If a group of civic-minded people hadn’t pursued their dream, it’s possible that houses overlooking the Missouri River may exist instead of the Omaha area’s forest. The history of how 2,000 acres of land eventually became Fontenelle Forest was the focus of a recent meeting of the forest’s SUN program.
About 50 people attended the Seniors Understanding Nature session on “A Look into the Archives and History of Fontenelle Forest.”
Dr. AA Tyler, a professor at then-Bellevue College, teamed with Charles Childs to persuade Nebraska state government officials to create a state park involving the land along a series of bluffs next to the Missouri River in Sarpy County. While the state supported the idea, it didn’t have the money to create a park, said Catherine Kuper, a retired forest employee, who continues to help as a volunteer.
The group envisioned starting out with 400 acres and growing to 2,000 over time, she said. Dr. Harold Gifford bought about 400 acres for $55,000 in 1916. Tyler’s group created a landowners association. Gifford sold the land to them four years later for $65,000. The forest has enjoyed steady growth since, topping off at about 2,000 acres.
Home to ‘early’ Nebraskans
Over the years, archaeologists conducted digs in the forest. An amateur digger found remnants of a civilization that predated Native Americans in the area. Known as “Nebraska Phase Culture,” people known to have existed as far back as 900-1400 AD. About 70 sites are known to exist in Fontenelle Forest, with digs finding remains of earth lodges and pottery. Forest officials shared items with the state historical society. A special exhibit will be hosted at Fontenelle Forest later this year.
People hiking around the forest may still come upon covered mounds of soil that were once dig sites.
Logan Fontenelle, for whom the forest was named, operated a trading post nearby during the 1800s. He was a member of the Omaha tribe. His father married a member of the tribe.
The history lesson was part of a monthly series aimed at senior citizens. SUN, which was created in 2002, helps provide “lifelong” learning opportunities for people as they age. Kuper, who once managed the program, helped expand the program to into traveling classes to nursing homes to help people enjoy the classes.
In addition to the history presentation, the SUN program includes classes on the hiking trails, raptors, birds and pollinators. Classes can be found at www.fontenelleforest.org.