ELKHART — It’s difficult to imagine that beneath the tall-grass prairie, the log cabin environmental education center and the wetlands at the Elkhart Environmental Center sat 30 football fields of trash, 15 feet deep.
And those piles of trash burned — a lot. So much so, according to supervisor Tim Cataldo, that a crew of city firefighters stayed at the old Lusher Avenue dump 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a time. “It was really Dante’s inferno out here,” he said.
The old dump site, which was transformed into an environmental sanctuary 20 years ago this month, was an active landfill for municipal waste from 1959 to 1972.
Mayor Dick Moore was street commissioner when the Elkhart Environmental Center, 1717 E. Lusher Ave., was born. His department built the first two wetland cells at the site. And as a firefighter, Moore fought many fires at the old dump.
The city received help from the Martin Foundation and the University of Notre Dame to develop the center, the mayor said.
“This was very much a community-established environmental center,” Cataldo said.
Many of those who were instrumental in the development of the center, including former Mayor James Perron, will attend today’s 20th anniversary celebration, set for 6 p.m. at the EEC. The public is invited.
Moore recalls when the city established a petting zoo there. It’s long gone, but the city still teaches environmental education classes to students. “That’s where it all has to begin,” Moore said.
The children then go home and share the information with their parents.
“It’s a nice place to visit,” the mayor said.
The center has shared its environmental education program with 100,000 students during the past 20 years — an average of about 5,000 per year, Cataldo said. Most of the students come from Elkhart and Concord schools. Homeschoolers, private school students and Edwardsburg pupils attend as well. “That’s a lot of seeds that have been planted,” he said.
They learn about recycling, energy and water conservation, reducing waste and the benefits of trees. And there’s always a hike around the grounds.
“They are always into what this place used to be,” Cataldo said.
Cataldo has a vision for the future of the center that includes a certified outdoor classroom, an interactive learning space that allows kids to become comfortable with the outside and away from TV, computer and gaming screens.
It’s rather astonishing that a “monoculture of trash” where rats and flies lived is now home to diverse wildlife including deer, beaver, fox, coyotes and bluebirds. Of course, lots of native species of plants have taken root at the EEC as well.
Acknowledging it’s probably one of Elkhart’s hidden gems, Moore said, “it could be because of where it’s at. When you tell somebody and they go, they come away from there very impressed.”
Much of the habitat restoration was complete after the first decade, Cataldo said. The city had the help of more than a dozen EnviroCorps AmeriCorps volunteers for 14 of the EEC’s 20 years. The local program was discontinued because of budget cuts.
Other volunteers continue to help, however. Eagle Scouts have done a number of significant projects at the center, including a covered bike rack, bridges and the outdoor amphitheater.
Environmental education is its main thrust and public outreach is another component of the EEC’s mission.
There’s also a community garden on site, one of three facilitated by EEC staff.
Just outside the entrance, the public can pick up mulch, wood chips and firewood. Mulch is made on site with leaves composted by the street department.
The EEC Environmental Education Center is open from 9 to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays from April to October. The gate to walk or bike in is open from dawn to dusk.