had our doubts,” Tjaden said, speaking on behalf of the city of Freeman, which several years earlier had given its go-ahead to pursue the project. “We were skeptical. Everybody else was probably skeptical, too, when they first read about it in the paper.”

Marlan Kaufman, who in 2000 succeeded Larry Horner as Freeman Academy’s president, called the arboretum a “prize” and a “treasure,” and moderator Ivan Friesen, former pastor of the Hutterthal Church, cited Genesis 1:3, which talks about the creation of earth and sea, for the basis of his comments.

“Whenever humankind cares for the earth and vegetation, God pronounces it good,” he said on that Sunday afternoon in September of 2002. “It is one of the great miracles of life.”

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.

That included 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 sound shell across the water.

It is called the Prairie Rose Amphitheater because of the rose garden on the back side of the raked seating, which was built later.

Another key element in the design is the flowers planted on the island in the center pond and the small gardens located at the triangular areas formed by the intersections of the walking paths. They are planted and maintained by individuals, family and small group volunteers. 

One of Preheim’s favorite elements is the sculpture work by community native Norman Epp called “Bone Prairie Calling” that stands north of the amphitheater.

Abstract and impressive with undertones that pay tribute to the Native American culture, the stones were created from Silver Limestone and the project was taken on as a tribute to Norman’s father, Walter Epp, who grew up, and spent much of his life, in the Freeman community. The stones were put into place by members of the Epp family on Labor Day weekend, 2005.

There are several fountain elements and other additions, all significant to the overall scope of the project and done by people who had specific interests and talents and a shared desire to help.

Another major project was the construction of the interpretive center, which was completed in the spring of 2006, serves as the only indoor meeting place on the arboretum grounds and is a major element of the arboretum’s landscape. Like the rest of the arboretum, the interpretive center — which has also been called a visitor’s center — was included in the original design of the 40 acres.

The 2,000 square-foot structure is accented by roughly 1,300 stones on the east, west and southern exterior walls and large windows facing the south to expose the land outside.

Inside, a large gallery room makes up most of the interpretive center, with expansive murals documenting the establishment of the prairie and how land was used; they cover three of the four interior walls. While the arboretum is on the grounds of Freeman Academy, none of the expense has come from the school’s coffers.

Development of the walking paths and interpretive center was aided largely by a $310,000 Department of Transportation Grant. Small grants were used elsewhere, and some funding was secured through private donations, which remain essential to help fund maintenance and improvements.

Volunteer labor – and in-kind donations – have been essential to the development of the land and maintaining the arboretum, which today is cared for without a paid staff member.

There’s little doubt that 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 the resources offered to both community residents and visitors.

From organized events like the annual Freeman Fishing Derby, occasional concerts at the Prairie Rose Amphitheater and 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 one of the region’s greatest parks.

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. It’s not uncommon to see individuals or families fishing or a couple walking or someone simply meditating surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of nature. 

People have found countless ways to enjoy Freeman’s finest 40 acres whether it’s using it as a photography subject, a place to walk their dogs, a gathering at the interpretive center or simply a quiet walk around the native trees and grasses.  And still others will volunteer their time to keep it beautiful, whether it’s planting and watering flowers, mowing the lawn or pruning the trees.

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

Next week, a look at where the arboretum is today and what the future might include.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This series, which began last week, is being put together by former Courier publisher Tim L. Waltner. The history that is included comes from information published in the Freeman Courier over the past two decades.