This year the Friends of the Nature Area celebrate nine years of the arts in nature, nearly one decade of Nature Fest. The event will provide two-days of festivities this year on Saturday and Sunday, April 28 and 29.
The history of FONA is short compared to the history of the nature area on the Divide.
The first community meeting of FONA was held in February 2003. The Black Oak Mine Unified School District had obtained the acreage, now referred to as the Georgetown Nature Area, in 1965.
One of the reasons there is an Indian village built in the area is that it was Indian habitat prior to the Gold Rush. During that time the creeks were churned up and the land was partially decimated. In the 1920s the land was cleared and a pear orchard was planted. It produced fruit until the 1950s when a blight ruined the pear crop in El Dorado County. The last private owner of the land was the Isley family.
In 1967, a teacher at Georgetown School, Ray McClellan, led by the school’s science club, helped develop a plan for the area, which has been an ongoing project.
The meeting of FONA in 2003 was organized by then-BOMUSD Superintendent Terry Gary, teacher Susan Whittington and volunteer community member Howard Hiemke. This came just two years prior to a bequeath of $450,000 from Ury Afanasief, a local community member who passed away and left his estate to the Georgetown Nature Area.
“Representatives from the Georgetown Divide Recreation District, Blodgett Forest, the U.S. Forest Service, local residents and business folks from Georgetown were specifically invited to the meeting,” said Whittington, who was instrumental in the formation of FONA and its ultimate Nature Fest celebration. “A letter also was published in the Georgetown Gazette inviting anyone interested.”
The meeting was held to generate more interest in the school district-owned nature area, a space of approximately 45 acres next to Georgetown School.
In 1989 former teacher and local volunteer Hiemke referred to the nature area as “coming into its own.”
Since then approximately five additional acres have been acquired in the nature area through clearing meadows of blackberries. The Forest Service, the Department of Fish and Game, Growlersburg and Greenwood conservation camps, the Georgetown Resources Conservation District, Michigan-Cal, the Divide Rotary Club, and school and community volunteers have provided funding and labor for developing the park throughout the years.
Boy and Girl Scout troops have used the area for projects and events, along with a variety of other organizations on the Divide.
Work done on the acreage ensures its safety from fire and keeps the area available for use as outdoor classrooms and an entertainment venue.
First Nature Fest
The first Georgetown Nature Fest was held in the spring of 2004 in celebration of Earth Day, nature, and the visual and performing arts.
“We decided on the name ‘Arts and Nature Festival’ and I took the lead in planning it,” said Whittington, who became the director of the American River Charter School in 2010. “I contacted vendors to sell plants, children’s nature/science books, crafts and food.”
Community member and volunteer Thiaa Besan organized the music and dancing on stage with students from Creekside, Otter Creek and Georgetown schools, and Hiemke took on the task of organizing hikes through the area’s meadows and along its creeks.
“We wanted local organizations like the Divide Garden Club and the Forest Service to offer free activities to children to help them learn about forestry and native plants,” added Whittington. “I worked with Georgetown School art teacher Peggy DePue to develop a T-shirt contest for the seventh and eighth graders and created nature art to display at that first festival, which was a huge success.”
The first festival featured 35 vendors, children’s music with Lisa Torgerson, and Native American storytelling all day on the amphitheater stage and in the village area.
Native American storyteller Kimberly Shining Star and native flautist Marion Cole joined the celebration and have for each year since. Other volunteers keep returning each year, like school district administrator Drew Woodall, who performs emcee duties.
The first year the festival paid for itself with vendor fees and all volunteer staff and musicians. Whittington wrote a Greenworks grant through Project Learning Tree that helped pay for signs, plants and upgrading the nature area.
Other donations were received from the Lions Club, the Divide Garden Club and private citizens to pay for T-shirts and ribbons for the children’s participation. The total costs in 2004 were under $1,000.
Bigger in 2005
The following year, in 2005, Whittington wrote another grant, this time with the Georgetown Resource Conservation District, and the “Watersheds.”
“Again, Thiaa, Howard, myself and (newcomers) Jackie Morgan, John Daniels, and Dave Cox, all FONA members, helped organize the festival with many community volunteers assisting,” said Whittington. “This particular grant paid for beautiful T-shirts the Georgetown School art students designed, as well as water monitoring equipment, on which Traverse Creek volunteers gave demonstrations.
“Supporters like Mike and Kim Taylor helped on stage with children’s activities, drama and sound equipment,” she continued. “More music, flutes and drum, poetry and vendors were added. The festival’s second year was bigger with more attendees.”
When Afanasief passed in 2005 and bequeathed his $450,000 estate to the nature area, the money was invested in a trust fund. Only the interest has been spent, with the principle kept in the bank to support the nature area for years to come.
Some of the money from the trust fund has been spent on needed maintenance, including signs, brush and blackberry removal, and bridge and seating repair, with year-round maintenance provided by Growlersburg Conservation Camp. A grounds person was hired for eight-hours per month to focus on the safety of the trails and keep the grasses mowed and fallen trees trimmed or cut.
“FONA appreciates Dan Burke’s commitment and assistance to Howard (Hiemke) to help keep the nature area looking good,” said Whittington. “More grants were received and more volunteers, like Jim Ingram, and the Divide Rotary Club helped with other major repairs to the amphitheater (in stairway and benches). All of the projects were overseen by Friends of the Nature Area.”
Over the years the Nature Fest has received other grants and expanded. In 2007, FONA teamed up with KFOK Community Radio and others adding a community evening concert to the weekend events. FONA also partnered with the local NoName Flute Clan one year to provide a two-day event. This year also is planned for two days.
In 2008, local flautist and KFOK broadcaster Mignon Geli stepped up to coordinate the Nature Fest. She assisted Whittington in coordinating vendors, which had grown to more than 50, as well as organize the entertainment.
Geli contacted the Sierra Native Alliance and the El Dorado Indian Council, helping with sponsorships and volunteers. Her involvement in the Nature Fest helped bring professional non-local musicians into the lineup: Scott August, Joe Craven, Blackfire and Mary Youngblood, to name a few.
Together, Whittington and Geli wrote several grants with the El Dorado Arts Foundations to help support the non-volunteering entertainers, and many Native American groups and individuals like Kimberly Shining Star, Talk Drum, Thos Womanz, and Goodshield Aguilar return year after year to provide a rich native culture to the event.
Following FONA’s mission statement, the Nature Fest has helped support KFOK, BOMUSD schools and FONA itself bringing family entertainment, Native American cultural activities and environmental activities to the community.
FONA’s mission statement is: “The Friends of the Nature Area’s mission is to enrich our students’ and communities’ learning experiences by offering opportunities in environmental education and Native American cultural studies that preserve, protect and restore our natural environment. Our goal is to develop curriculum and resources to meet this mission while providing safe and rewarding outdoor educational experiences.”
Ray Griffiths took over as chairperson of FONA in 2008, a position Whittington had held since the formation, as she began delegating more of her duties. She stepped down from the leadership of the Nature Fest in 2010, taking on her new administrative position for the American River Charter School. Geli has coordinated the even since 2010, but she also is stepping down, looking for another champion to take her place for the 10th annual Nature Fest next year.
This year gold mine tours and gold panning with Billy Arsenith are planned, along with beekeeping presentations by Mike Sampson, flute lessons by Geli and information on one of the most famous Indian leaders of the local area, Coppa Hembo, by Guy Nixon, who recently released his latest book on the area.
The event is free and open to all. Children’s performances will be held on Saturday, April 28, from 10 a.m. to noon.
The Website georgtownnaturefest.org has more information and booth applications for those interested. To volunteer or if anyone is interested in heading the event next year call Geli at 630-334-3697 or 530-333-0299.