The Story of the Otto and Magdalene Ackermann Nature Preserve Created January 2020

The Otto and Magdalene Ackermann Nature Preserve is a natural treasure in North Huntingdon Township, not far from Route 30 and accessible by either Leger Road or Ardara Road. The Preserve is a beautiful forest with wildflowers, trails, hills, scenic overlooks, streams and small waterfalls, even an abandoned quarry dating back to at least 1867.

Photo taken at the bottom of the Quarry

1867 Atlas of Westmoreland County

Location of quarry has been outlined in red

Preserve holds mayapples and many other spring wildflowers

But this story about the Preserve begins in 1920, on another continent far from southwestern PA. In 1920 Otto Ackermann was a young World War I German Army veteran. Magdalene Windhaus was a talented medical student. Otto and Magdalene met while hiking in the Alps, and found that they shared a love of nature and the outdoors. That winter they met in the mountains again, for skiing. In 1924 Magdalene and Otto married.

Magdalene and Otto eventually moved to Western Pennsylvania.

Otto had been trained as an electrical engineer, and found work at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh.

Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company - Library of Congress

After first living in Wilkinsburg the couple bought a house in Irwin. In 1939 they started to buy the land to conserve the forest that became the nature preserve.

Otto and Magdalene had 5 children: Mechtild (Meccy), Hans Dietrich, Gerlind (Lindy), Norbert (Nobie), and Richard.

The family loved the forest preserve and visited often. They hiked, and explored the woods and creek and small waterfalls and quarry. They went sledding and watched people collect mushrooms. They watched a fire company practice rescue maneuvers in the quarry. Otto taught Boy and Girl Scouts of Irwin about the preserve’s flora and fauna.

Luna Moth

Otto also studied butterflies and moths, and assembled what was believed to then be one of the largest private collections of specimens in the world. He often recruited family members to collect eggs and help raise moths and butterflies through the stages of metamorphosis.

Small waterfall on preserve
Another small waterfall on preserve

After Otto passed away in 1964, the family continued to enjoy the Preserve.

In 1976, Meccy’s daughter KC Grapes and her husband were married in the Preserve.

For the event, Meccy's husband Eugene Grapes created a path down to the floodplain which is now known as the Wedding Trail. KC wore a gown she had made with red, white and blue to commemorate the year of the bicentennial.

Meccy’s son David Grapes built a rudimentary cabin on the property and lived there for two years; the cabin was subsequently burned.

After Magdalene passed away in 1991, ownership of the Preserve passed to the 5 children, who established a nonprofit corporation to maintain the land “as a nature preserve dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of nature in its most pristine, unaltered state … for the use of all individuals and nonprofit groups which would use it for these purposes”. In 1997 the family opened the Preserve to the public.

Over the years, the extended family scattered until few descendants remained in the area. In the meantime, the Westmoreland County Commissioners formed the Westmoreland Land Trust (WLT) in 2007 to conserve land of special value in Westmoreland County.

Eventually, Meccy and Eugene Grapes contacted Chuck Duritsa, the founding Chair of the WLT, to discuss the possibility of donating the Preserve to ensure its conservation in perpetuity. The property was of particular interest to the WLT because of its ecological quality, and because it could remain as conserved open space in a rapidly developing part of Westmoreland County referred to as the “Growth Triangle”.

Growth Triangle

Meccy and Eugene and the other Ackermann children donated the land in October 2009. The children recognized the extent of the obligation that the WLT was assuming to conserve this land in perpetuity, and each of the 5 children also made a monetary gift of $1,000 to the WLT to help with upkeep.

Painting of the floodplain in the Preserve by Otto and Magdalene's granddaughter, KC Grapes

The family’s donation of the Ackermann Preserve formed part of the WLT’s first land conservation project. The donation of this land was doubly valuable for conservation because it also served as a match that allowed WLT to secure DCNR* grant funding equivalent to its value, to acquire land along the Great Allegheny Passage to expand Cedar Creek Park, and in Murrysville to establish another free-standing nature preserve. * Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Click to watch a short video showing Norbert and Joanne Ackermann and Bob Michaud (KC Grapes' husband and the groom in wedding photos).

Since then, the WLT has maintained the Preserve for public enjoyment as a natural treasure in North Huntingdon Township.

The WLT has maintained and built trails, removed invasive plants, and made improvements to the Preserve. This work has been accomplished with the help of Eagle Scouts, AmeriCorps Service Members, WLT Board members, United Way, and volunteers from local businesses including:

Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania and Maryland

Elliott Group

First National Bank

RAI Trade Marketing Services Co.

W.N. Tuscano Agency, Inc.

The effort of individual and company volunteers has been invaluable, for it has allowed the WLT to make improvements at the Preserve which would otherwise have been impossible, including:

Building and maintaining trails

Installing signs

Seeding floodplain with native seeds

Installing New Entrance sign

Removing abandoned car parts

Trimming branches to open a scenic view

Removing invasive plants

Planting in the floodplain

We sought suggestions to name the stream that runs through the Preserve. By far the most popular idea for a name was "Blue Dell Run", because the artesian well that provided water for the well-known former Blue Dell Pool is also the source of water for the stream.

In January 2020, we submitted an application to formally name the stream.

The historic Blue Dell Pool
"Blue Dell Run"

The Preserve is now a natural treasure in North Huntingdon Township. It has become a favored destination for nature groups including the Botanical Society of Westmoreland County, the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania, the Westmoreland Bird and Nature Club, and the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club. Individuals and families visit to enjoy nature and explore, geocache, or watch and photograph birds and wildlife. The Preserve's range of trails make it suitable for visitors of all ages.

Northern Dusky Salamander
2019 Westmoreland Woodlands Improvement Association/WLT walk in Penn's Woods at the Ackermann Preserve. 
Enjoying the view
Exploring the stream

Thanks to the generosity and far-sightedness of the Ackermann family, the commitment of the WLT, and the effort and support of many volunteers, local businesses, and funders, the Otto and Magdalene Ackermann Nature Preserve’s forest and many points of interest will be protected and conserved for generations to come.

This Story Map was financed in part by a grant from the Community Conservation Partnership Program Environmental Stewardship Fund under the administration of PA DCNR, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, administered through PEC's Laurel Highlands Mini Grant Program.

Photo Credits:

The Ackermann family photo archives of KC Grapes

Cary Bohl

Ron Bryant (IB Dronin Photography)

Tammy Colt

Robert Michaud

Loree Speedy

John Wizzard

Library of Congress

Lori Yesconis

This Story Map was prepared by Stephanie Jellison, AmeriCorps Service Member to the Westmoreland Land Trust.

Click for an aerial tour courtesy of IB Dronin Photography