Fernwood Railway Garden back on track

(Submitted photo)

(Submitted photo)

NILES, Mich. – Tucked away on a 50-foot-square plot of land on the grounds of Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve lived five little trains that helped the organization weather the recession of 2008. Though they were strong enough to go up against a force that brought the nation to its knees, the small but mighty locomotives came to a halt during a fire last October.

Fast forward six months. Just as the landscape awakens from its deep winter sleep, the Railway Garden at Fernwood is shaking off the ashes to open for an eighth season.

“We were devastated,” said Carol Line, Fernwood’s executive director, of the fire. “The Railway Garden is part of the fabric of Fernwood. I know I speak for all of the staff and volunteers when I say that seeing the charred tracks and trains was heartbreaking. But, we knew we would rebuild.”

When the public learned of the fire, sentiments of heartfelt sadness and concern coupled with offers to help poured in. The community started a grassroots online fundraising campaign. Donations came in directly to Fernwood from garden members, members of the community, and businesses. Those efforts, combined with the insurance coverage, have allowed the organization to use the winter months to complete the rebuild of an attraction loved by so many in the Michiana region.

“If you want to find a positive in the loss of the garden, it is the story of so many coming together so earnestly and generously to ensure the return of the garden. We are grateful,” Line said.

This Sunday, May 1, the Railway Garden will re-open to the public — better than before. And the five replica landmark buildings are back, too.

“The fire destroyed two of the replicas — Notre Dame’s Golden Dome and Buchanan’s Pears Mill. Those have been recreated,” Line said. “The other three replicas – the St. Joseph North Pier Lighthouse, Niles Amtrak Depot, and Niles’ Chapin Mansion – were spared from the fire and only annual post-season repairs were needed to ready them for a new season.”

The replica buildings are all built by hand of natural materials. The creators of these miniature structures are renowned landscape architect and naturalist Paul Busse, and his team at Applied Imagination in Alexandria, Kentucky. Applied Imagination is a nationally recognized, award winning crew of creative artists, botanical architects, and landscape designers producing original public garden exhibits, seasonal displays, and garden railways.

Applied Imagination worked on the buildings and other railway garden components over the winter. The team arrived at Fernwood on April 21, with buildings in tow, to begin reconstructing the multiple levels that make up the garden feature and laying the tracks. The installation process took five days to complete.

Fernwood is in select company with its Railway Garden exhibit. Busse and his award-winning team have created railway gardens for some of the country’s finest botanical gardens including those in Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlanta. According to Line, it is rare that Applied Imagination works with a smaller botanical garden like Fernwood.

The railway garden got its start in 2007 when Line joined Fernwood, and learned of plans for a small, temporary outdoor train exhibit for the garden. Line knew of Busse’s work at other public gardens and went about seeing if he had interest in bringing his magic to Fernwood. It took a bit of persuading, but in 2008 when returning from a project at Chicago Botanic Garden, Busse stopped by.

“I believe it was love at first sight,” Line said. “Paul connected with our unique property and felt his work would be a perfect fit for Fernwood. He loved the stories of our founder, Kay Boydston, and her work as a miniaturist.”

At the time of the visit, the Michiana Rug Crafters had an exhibit of hooked rugs in the Gallery at Fernwood. Upon seeing the exhibit, Busse shared that his mother was a rug hooker, and as luck would have it, Line’s mother was as well. The deal was sealed. Busse agreed to do the project for Fernwood. The exhibit opened on Father’s Day weekend 2009.

The Railway Garden has become a centerpiece attraction for the Buchanan Township-based botanical garden and nature preserve. Over the past seven years it has been a draw for thousands of adults and children and, in the process, those visitors have been introduced to lifelong learning opportunities and nature trails at the 105-acre center for environmental education, horticulture, art, and culture.

“We opened the Railway Garden as the recession was tightening its grip. The garden became an instant hit with families, children, and train lovers,” Line said. We saw our memberships and attendance grow during economic conditions that led other gardens and museums across the country to experience layoffs and dramatic declines in visitation and memberships. I truly believe our little train garden saved us from the same fate.”

The Railway Garden captures the imagination of those who might not otherwise consider visiting a botanical garden and nature preserve. This first impression becomes the gateway for visitors to discover the full range of outdoor experiences, classes and programs Fernwood offers. Staff and volunteers are trained to engage with guests and educate them about the Fernwood ecosystems and gardens. This overall experience is the foundation for developing a deeper understanding of and respect for the interdependent roles land, plants, and animals play in sustaining daily life.

This Sunday, visitors can enjoy light refreshments and children’s activities while exploring the Railway Garden. They also can celebrate the arrival of spring by walking the trails and enjoying emerging wildflowers throughout the nature preserve. The Railway Garden will be open through the fall.

Fernwood is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors 65 and older, and $4 for children ages 5 through 17. Children under 5 and Fernwood members are admitted free. Fernwood is located at 13988 Range Line Road, Niles, Michigan. For more information about Fernwood visit www.fernwoodbotanical.org or call 269-695-6491.

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