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The Freeman Prairie Arboretum: A 20-year history

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In the summer of 2018, the Freeman Courier published a three-part series noting the 20th anniversary of the June 24, 1998 announcement of plans to build an arboretum in Freeman. With thousands of guests visiting the 40-acre vista on July 27 for the South Dakota Chislic Festival, we've dusted off the retrospective for another look at how it all came to be.

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    Johnny Graber mows the lawns of the Prairie Arboretum late last week. Volunteer support has been critical to the growth and sustainability of the 40-acre vista, and will be in the years and decades to come.

Twenty years ago, the headline in the June 24, 1998 issue of the Courier read, “Plans unveiled for arboretum.”

The story outlined the vision of a handful of individuals to convert the pasture located south of the Freeman Academy campus into “an area of beauty with water, trees, shrubs, native grasses and flowers and use the arboretum as a teaching tool and aesthetic resource of the biodiversity of the Freeman area.” The article noted that, weather permitting, construction was scheduled to begin in July 1998.

The arboretum today is remarkably similar to the original design.

Larry Horner, who came to Freeman Academy in 1994 as the school’s president, is credited with helping initiate the effort.

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 40-acre Prairie Arboretum is a glimmering example of what can happen when one man’s idea becomes another man’s passion.

“It’s like a flower garden; you have to plant the seeds,” says Horner. “The idea had to germinate. Not everyone was as fully committed to the concept as I was.”

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

“Once he got committed, he just kind of moved forward and I watched in amazement as he and others started planting trees and having ponds built,” says Horner.

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

The 40 acres were perfectly suited for 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.”

Since sugar maples respond well to cold weather, they would be planted in the less sheltered northeast portion.

Conifers, which don’t like “wet feet,” 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 where people could fish, an amphitheater and an interpretive center.

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

The land was 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.




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.




This is Freeman looking to the north in 1968. The lower left portion of this photo shows what the area that today is the Prairie Arboretum looked like 50 years ago. The Freeman Junior College and Academy is immediately north of it. The white building complex surrounded by trees that juts into the open area of land that would become the arboretum was home to Fensel’s Hatchery and Electrical Shop; today that area is commonly known as “Dead Man Alley.” Several other points of interest include the relatively small footprint of Freeman Community Hospital; the nursing home had not been built. Another obvious difference 50 years ago was that Walnut Street, which now extends to South County Road, ended at College Street. One block west, Dewald Street ended in a cornfield. Today it ends several blocks south at Stern Circle. Finally, note at the upper right of photo, the open area south of North County Road that today is home to the softball field and Saarie Auto Body and further east, Ralph’s Feed.




As the Prairie Arboretum enters its third decade, officials note effort of those who made it happen — and the challenges moving forward

Larry Horner, the 21st president of Freeman Academy, arrived in Freeman in 1996. Among his goals after assuming the leadership of the private school was analyzing the physical assets of the campus and improving those areas that were underutilized so they could be used more effectively.

Many Hands, Minds and Hearts, the book published by Freeman Academy in 2000, noted that included taking a close look at Frontier Hall. The two-story dorm, constructed in 1965 on the west edge of the campus, had been essentially unused following the closing of Freeman Junior College a decade earlier and was deteriorating. There were growing concerns about the viability of the building. Horner helped not only preserve the building but brought new life to it. That led to the formation of the Frontier Fitness Center on the first floor.

Other projects included installing air conditioning in campus buildings, resurfacing the parking lot and boulevard, improving the sidewalks, and adding lighting and landscaping projects across the campus.

The book’s author, Marnette Hofer, quotes Horner’s reaction to those projects: “I think now there’s a renewed enthusiasm and excitement about the school that I would like to see perpetuated.”

That’s certainly been the case; the physical improvements Horner initiated remain a part of the campus more than two decades later.

But the most obvious example of Horner’s influence remains the transformation of the land located south of the campus known as the Klasi Farm; the name comes from the family that owned the property before Freeman Junior College and Academy purchased the property in 1974.

Sitting in his office on the south side of the Administration Building, overlooking that barren area more than two decades ago, Horner wondered if something could be done to capitalize on it. While not an active part of the academic campus, Horner viewed it as an extension of the school’s presence. Seeing the potential there, he initiated a conversation with a few key individuals that led to the development that would become the Prairie Arboretum.

Again, from Many Hands, Minds and Hearts: “The Klasi land was long viewed as a place for future development, as well as a present eyesore. However, in the late 1990s, the Arboretum Steering Committee consisting of President Larry Horner, Lyle Preheim, John Schrag and engineer James Unruh, determined the land could, in time, become an area of beauty with water, trees, shrubs, native grasses and flowers … The Arboretum Steering Committee emphasizes that the project is a long-term commitment and is as much for the community as it is for the school itself.”

Those words, written when the project was still in its early planning stages, accurately predicted the reality that emerged in the years that followed.

Horner, who served as president of the school until 2000, left the community two years before the arboretum was officially dedicated in September 2002.

While he’s been back occasionally over the years, he hasn’t had the personal satisfaction of enjoying what he set into motion more than two decades ago.

In a phone interview with the Courier last week, Horner, said he’s gratified that what he set in motion two decades ago has become an integral part of the Freeman community.

“I’m proud, but not for myself. I’m proud of the community.”

Horner is quick to credit others for the success of the project. That includes the Freeman Academy Board of Directors that agreed to have the project move forward on school property.

“That was a pretty big step,” he said. “I applaud them for it.”

But, Horner said, the key was Lyle Preheim’s vision for the project.

“He developed a picture of what it should look like,” Horner said. And, he adds, Preheim’s efforts in raising funds for the project were crucial to its success. While the Freeman Academy Board had given its OK, no school funds were to be used to build the arboretum.

“There were a lot of skeptics,” Horner said. “But,” he quickly added, “people didn’t say ‘no.’”

And that was the key. The Arboretum Steering Committee was able to overcome the skepticism and not only generate funding, but also growing enthusiasm that encouraged confidence and renewed vitality on the campus and the emerging arboretum adjacent to it.

“Once things started to look better, you saw it was going to live and it’s going to survive,” Horner said.

While Lyle Preheim is commonly – and accurately – credited with coming up with the design of the Prairie Arboretum, he tends to downplay his role in arranging the ponds, trees, open areas and gardens that define the arboretum as we know it today.

“In a significant way, that was preordained,” he says of how the arboretum is laid out. The natural contours of the 40-acre of pastureland determined where the ponds would be created and everything followed that design, he said.

“We couldn’t revert from that,” he said. “What we’ve done is added features along the way.”

Some of those features — the groupings of trees, for example — were an extension of the sensitivity to nature that set the location of the ponds. Preheim’s design took into consideration weather patterns and where different tree varieties would do well when they were planted.

“By paying attention to the land and listening to the land, it told us what to put where,” he said.

Other features emerged organically. The island, which includes the iconic gazebo donated by Dawn Stahl in memory of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Ernest J. Hofer, is far bigger than what the original design showed. The amphitheater, for example, was not included in the original design but was added after the trees had been planted. The rose garden, fountains and sculpture are other additions that emerged over time. The triangular flower gardens were a logical feature located where the mile-long walking paths intersect as they weave around the ponds.

The interpretive center, which was built in 2006, offers a unique public meeting place in Freeman, offering a natural setting. The 2,000 square-foot structure has large windows that expose the arboretum grounds to the east, south and west. The building is rented out for functions ranging from receptions to programs to meetings to family and social gatherings. It has significantly expanded the use of the arboretum.

Preheim says about 400 trees were planted as part of the arboretum design. While there is continued need for replanting trees that do not survive, there are no plans to add additional trees. With 20 years of growth and maturity, the arboretum continues to evolve naturally.

But if left totally to nature, the Prairie Arboretum would be far different from what visitors find there today. There is a balance between the natural areas and those that are maintained and manicured. While portions of the arboretum are left to grow wild, other portions are mowed by volunteers. Caring for the trees includes placing soybean plant mulch around the base to help conserve moisture and enrich the soil.  Preheim says the mulch “is candy for earthworms,” which puts essential nitrogen and phosphorous into the soil.

“In some ways, the vision is easy,” Preheim says. “The main issue is carrying out the vision that goes on.”

“That means volunteers,” he said. “That’s the forte.”

The flower gardens, adding to the visual impact of the sprawling 40 acres, reflect the important role of volunteers who plant, water and weed them. So do the areas of mowed grass between the ponds, trees and tall grass. So does the interpretative center, which is cleaned and readily available for group gatherings.

Indeed; the arboretum runs totally on volunteers; there are between a dozen and 15 who regularly donate their expertise, time and energy at the arboretum, he said. No one is paid for working to help maintain and beautify the outdoor facility.

While Preheim praises “the volunteers who work without any reward other than being involved” and deeply appreciates their efforts and commitment, he notes the pool of active volunteers is shrinking. He has concerns about who will step up to continue those efforts.

And thus, one of Preheim’s goals now is to secure ongoing funding that will enable hiring someone to help maintain the arboretum, coordinate volunteers and provide leadership for it to evolve in an orderly fashion in the years to come.

“Most places like this would need some kind of paid staff to survive,” he says.

Steve Graber is chair of the Prairie Arboretum Board that also includes Deb Beier, Linda Graber and Stewart Graber.

The board oversees the facility, including improvements like re-graveling the walking paths, construction of a bridge that will cross the narrow portion of water that connects the east and middle ponds. The footings are there for the bridge, which is being named for the late Mark Schrag, who contributed labor, support and leadership for the arboretum; the bridge is expected to be installed this summer.

Another project is to make changes to the amphitheater that will enable seating on the apron of the performance space itself, offering an alternative to the seating located across the pond, and providing a more intimate performance venue.

Graber acknowledged the efforts of Preheim, who while not a member of the board, is a key volunteer in the life of the arboretum.

“He does so much for that place,” he said.

Like Preheim, Graber both praises the efforts of all the volunteers as well as voices concern about sustaining a volunteer force in the years to come.

And he shares the concern about finding people willing to put in the time and energy to maintain the arboretum, he says.

“The next generation is going to have to step up,” he said.

Another concern Graber has is the ongoing problems with vandalism at the arboretum.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “That’s the biggest issue in my craw.”

The number of security cameras on site is being increased to help deter vandalism, he said.

One comment shared consistently by Graber, Horner and Preheim is that the Prairie Arboretum is a community facility.

“This is a symbol of what we need in a rural community,” Preheim says. He’s not referring simply to the 40 acres of grasses and bushes and trees and ponds; he’s also referring to the contributions of the volunteers and those who simply come to enjoy the space and have a sense of pride in having an arboretum here.

“This is an important part of the social structure of our community,” he said. “It’s part of a community that is thriving.”

Graber would like to see more community participation and use of the facility.

He noted the annual fishing derby – the June 16th event this summer was number 14 – as a great example of that.

“It is for everyone to enjoy,” he said. “I just wish more people would use it.”

Horner sees the arboretum as symbolizing “a dynamic, exciting community.”

“People don’t realize all the great things they have going there,” he said.  “Freeman has a culture of persons who are bright and willing to make things happen. It was exciting to help bring them out.”

“My time there was very interesting and exciting,” Horner said. “It was a highlight of my life.”