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The sprawling 140-acre Cottage Grove property, once a summer getaway for Constance Shepard-Otis,consists of multiple stables, barns and farmstead. The Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center recently acquired the functional farmstead with plans to use it as a site for environmental education opportunities. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

Family farmstead in Cottage Grove transferred to Dodge Nature Center

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Preservation and the outdoors were two of Constance Shepard-Otis' passions.

A native of St. Paul, she spent her childhood summers at a farmstead in Cottage Grove learning about nature and enjoying life in what was originally sprawling countryside.

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Protected by a conservation easement, the farmstead remained a sentiment of the past as Cottage Grove continued to grow.

After months of discussion with the family, the 140-acre farmstead was recently turned over to the Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center, a nonprofit organization that provides environmental education and habitat restoration.

"I think the opportunity with a property like this, with the conservation easement, it really fits in well with our mission and vision of creating new environment education opportunities," said Jason Sanders, Dodge Nature Center executive director.

It was a longtime vision of Shepard-Otis' to one day hand over the farm to an organization that would preserve it, her brother Stan Shepard said in an interview.

"I'm just delighted that this has finally taken place," he said. "I think the farm is ideally situated for environmental programs and educational opportunities the Dodge Nature Center offers."

The Dodge Nature Center, in West St. Paul, was founded by Shepard-Otis' best friend, Olivia Dodge, a fact Stan said was the most touching part of the transaction.

The farm was originally willed to the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in 1997, Sanders said. Shepard-Otis was a longtime friend of the founder. Last year, the foundation began searching for an organization that would fulfill Shepard-Otis' long-term vision for the property, which was to open it up for nature explorations and environmental education opportunities.

"(The Wilder Foundation) no longer had a need for it," Sanders said. "It was a property used for programming that no longer had children and families using it. It was just sitting there."

As a founding board member of the nature center, Shepard-Otis would have been elated to see her home turned over to the center, Stan said.

"The nature center has a farm program which gets kids involved with how a farm works and how to grow crops and all kinds of things that brings them outside," he said. "She would have been absolutely delighted to see this transaction occur. That's the only downside of this, she was not able to see it happen."

Shepard-Otis died in January at the age of 93.

With more than 41,000 adults and children participating in the center's programming each year, Sanders said, the farmstead will provide even more programming in the future. While the center and city of Cottage Grove continue to work through the strategic planning process, Sanders said work on the site will not begin for a while.

The center is also in talks with School District 833 to see what types of programming could be made available in the future.

Senior Planner John Burbank echoed Stan, saying the city has had its fingers crossed since talks of the transfer began last spring.

"The property is a significant natural community within Cottage Grove," Burbank said. "Having it actively managed and potentially programed for public access would be another unique asset to the city's continued legacy of excellent public park and trail systems and well managed privately held lands."

"The possibilities are amazing and endless," Sanders added.

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Emily Buss
Emily Buss joined the South Washington County Bulletin in February 2013. She covers local government in Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport, along with other general assignment reporting. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communications from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
(651) 459-4629
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