The Little City that Could

By Ron Blair on October 24, 2022 in Blog

Trail in Jefferson, Co.

Photo by Ron Blair

Jefferson County sits in southeast Iowa with a total population of just over 18,000. Yet this small, rural county has forged an alliance with Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation over many decades that has brought fruition and value to both entities. 

INHF was in its infancy when Daisy Iowa Whitham, a local biology teacher, approached the organization. She wanted to protect the natural beauty of her family’s 130-acre woodland and nursery in Jefferson County, so in 1980, she asked INHF to be her “eyes into the future” and donated the property to INHF to be used as a plant and wildlife refuge. Whitham Woods became INHF’s first completed project. 

View of pond at Whitham WoodsCreated in 1889, the Whitham Fairfield Nursery includes more than 111 different species, including oak, hickory, conifers, and fruit trees such as apple, peach, pear and plum. Many of the original trees have matured and created an interesting and diverse habitat area. The land hosts deer, squirrels, rabbits and songbirds. Whitham Woods also sports a four-acre prairie plot seeded with a diverse mix of native grasses and forbs. INHF arranged a 99-year lease with Jefferson County Conservation Board to oversee the management of the property.

Fast forward a decade, the Jefferson County Trails Council (JCTC), with the support of Jefferson CCB contacted INHF to see if the growing Fairfield Loop Trail might be able to transverse a section of Whitham Woods. This proposal was studied in full by INHF and was given the go-ahead since the trail stayed along the southwest portion of the property. 

Meanwhile, in a different quadrant of the city a segment of the Fairfield Loop Trail was being negotiated by JCTC, with retired ISU Professor of Engineering, Robert Nady, whose family had owned land in Jefferson County since 1844. While granting the trail easement Mr. Nady stated that he did not want to see the land developed, and planned on eventually donating it to the City of Fairfield. Again, INHF was contacted and over the course of the next 18 months INHF helped the Nady family protect their land with a conservation easement held by Jefferson County Conservation before transferring the 48 acres of land to the City. The conservation easement ensures that the land is never developed regardless of ownership.     

Once transferred to the City, Fairfield’s mayor and city council appointed an advisory committee to oversee the best use of the Nady land based on the terms of the easement, the family’s wishes, the conditions of the property and needs of the city. It was decided that transforming the acreage to native prairie with meandering mowed trails and sophisticated educational signage would best compliment the Fairfield Loop Trail and the nearby Pleasant Lake.  

The new Nady Prairie Park was established and opened to the public in 2020 and is an important feature along the Fairfield Loop Trail.  

For the next phase of community improvement, a small local committee prepared designs for a low-impact single track trail loop in Whitham Woods. After careful scrutiny and site analysis study by a single-track trail consultant, a portion of the project will proceed in the southern section of the park where human activity is accepted and vegetation management is needed 

Daisy Whitham’s vision for community conservation, open-space, and appreciation for plants and wildlife has planted a seed that been nurtured by INHF, local volunteers and public agencies over the last 40 years. The partnerships, support and trust between City of Fairfield, Jefferson County, and INHF have benefited the land, the community at-large, local tourism, and local ecosystems. The benefits continue to accrue, as other landowners in the Fairfield region have pursued conservation actions with INHF. The result is regional vitality of purpose and lasting legacy for all to enjoy!