I am really excited to see local hiking and history groups on Facebook, but what I find interesting is how people and places have been forgotten. These groups are asking the questions, “Why isn’t there a designated museum for Owensboro history” and “Where are places to hike,” but none realize the Joe Ford Nature Park can accommodate both. The Joe Ford Nature Center Park may be small, but there is a section within the building that highlights Owensboro history and the trails do run along and hook into the West Side Greenbelt.
Today, the name Joe Ford is a mystery to the younger generation, considering he was born in 1925, and had passed away before most were out of diapers. Joe had a love for nature and by the age of 6, he was exploring and finding interesting nature items that later became the first “Ford Museum” in his sister’s playhouse.
The family farm in Sorgho was the perfect spot for a young boy to plant wildflowers, dig and look for hidden treasures. This is where Joe spent many days until he graduated in 1942, spending two years in college, and in 1944, enlisting in the Merchant Marines. However, even while Joe was spending time in New York City, the country boy missed the home soil. Joe wrote weekly letters to his family expressing how much he was looking forward to returning home and to begin planting. In those letters, he requested different variety of plants to be bought so they would be available for planting when he arrived home.
After his time in the Merchant Marines, Joe returned to Owensboro and resumed his life, but one of his burning desires was to share nature with everyone. The property on Kentucky 56 began the first backyard museum with his collection of coins, bugs and Indian relics, but it didn’t stop there. While working for the city parks department in 1966, Joe’s vision and desire of Owensboro having an area museum became a reality. The first Owensboro Area Museum started on Sycamore Street in an unused Catholic church. Later, it moved to Ninth and Frederica streets in what is now the now Owensboro Museum of Fine Arts, with another move to South Griffith Avenue to the building known today as KWC Ralph Center. Its current location is downtown on Second Street.
Joe retired from the city in 1987, but he continued to work without a salary. During this time, he started the outdoor classroom at the Joe Ford Nature Park off West Fourth Street, behind the GRADD center. Joe was known as a nature icon, becoming Daviess County’s naturalist in 1988 and Owensboro’s official naturalist in 2008. The concrete building that held the classroom officially became the Joe Ford Nature Center in 2010.
Joe, Grace and other nature enthusiasts built the trails, planned hikes, created the bird sanctuary and planted numerous varieties of wildflowers on the 13 acres of the Joe Ford Nature Park. Joe may have passed on, but his legacy lives because of a little boy’s desire. Today, the Nature Center continues to teach and share those nature values.
The new Facebook groups are wonderful for getting people involved in nature and the community, but they must not forget the pioneers who paved the way. The Joe Ford Nature Park needs support from the groups and community to continue the cornerstone that was laid long before the electronic age of connecting. The Center doesn’t have the fancy bells and whistle of a large building, but what it does have is the heart and soul of nature.
Nature Notes runs each Wednesday in Community. Deborah Branch can be reached by phone at 270-344-0596 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get to JFNC, take Second Street (U.S. 60 West) to GRADD Way.