The rain fell steadily from leaden skies, prompting the cancellation of a field trip last week for Longfellow Elementary School kindergartners to the Howard County Conservancy. After all, the classroom setting at the conservancy's historic Woodstock farm is just a collection of picnic tables.
That familiar scenario, however, is about to become part of Mount Pleasant's storied past with the opening this week of the $1.3 million Gudelsky Environmental Education Center. With events planned for tomorrow and Saturday, Howard County's first nature center is quickly raising the profile of the conservancy, the county's only local land trust.
The center's 8,700 square feet of classrooms, laboratories and exhibit space mean there soon will be expanded year-round courses for students and adults, a summer day-camp program and new weekend visiting hours for the public.
"As you can see, with the new building, major changes are coming," said Lynne Nemeth, executive director of the conservancy.
Plans for a second nature center in Howard, to be built on land bordering the Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, were announced this year by county officials. That publicly-owned center is expected to be built in several years.
Since its founding 15 years ago, the conservancy has worked with local land owners to protect nearly 1,800 acres through conservation easements. In 1993, it acquired the 232-acre Mount Pleasant Farm through a bequest from Ruth and Frances Brown, retired school teachers and descendants of Thomas Brown, the 17th-century surveyor who settled the Woodstock area.
With Mount Pleasant, the conservancy had a prime setting for promoting its ethic of careful land stewardship, but it lacked money to build the educational center it envisioned. In 2000, the conservancy obtained $300,000 in state and county funds, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Then Clarksville resident Holly Gudelsky Stone got involved. She first became acquainted with the conservancy as a parent whose four children visited Mount Pleasant on field trips.
"I was outraged when I found out this lovely, wealthy county didn't have its own nature center or environmental education center," said Stone, an environmental educator who owns and operates a family summer camp and retreat center in Maine.
Stone, along with her siblings and mother, serves on the board of the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Family Foundation. The Gudelskys, originally from Baltimore, began a sand and gravel operation in the 1940s. Family members followed matriarch Ida Gudelsky's prescient advice to buy land, and lots of it, between Baltimore and Washington. The Gudelskys sold land to Columbia developer James Rouse for what later became Town Center.
As the Gudelskys developed their holdings in Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, their Silver Spring philanthropic foundation, created in 1968, funded an array of local causes -- public television programming for children and the creation of medical, veterinary and technical educational institutions. Stone lobbied for the conservancy with her family board, and in 2001 the foundation approved a $500,000 grant. After that, more money for the environmental education center came from private and corporate donors in Howard.
The project faced delays because of the state permit process and the unexpected death of the center's architect, but construction began last fall. Workers clambered last week over scaffolding and painted walls to finish the center, built on the site of a demolished barn. The center resembles a barn, with beige siding, twin cupolas and large, arched windows at either end. Locally mined stone was to be installed in the foyer, which leads to a high-ceilinged interior with exposed rafters. The main hall will feature bamboo flooring, one of the center's conservation-oriented features.
The center is tucked into sloping land. A muddy driveway leads to Mount Pleasant's farmyards, where the old farmhouse -- a chicken coop, smokehouse and outdoor privy clustered behind it -- sits shaded by an American elm.
The inside of the farmhouse evokes plain country life and is a bit cluttered with exhibits. This is where the conservancy has kept its offices. Nemeth focused her attention on the upcoming celebration.
She noted that the white-paper tickets to the grand opening are imbedded with wildflower seeds. Those tickets, printed with soluble soy ink, will be collected and planted in Mount Pleasant's Founder's Garden. That idea came from Stone.
"Everybody has a good idea," Stone said. "If everybody put in their one good idea, it's amazing what you can do."
For more information on the conservancy's fundraiser gala tomorrow and Saturday Family Day, call the conservancy at 410-465-8877, or go online at www.hcconservancy.org.