A Place in the Woods
As he hikes the woodland surrounding his home one spring afternoon, Fred Weitz names each wildflower he passes. It’s a trait he inherited from his mother, and an interest he’s continued to cultivate over the years.
Weitz, who led The Weitz Company, a Des Moines-based construction company that has been a fixture in the city since its founding in 1855, may be more widely known for his business, community and philanthropic leadership than his knowledge of native flora and fauna. But the man whose family built some of Iowa’s most iconic buildings also holds deep love for its outdoors.
At home outdoors
Weitz grew up on a small acreage on what was then the southwest edge of Des Moines. As a child, his days were spent exploring the woodland that surrounded the family’s home.
“We went all over the place,” Weitz recalled. “My parents got a little tent house, and in the summer my siblings and I would stay out there. We played around in the woods and down by the old farmhouse on Welker Avenue.”
Years later, Weitz set out in search of something similar for his own family, a bit of nature tucked into the city. He found it along the banks of the Raccoon River on the southeast side of West Des Moines. Though the land is less than a 15-minute drive from downtown Des Moines, it feels a world away.
Oak, hickory and walnut trees envelop the majority of 27-acre property, the canopy spilling down the rambling hillside to the river below. Ephemerals arrive each spring, their short-lived blooms scattering bursts of color across the woodland floor. A quarter mile of the Raccoon River runs along the north side, its waters visible from the house on the hill when the branches are bare.
A place of their own
Weitz and his wife, Emily, purchased the property in the early ‘60s, built a home shortly thereafter and raised their four children under the oaks.
“When the kids were young, they’d go down and spend the day playing on the river,” Weitz said. An avid paddler, Weitz did his fair share of playing there too, dropping his canoe in at a little spot he carved out along the bank. Other afternoons were spent walking the “loop-the-loop” trail overlooking the river, Weitz’s favorite way to experience the property.
Over the years, the couple restored the woodland, removing barbed wire and old structures left behind from its foregone days as farmland. Native plants thrive here, largely uninhibited by invasive species. Deer, wild turkey, opossums and other wildlife amble along, unbothered by passersby.
Located in the heart of a large complex of protected land including Raccoon River Park, Brown’s Woods and Walnut Woods State Park, the woodland preserves a sense of wildness not only on the Weitz property, but the public lands that surround it, which return the favor in kind. Together, these three public lands, which are owned and managed by the City of West Des Moines (Raccoon River Park), Polk County Conservation (Brown’s Woods) and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (Walnut Woods State Park), create a regional complex of protected land spanning 1,375 acres – one of the largest in the immediate metro area.
The ways in which his land is tied to and, in a way, part of the parks that surround it is not lost on Weitz who once walked their trails and now, at age 91, the roads regularly. However, it was a heartbreaking experience involving the land that first inspired Weitz to seek out this peaceful setting that led to he and Emily’s decision to permanently protect it.
“That property I grew up on, my experience with that is why we ended up deciding to place a conservation easement on this place,” Weitz said. “My father ended up selling the land, and the fella that bought it subdivided it and developed the woodland. That hurt, so as I thought about what would happen to our property when we’re gone, I thought about that. We had a choice. I could subdivide it myself or I could put a conservation easement on it. I opted for the easement.”
Weitz enjoys having the peace of mind knowing that stretch of riverfront —and all the memories held in place by its banks — will be protected forever. He’s hopeful that his neighbors may consider doing something similar. But for now, he’s content to simply step outside and take it all in.
“I just enjoy being in the woods,” he said. “I still get out there, not as much, but from time to time. We feel very lucky.”