For the Love of Pine
Ask someone from the Ozarks
about their home, and you may be in for a long conversation as they describe the height and gentle swaying rhythm of pine trees that could almost lull them to sleep.
In the middle of those pines, halfway between Sikeston and Springfield on Highway 60, is a 452-acre outdoor classroom known as the Twin Pines Conservation Education Center. Missouri’s only rural nature center, Twin Pines CEC has hosted more than 26,000 visitors since its opening on January 1, 2008.
Representative of the center’s growing popularity is its recent recognition from Rural Missouri magazine. The ninth annual Best of Rural Missouri 2010 edition listed Twin Pines CEC as Southeast Missouri’s “Best Outdoor Adventure” and praised the education center for placing special emphasis on the history of the Ozarks’ timber industry.
Featuring opportunities for hiking, birding, nature photography and other nature-related activities, Twin Pines also has a trail through the area providing access to pine-oak woodland and several other forest types. The history of the Ozarks’ timber industry is a continuing theme throughout the exhibits because of the center’s location in the midst of some of Missouri’s most productive forests. Center Manager Melanie Carden-Jessen says the facility design is focused on portraying the Ozarks as it might have been seen by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft when he first documented the landscape in 1818 and 1819.
“We understand that we’ll never see the 7-foot-diameter pine that was here then, but we can help people manage their forests today so they’re healthy and support a diversity of wildlife,” she says. This is accomplished in part by providing demonstration areas of the various management techniques and with exhibits of glade, stream and cave habitats because they’re typical throughout the Ozark region.
It’s this combination of the region’s varying landscape and the community needs met by the center that makes Carden-Jessen believe Twin Pines CEC is in the perfect location.
“It may look like we’re in the middle of nowhere,” she says, “but in fact we’re able to fill in a gap for communities and so many rural schools in the area.”
"Schools often bring busses of students on a two-hour drive to attend programs like History Comes Alive and Heritage Days,” she says.
This is why, when students take a field trip to Twin Pines, it’s usually a whole-day affair, according to Carden-Jessen. “They get to fish, shoot bows, hike and take part in fun activities that correlate with Grade Level Expectations,” she says.
But the goal of hosting field trips at Twin Pines is multifaceted, and the center isn’t just for school trips. “We want school children, adults and families to all have a good time, learn how special the Ozarks are, how lucky we are to be living here and how important it is to take care of our fish, forests and wildlife throughout the region,” Carden-Jessen says.
Regular activities for the Ozark community are another benefit offered at Twin Pines. Five large annual events and many regular activities and clubs contribute to a packed activities calendar for the center’s staff and patrons.
Sarah Thomas from Eminence says she’s visited Twin Pines CEC three times and recently attended the Raptor Rockets event with her two children and another family. They and other participants first learned about Missouri’s native and migratory raptors and then used 2-liter soda bottles, feathers and other materials to construct replicas of the birds. Creators of the most recognizable raptors were awarded medals, and afterward the group used pumps to propel their birds to great heights and see whose raptor flew the highest. A few even soared up near the tops of the pine trees.
Thomas says she keeps bringing her children back to the center because “of how far the staff is willing to go to provide materials and welcome patrons.” She added that another great thing about Twin Pines is that “it’s free.” There is no admission charge because Twin Pines CEC is operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation and is supported by fishing and hunting license revenues and the statewide 1/8-of-1 percent “Design for Conservation” sales tax.
Another Twin Pines event Thomas has attended is the annual two-day History Comes Alive program where staff and volunteers take on the personas of people who lived in Shannon and surrounding counties in the 1930s. According to Carden-Jessen, the characters are taken directly from Lennis Broadfoot’s book, Pioneers of the Ozarks.
“We address how residents of the Ozarks were dependent on the forest, fish and wildlife of Missouri in order to survive,” Carden-Jessen says. This year’s characters included tie-hacker Luther Boxx, fish spiker John Counts and soap-maker and midwife Marg Swiney.
Carden-Jessen says it’s very likely that descendents of these real historic characters, like Boxx, Counts and Swiney, might now attend regular activities and clubs at Twin Pines CEC such as Little Stinker’s Storytime, Nature Nuts or Wild Things.
For Little Stinker’s Storytime, Conservation Department Naturalist Reta Barkley chooses a different story each month, including songs and activities for preschoolers to second graders.
Nature Nuts is a youth volunteer corps that features a program on the second Saturday of each month for ages 7 to 12. Wild Things is the name of the women’s group that meets on Sunday afternoons to learn and make naturerelated crafts.
Youth fishing clinics are held at the center’s 2-acre Mule Camp Pond, where fishing for largemouth bass, hybrid sunfish and channel catfish is allowed by special permit only. For 2010, Discover Nature—Families Fishing Day will be held in August. Carden-Jessen says the day’s activities will include a fishing derby, lots of awards, fish print T-shirts and a kiddie casting pond.
A fun detail in the midst of many of these activities is the bell on the old Vann Schoolhouse. There’s no question of when to rotate activities; the ringing of the old school-bell carries through the grounds.
The Vann Schoolhouse is a newly restored historic schoolhouse used for conservation education programs and to host local public meetings. The school was built in 1910 when the big timber boom was in full swing in the Shannon County area, which is why the building is large in comparison to the typical one-room school house of the time, according to Carden-Jessen. She says the increase in population was caused directly by the booming timber industry.
The building was originally constructed as a state-supported community school in 1910. It was donated to Twin Pines CEC by the Winona School District in 2008. Community Foundation of the Ozarks and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation paid for restoration of the Vann Schoolhouse.
It could be the schoolhouse, the variety of vintage equipment, the Stamp of Character video in the theater or perhaps the artifacts on display gathered by local Eminence resident Russ Noah and others, but something about Twin Pines sparks memories for many visitors.
For those who attended class in the Vann Schoolhouse, it’s common to hear them reminisce. Others share personal stories about logging or sawmill jobs that provided food for their families through hard times. “Spent many a day buckin’ a two-man saw just like that one,” they’ll say, or “there was a time when I spent the whole day swinging an axe just like that one and only made 80 cents for the whole day.”
According to Carden-Jessen, the old mill equipment is a popular exhibit, and the onsite captive timber rattlesnake is a favorite for many visitors. Another exhibit, the restored 1946 Chevrolet panel truck outfitted with a generator and movie projector, celebrates the Conservation Department's early efforts to spread conservation messages to Ozark communities without electricity. But the traditional log cabin is likely the most popular feature on the grounds, Carden-Jessen says, because it shows how people in the Ozarks lived when the region was newly settled and how connected people were to the land and natural resources.
“I guess the point is that, maybe more here than in some places, the resources and the people can’t be separated,” she says, adding she’s spent hours looking at pictures and talking with people about their lives in the Ozarks.
Her favorite story from Twin Pines CEC relates to the initials carved on a desk in the Van Schoolhouse. “A grandchild recognized the initials carved into the desk, but the ones with it were not grandma’s,” Carden-Jessen says. “I told them grandpa made the right choice and not to worry about it.”
The Grandin display in the center’s large exhibit hall brings patrons back to the logging boom and how it affected the region. Some visitors remember their grandparents telling stories about Grandin or share stories of how they were born in one of the worker houses there.
“Where the hardwoods once hugged the river valleys, we now have our few hay fields, and where once stood the park-like lofty pine, forests are often crowded oak-hickory with a thick understory and ground cover,” Carden-Jessen says.
But at Twin Pines, the center is nestled in lofty pines that sway with the wind, reminiscent of how Schoolcraft might have seen the Ozarks—abounding with native plant and wildlife species. This is most likely why staff and patrons have sighted 63 bird species from the center’s oversized deck and surrounding bird viewing area.
“It’s like watching a maestro lead the feathered orchestra in the forest symphony,” Carden-Jessen says. “A few minutes on the porch can’t help but fill your heart with the same song that fills the air.”