The Wilderness Center is a nonprofit, self-funding institution dedicated to nature education, wildlife conservation, natural history research, and community service. It is not part of any governmental agency.
The Wilderness Center is a prime example of what a community can do when people come together and volunteer their time.
In 1964, a college professor returned from a meeting in Miami where he learned about community nature centers. Upon returning to Canton, he discussed the idea with his colleague and encouraged a group from the to visit the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan with the idea of starting a nature center in our area. The idea was discussed among the members of the Canton Audubon Society, and the public was invited to an open meeting. The weather on the night of the meeting couldn’t have been worse. A winter storm hit. Despite the storm, the meeting room was packed with interested people willing to volunteer their efforts to transform a dream into reality.
That night, The Wilderness Center was born. Volunteers assumed leadership roles. A highly successful membership drive was undertaken, creating the nucleus of the Center’s most important source of funding, its members!
A group of volunteers exploring potential locations settled on the Charlie Sigrist estate, which contained a forest tract of trees that had never been cut. Many of the trees were over 300 years old. This tract had the added advantage of being roughly equidistant from county seats of Canton, Massillon, Wooster, Dover/New Philadelphia, and Millersburg. At this location the Center could effectively serve a four county area.
Seeing broad community support through memberships and volunteerism, many of the region’s foundations have made generous contributions over the years to help the Center acquire land, construct the Interpretive Building, and purchase other important items. Likewise, many community service organizations have supported the Center through memberships and contributions of money and labor to special projects.
The headquarters tract has grown to encompass 619 acres of forest, meadow, marsh, and restored prairie. In 1967 the Wilderness Lake was constructed to help attract waterfowl and other aquatic life.
The first professional staff began working in 1965; however, it was recognized that volunteerism would always be the “heart and soul” of The Wilderness Center.
Quickly, the educational program for schoolchildren grew to the point where paid staff could not handle all the requests. A corps of docents (volunteer teachers) was formed to help with instruction.
In 1974, The Wilderness Center constructed its Interpretive Building. The building provides a focal point for all the Center’s many activities and has facilitated the growth of the educational programming.
Connecting People and Nature raised more than $5.25 million in 1998 to renovate and expand the Interpretive Building, add an astronomy education building, a maintenance building, and install major site improvements.
The Wilderness Center has fostered the creation of many specialty clubs. Members from novice to professional learn from each other through meetings and activities. Each of these volunteer run clubs supports TWC through presentation of public programs.
The Center’s school educational programming entered a more modern era with the addition of a professional education director in 1987. This was further enhanced in 1992 with the establishment of an extensive outreach effort to take educational programming into the area’s schools.
One aspect of The Wilderness Center continues to amaze many people. The Wilderness Center is privately supported by the contributions of its members, special fund-raising events, and ongoing services like the Tree of Life program.
The Center’s endowment fund has grown from many small contributions, through bequests by generous individuals, and a successful endowment campaigns.
Today, the Center owns a total of 2,922 acres scattered in Stark, Wayne, Carroll, Tuscarawas, and Holmes Counties. There are six trails totaling about ten miles at the headquarters tract near Wilmot. Just south of Zoar, the Center has a trail open to the public at its 194 acre Zoar Woods property. The Center preserves open space by holding conservation easements, currently 461 acres.
Overall, The Wilderness Center is proof that individuals can make a difference. No single individual can claim credit for the Center’s success. It has taken countless hours of volunteer effort by thousands of individuals to make The Wilderness Center what it is today and what it will be in the future.