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History of Jennings Environmental Education Center

The Faces of Change

A million years ago, Jennings looked dramatically different than it does today. Glaciers, water, and climate have all played a part in changing the face of the landscape.

Immense glaciers scoured the earth, removing soil and exposing bedrock. Fine sand, silt, and clay particles from glacial meltwater settled in prehistoric lakes, forming new soil. Changing climate conditions resulted in a warm, dry period, which allowed prairie plants to extend from the Midwest into Pennsylvania.

Gradually the climate became cooler and wetter, more closely resembling our climate today. Eventually, through succession, forests replaced all but a few prairie sites in Pennsylvania.

The Jennings prairie remains due to a thick layer of impermeable clay that prevents most tree species from becoming established. Plants and animals that do live on the prairie must tolerate shallow soils, fluctuating periods of drought and saturation, and fire. Even under these harsh conditions, this ecosystem teems with life.

Legacy of the Land

The Paleo-Indian People were the first humans in the area. Arriving about 15,000 years ago, these nomadic hunters followed the retreating face of the glacier in search of wooly mammoths and giant ground sloths. The constant pursuit of these giant animals is believed to have helped force the animals to extinction. Little is known of the early cultures that inhabited the area after the Paleo-Indian People.

Trade and travel were an important part of American Indian culture. The Venango Trail lies beneath PA 528, a major road dividing the park. The trail connected Pittsburgh to Franklin and was traveled by a number of historic figures like Tecumseh, George Washington, and Lafayette.

The 1800s brought an influx of settlers who altered the landscape and depleted the resources through lumbering, agriculture, and hunting. Once the resources above the ground were exhausted, a new generation looked below the surface. Coal mining became a booming industry during this era. While mining provided a needed source of energy, techniques of that day left significant scars on the land.

At Jennings today, it is hard to see the scars from previous uses of the land. As educators, the Jennings staff strives to help people understand that we continue to be a product of our environment and need to make informed decisions concerning the immediate and long-term effects of our actions. The decisions we make today about how to use the land will leave our legacy for future generations.

Otto Emery Jennings

The center is named in honor of one of Pennsylvania’s most renowned botanists, Dr. Otto Emery Jennings. It is said that Dr. Jennings explored western Pennsylvania with the “energy of a pioneer” and acquainted many with the botanical treasures he encountered.

Dr. Jennings first discovered the prairie in 1905. Thanks to a generous donation from the Butler Garden Club, he initiated the purchase and protection of the area by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a private conservation group. The conservancy was instrumental in establishing environmental education at Jennings.

By teaching others to appreciate Pennsylvania’s unique natural areas, Dr. Jennings helped to ensure that this and other special areas would be preserved for future generations. Almost a century later, we continue to teach others in this tradition.

Foltz School

This one-room, township school was built in 1880, on the site of a former log school. After 83 years of classes, the school closed in 1963. Foltz school was one of the last five public, one-room schools to close in Pennsylvania. The building is currently being restored.