History of Elachee
Elachee’s Grassroots Origin
The name Ĕ-lă-chēe is from the Cherokee language and means New Green Earth.
In 1978, five visionary women – Becky Geiger, Rosemary Johnson (Dodd), Sissy Lawson, Ellen Odegaard and Julia Cromartie – championed a vision to preserve the local environment for future generations. Recognizing a kindred appetite within the Gainesville community, the vision of these founding mothers ultimately became Elachee Nature Science and Creative Museum, Inc.
Educating for Today…Preserving for Tomorrow
Over four decades as a regional attraction, Elachee continues its rich history of environmental education and conservation. To this day, Camp Elachee is a thriving summer option to immerse young people in nature. Offering dozens of grade-specific STEAM-based ecology field trip experiences all correlated to meet state standards, 12 months out of the year the Elachee grounds are flush with PreK-12 students and teachers. Seasonal public programming, such as the Elachee Discovery Saturdays and the annual Snake Day Wildlife Festival and the Trillium Trek Trail Run, along with lifelong learning programs including Science Nights and the Georgia Master Naturalist program series, also draw nature lovers and visitors of all ages.
Volunteers serve in diverse capacities to supplement the efforts of Elachee’s professional staff. These individuals and community partners are the lifeblood supporting Elachee’s ongoing sustainability – from helping to maintain hiking trails, keeping streams in the Nature Preserve clean and preventing invasive plant species from gaining ground, to the hundreds of volunteer hours spent each year on governance, as advisors and on fundraising and friend-raising activities.
Nestled in one of Georgia’s largest and most ecologically diverse protected green spaces, Elachee holds true the vision of its founding mothers. Recognized as a world-class, well-managed quality entity within the region, Elachee attracts support from organizations and individuals with a heart for preserving this regional natural resource for future generations to enjoy. Elachee is a privately owned and operated 501(c)(3) not for profit organization, relying on earned income and tax-deductible donations, planned gifts, grants and the annual Flights of Fancy fundraising event to fund operations.
Elachee’s Heritage: The Chicopee Woods
Today, Elachee Nature Science Center in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve sits in what is known as the Gainesville Ridge area of Northeast Georgia. Part of the 6,000-acre upper Walnut Creek watershed, this area is the transition zone marking the northern boundary of the Southern Piedmont and the southern boundary of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
According to archaeological findings circa 3,000 B.C., Archaic Indians were the earliest human inhabitants in the area. Woodland and Mississippian tribes took their place, and by the 16th and 17th centuries the area became home to the Creek and Cherokee nations. During the late 1700s small frontier farms dotted the landscape. Because the Walnut Creek watershed’s geography was not ideal for farming, the area escaped the 1800's cotton cultivation phenomenon.
In 1927, Johnson & Johnson Company, under the leadership of Robert Wood Johnson, Jr., purchased the major part of the Walnut Creek watershed to build the Chicopee Mill and Chicopee Village – a move that protected the forest and its water source. The company reduced mill production in the 1970s about the time a municipal water supply was made available to the Gainesville area. Johnson & Johnson closed the Chicopee Mill water filter plant and donated nearly 3,000-acres of the watershed to the Gainesville Area Park Commission.
Elachee’s Early Years
Elachee initially conducted day camps for children on a small patch of woods on Lake Lanier near Woodland Circle. By the early 1980s, Elachee also offered hiking, camping and nature study activities for families. As part of its evolution, its Board of Trustees more clearly defined Elachee’s mission as a nature education provider, but not an activist organization – causing a boom in demand and making the task of finding a more permanent home a priority.
During this time, the Gainesville Area Park Commission tapped Elachee to consult about developing a public park on the land donated by Johnson & Johnson Company. This land became Chicopee Woods Area Park. This 2,674-acre greenspace is restricted for recreation and nature preservation uses, administered by the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission, a body created and empowered by and under a 1980 Act of the General Assembly of Georgia.
Chicopee Woods Area Park was divided into three parcels with a public golf course on its north side and an agricultural demonstration pavilion on the west. Over 1,400 acres in the center of the Park was set aside as the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve – land that was then leased to Elachee.
A Permanent Home for Elachee
In 1984, The Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission gave Elachee permission to build a nature center in Chicopee Woods. Blending the concepts of taking the classroom experience outdoors, Elachee launched its innovative school programs in 1986, initially serving over 16,000 students from City of Gainesville and Hall County Schools. A 1989 Hall County one-cent local option sales tax raised funds to build phase one of the Elachee Nature Science Center that included the Visitor Center and classroom complex. Elachee Nature Science Center in the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve opened to the public in 1990.
Elachee Takes Shape
Upon the completion of a capital campaign to build out the facility and museum exhibits, starting in 1991 Elachee also began constructing hiking trails that today span 12 miles throughout the Nature Preserve. Among the trails is the finest barrier-free trail for mobility/vision-impaired visitors in the region. Along with hosting numerous traveling environmental literacy exhibits that attracted thousands of annual visitors, in 1995 Elachee successfully completed the American Museum Association’s Assessment Program. As well, in 1996, Elachee inaugurated the Mark Trail Endowment Fund.
Elachee expanded its programming and built the Aquatic Studies Center at Chicopee Lake in 1998, and subsequently launched an environmental education floating classroom program at Lake Lanier, in partnership with Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. Hosting tens of thousands of school students each year, by 1999 Elachee had gained the prestigious status of SACS/AdvancED-accreditation (now Cognia), granted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. By the end of this decade, Elachee was establishing its reputation as a regional center for environmental education.
Establishing a Legacy
To start the new century, Elachee entered into a 50-year lease agreement with the Chicopee Woods Area Park Commission. In 2001, Elachee became legal trustee of the conservation easement protecting over 1,900 acres in the Chicopee Woods Area Park from development. That same year, the Nature Preserve was recognized by The National Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area (IBA), an area essential to nesting and migrating birds.
In 2002, Elachee completed a capital campaign enabling facility expansion that tripled the available teaching space. Additionally, Elachee contracted for and managed a watershed assessment study to improve conditions within the conservation easement that resulted in the 2003 initiation of a grant-funded, significant restoration project. Also as part of its preservation management efforts, Elachee launched a “BioBlitz” plant and animal species inventory program – among them, 38 species of upper story trees, 18 species of mid-story trees, 44 species of shrubs, 25 species of vines and 197 herbaceous plants including many rare and endangered species. The Nature Preserve is also home to countless species of animals and many aquatic animals.
The year 2004 marked Elachee’s 25th anniversary. Adding to its outreach programming that year, Elachee began offering special overnight excursions to an area in the North Georgia mountains, outside of Clayton, GA.
Elachee continued school program expansions that by 2005 were helping area teachers meet state and federal curriculum guidelines. Also in 2005, a 140-foot suspension bridge was built over Walnut Creek enhancing hiking experiences for students and nature lovers.
In 2006, Elachee established a stream mitigation bank for the stream restoration in the Chicopee Woods Area Park, along with initiating the first survey to map invasive plant species in the Nature Preserve. Extending the impact of meaningful conservation initiatives, further grant funding allowed for exotic plant control measures that led to a 2007 MOU creating the Chicopee Woods Weed Management Area, signed by Elachee and numerous federal, state and local entities.
Leading the Way for Environmental Literacy
Celebrating 30 years of excellence in environmental education and conservation, in 2009 Elachee’s strategic direction became more carefully focused, gaining traction as a regional nature center of note. Robust year-over-year growth in the numbers of students served from dozens of Georgia school systems, along with expansion of family-friendly public activities gave rise through 2013 to ongoing facility and grounds enhancements to support programming and visitor experiences.
After a successful capital campaign, in August 2013 Elachee Nature Preschool opened on the Elachee campus as Georgia’s first licensed and the only SACS/AdvancEd-accredited nature-based preschool in the Southeastern U.S. By year three, the school was operating in the black and at full capacity.
The Nature Preserve gained further distinction in 2014 as the first forest in Georgia named to the national Old-Growth Forest Network. Elachee also became the first Southeastern nature center to host professionals from around the U.S. and abroad at the concurrent 2015 Association of Nature Center Administrators and the Nature-Based Preschool national conferences.
Taking into account the growing body of research supporting the benefits of children learning in natural settings, along with parental support and demand for an expanded offering, the accredited Elachee Nature Academy opened its 2016-2017 academic year with both a Nature-Based Preschool and combined Kindergarten-1st Grade programs.
Access to the vast outdoor classroom of the Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve provides students and visitors the chance to engage in memorable nature encounters in this diverse ecosystem. In late 2018 with invaluable volunteer assistance, Elachee began an extensive overhaul of the hiking trail mileage marker signage and mapping. Alterations made to the hiking trails through time, for conservation-related purposes, have resulted in reroutes and trail closures subsequently reducing the total length of the trail system itself. A measure of success in conservation-minded management, in 2019 the trail system became eight miles in total instead of 12 miles. Elachee volunteers completed the comprehensive signage and mapping project in early 2020.
Adapting to a Changing World
March 2020 brought a global pandemic to the Gainesville community necessitating enhancements to Elachee’s core programming service delivery models. May through July 2020, Elachee’s education team filmed a series of the most requested school field trip environmental courses. These hybrid programs provide PreK-12 students access to ecology and nature lessons as an Interactive Distance Learning alternative for teachers. To comply with State’s and individual school systems’ evolving gathering restrictions, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Elachee team made available multiple service-delivery formats for virtual and in-person school and public programming.
The Nature Center’s longest running public program, Camp Elachee, proceeded in June and July 2020 with a scaled-down camp season and capacity. Regimens the Elachee team put in place also provided for testing best practices in preparation for reopening the Nature Center for in-person visitation and programming in August 2020.
Elachee Nature Academy Preschool and Kindergarten-1st Grade instruction started on time in August. This nature school experience adjusted for added safety measures with the most significant change being students spending 85-percent of their day outside, up from the previous 50-percent. Looking ahead, the Nature Academy will launch a 2nd-3rd Grade Class for the 2021-2022 school year.
Thanks to the support and efforts of committed community partners, volunteers and the Elachee staff, the 8-mile hiking trail system in Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve stayed open to the public, without interruption. Access to these hiking trails continues to offer solace and a way to connect with the natural world.
Elachee’s Next Season
The Elachee Board of Trustees announced long-time President and CEO Andrea Timpone’s pending retirement in spring 2021. Early in February 2021, this executive body named Sarah Carmichael Bell as her successor, after a national search process that actually began in late 2019. Passing of the torch took place May 1, 2021.