UNION TOWNSHIP — Taltree Arboretum and Gardens offers plenty of atmosphere for relaxing from the cares of the world, but who can relax when they're expecting?
By "they" we mean the trumpeter swans. An endangered species in Indiana, the Taltree trumpeters have been a star attraction for four years, but this is the first time the duo has produced eggs and the wait is on to see if a troop of trumpeter signets, those are baby swans, will be paddling soon behind their proud parents.
The discovery of the eggs is symbolic of the rapid growth being experienced at the 330-acre nature lovers' dream just off County Road 500 West on County Road 100 North in Porter County. The park is in its 19th year with a wide assortment of fascinating features and more being added all the time.
It isn't like nothing much happened at Taltree in the past. Au contraire. Founders Damien and Rita Gabis started their plan to conserve green space and native species against the onslaught of urbanization in 1997, and the next year they began carrying it out by planting 7,000 oak and hickory trees and 30 acres of warm season prairie. Its oak collection is the third most diverse in the nation.
The first adult education programs and the first interpretive hikes were offered in 2000. Also, the savanna wetland was planted, and the volunteer program instituted. The latter has grown to include more than 200 people, who do everything from lead tours and feed the animals to create and care for the historic scenes on the Railway Garden, which opened in 2011.
Features like the Fairy Village, the Hitz Family Rose Garden, six miles of trails and and animal collection that includes not only the swans but twin Nigerian dwarf goats and a giant chinchilla rabbit have been winning awards and attracting families for almost two decades. But Marketing Manager Lauri Keagle said it wasn't enough to help Taltree achieve its goal of being self-sustaining.
"People didn't know we were here," Keagle said. "We were described as a hidden gem, and you can't be self-sustaining if nobody knows you're here."
Taltree is not a park. It is sustained by memberships, donations and the volunteers. Keagle said, in past years, members might make several visits to Taltree but then feel they had seen it all, and they would let their membership lapse. To give people a reason to return again and again, Taltree now offers a growing list of activities and events and reaches out through social media.
Apparently, it's working. Keagle said an Arbor Day event drew 700 people and 1,000 came for Mother's Day. Membership has tripled and rentals of its facilities, mostly for weddings also has tripled in recent months. Events like a Daddy/Daughter Dance posted on Facebook quickly sold out the 200 tickets and a second one is being planned. The arboretum served more than 6,000 students through education programs at Taltree and in schools in the past year.
Taltree has 50 different spring and summer activities planned ranging from a Father's Day Cook Off and Shakespeare in the Park, to a car show and craft beer festival, concerts and a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. More are being planned but, sorry, you already missed the Sinatra Dinner with Stevie Swing doing his impersonation of Ol' Blue Eyes.
The number of weeklong outdoor summer camps has grown from five to seven and includes one on robotics. Taltree recently partnered with Northwest Indiana Carriage and Sleigh Association to provide rides at some events during the year.
"This a fabulous place," said Caroline Gigg, of Crossville, Tenn. Gigg was visiting her sister Jeanne Baird, of Valparaiso. Jeanne and her husband, Michael, have memberships given as birthday presents by Michael's sister, and they bring out-of-town visitors like Caroline to see the hidden gem.
"If I lived here, I'd probably volunteer to do something at Taltree," Gigg said. "It's really beautiful, and people are privileged to have a place like this."
"We appreciate the gardens, especially the Railway Garden and the woman who trims the trees there," Jeanne Baird said. "The quiet and the birds. It's peaceful, and we're nature lovers."
"I'd like to live in the Fairy Village," Michael Board said.
Josie Fremouw, of Griffith, said she hadn't been to Taltree in several years and wanted to see the trains with her young son Mikey and daughter Andrea. A total of nine trains operate on about 3,000 feet of track with scenes to represent different decades in American history. Two more trains will be added by year's end, Railway Garden manager Dave Simkowski said.
One of the latest additions is the Lincoln funeral train, which is shown in a scene replicating its stop in Michigan City complete with a white-robed choir singing the Doxology followed by the playing of Taps. Simkowski is working on a scene depicting the Trail of Tears evacuation of Indian tribes from the south that should be done by mid-summer.
For information on all the activities, memberships, donating and volunteering, go to www.Taltree.org. And if you hurry, you might be in line to get a cigar from the proud papa trumpeter.