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Oldest-Living Member Recalls Early Years pf Nature Study Club

(The Times photo by Betsy Reason)
Joe Roberts of Westfield, who’ll turn 90 on May 8, reminisces about growing up attending meetings of the Blatchley Nature Study Club, of which he’s been a member for 85 years. The club celebrates its 100th anniversary this week.

Westfield’s Joe Roberts remembers the Blatchley Nature Study Club when he was a kid.

“My parents were members and, at that time, families attended,” he said. “So as soon as I was old enough to keep quiet in meetings, they took me to the Nature Club. I just have always attended.”

He said, “Next month, I’ll turn 90, and so I’ve been going to the Nature Club for about 85 years.”

Roberts is the oldest-living member of the club. “I don’t remember anybody who’s been in there longer,” he said.

His parents, Justin A. and Mildred V. (Caca) Roberts, joined the Nature Study Club years before he started going, not long after the club’s 1922 founding. “They were always active members. So probably they joined in the late ‘20s or so … they were not charter members.

“I enjoyed the meetings of the club,” said Roberts, an only child who said nature programs back then weren’t common.

The club celebrates its 100th anniversary this week at a special program at 7 p.m. Thursday during the club’s next meeting, during which guests are welcome. A Spring Wildflower Walk and Centennial Celebration will be 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday on the Blatchley Nature Study Club grounds.

This year marks the 100th year of the nature study club, which was founded on April 8, 1922, by Dr. Earl Brooks. The club, which is made up of individuals who share a love of nature, changed its name to The W.S. Blatchley Club to honor Indiana’s greatest naturalist, Dr. Willis Stanley Blatchley (1859-1940). The Blatchley Nature Study Club was incorporated as a nonprofit on Nov. 12, 1941. Brooks deeded 15 acres of land to the club for use as a sanctuary and on which to build a clubhouse on March 8, 1963. Roberts said for the first 45 years of the club’s existence, before the clubhouse was built, Blatchley Nature Study Club met in members’ homes.

“We had a limited membership (between 40 and 50), to be just enough people to fill a home, but not too many,” said Roberts, whose family played host to members only once every year or two.

As one would guess, there wouldn’t be enough chairs for people in members’ homes. “In those days, what you did, you called the funeral home. There were three funeral homes in Noblesville. Part of their advertising was providing folding chairs for meetings,” Roberts said.

“So if you had a meeting at your home, the afternoon of the meeting, a hearse would pull up in front of your house and deliver 20 or 30 chairs or however many were needed. We used those. That is how we were able to seat people … They did it free of charge. That was the advertising.”

(The Times photo by Betsy Reason)
Signage welcomes visitors to the Blatchley Nature Study Club grounds at 125 Boulder Drive, where the road deadends in an older neighborhood. Boulder Drive is accessible from Edith Avenue, north of the historic Potter’s Bridge off of Cumberland Road in Noblesville.

During the summertime, sometimes, the club would have outdoor meetings. “Especially an interesting meeting each year was a meeting at Conner Prairie because Eli and Ruth Lilly were members of the club and they hosted us, and they were very gracious and interesting members … They didn’t usually attend except for the meeting that they hosted. But that would be a dinner meeting; we would have what we called a pitch-in or a carry-in dinner on the big porch which was on the west side of the Conner Home overlooking the Prairie. Eli and Ruth Lilly always said that was the best meal they had all year, when we had that carry-in dinner at their house … It was at the brick home that William Conner built. Of course, in those times, there was no Conner Prairie settlement. It was all private. Eli had reconstructed a barn and a trading post and a loom house and a distillery, so there were some out-buildings that were always of interest. I think some of those buildings are still there, the ones surrounding the Conner Home.”

Roberts doesn’t remember taking any hikes at Conner Prairie. “The last years, when the Lillys were still living, we met, sometimes, at what they called the China House. Those were always interesting meetings. The Lillys, of course, were interested in local history, so usually the programs at the Conner Home were having to do with local history.”

There was always an interesting program during the meetings.

“Our meetings consisted of programs given by members. And every member was expected to give a program. In those days, before the internet and TV, the things that we have now, that meant that you had to go to the library and do research on a program … In most years, there was an emphasis on one topic during the year. For instance, we would have a year on Astronomy or a year on Fungus Growth or a year on Edible Plants.”

The first program Roberts presented was on Spiders. “I probably was in high school at that time,” he said. The most recent program he presented was on Cloning Extinct Animals.

He said in the early years, the club didn’t have the advantage of movies brought in. The club used an old slide projector that projected glass slides that were hand-colored, he said. “That was always a special program when he would have illustrated programs,” he said.

The club through the years has had specialists, including Dr. Earl Brooks, who was known as a dental surgeon in Noblesville, and he was the authority on the American robin and wrote several articles about robins and gave programs about robins to the club. There was also Paul Ullmann, who was the assistant state entomologist, he was quite knowledgeable and often brought other specialists from the Department of Natural Resources to give programs. The two men were “both important assets to the club.” Another was Dr. Sherman A. Minton (1919-1999) of Indianapolis, probably the country’s leading authority on marine snakes, Roberts said. He came and gave interesting programs.

No pets have been allowed at the programs, unless it was the topic of the program. There have been owls, ferrets and snakes in the programs. He remembers one program on snakes. A high school student brought a snake in a box, and when the student opened the box, a couple of the women members jumped up, “my mother was one of them,” Roberts said, and ran into another room, and another woman ran out the front door, and watched from outside until the snake was put back in its box at the end of the program.

With so much information being available today, both films and specialists available, he said, “We don’t call on members to give programs as often as we used to.”

The Clubhouse (built with a generous monetary gift from the Eli Lilly family, who were members) and the sanctuary was dedicated on July 18, 1965. The Clubhouse is at 125 Boulder Drive, where the road deadends in an older neighborhood off. Boulder Drive is accessible from Edith Avenue, north of the historic Potter’s Bridge off of Cumberland Road in Noblesville. The community is invited to come out to the Clubhouse and visit the grounds during this Saturday’s Wildflower Walk and Celebration.

Roberts has led the annual wildflower hike in various past years but will not this year. He’s also helped in the past with cleanups.

While most of the time, the members meet at the clubhouse, sometimes they go on trips. For instance, when Dr. Goethe Link built his observatory in 1937 and opened in 1939 south of Martinsville, the club had a program there at Goethe Link Observatory, which is now owned by Indiana University and operated by the Indiana Astronomical Society. The club also visited some bird reserves, an elk farm near Elwood or enjoyed an early morning bird hike near Noblesville’s Morse Reservoir where there was a natural area with hills and gullies, an excellent location to see birds. They’ve also taken night owl walks and have visited the Rookery Reserve near Arcadia in northern Hamilton County.

He remembers when the Clubhouse was built in the early 1960s. Dr. Brooks, who had been instrumental in founding the club, owned the area out there along the (White) river and he proposed that we have a clubhouse, and he would donate a piece of ground for it. It was not fully agreed to. I was president of the club at that time, and we had several meetings where the proposition was discussed, and some people still enjoyed meeting in private homes and with a more limited number of members. But eventually, we decided to take up on his offer and we did go ahead and build the clubhouse. It has been a different group and, of course, we were able to expand the membership.”

Before having the clubhouse, when the meetings were in homes, he said.

Everyone was expected to attend every meeting. “If you couldn’t be, you would call the hostess and let them know beforehand that you were not going to be there. That way they would know how many people to prepare refreshments for,” he said.

If there wasn’t enough space in a home, the club would rent Fryberger’s Tea Room in Noblesville. It was a popular place to meet on South Ninth Street. “We would have meetings in the private tea rooms or the basement of churches. But there were really no other public auditoriums where we could meet at that time.”

The Club met on the second and fourth Fridays of each month.

“You have to remember, this was before television, before computers, before cell phones, and people enjoyed going out and meeting together. It was a different age, really,” Roberts said.

He would guess there are between 60 and 100 members today.  A number of school faculty are in the club, including Noblesville East Middle School science teacher Rick Towle, the club’s president, and Promise Road Elementary art teacher Darlene Patterson.

“But now we only meet once a month. And attendance is good at the Nature Club, but people are not expected to meet as they were before. Now, attendance is spotty. People attend when they can,” Roberts said.

When the club met in homes, members baked a pie or cake and served. “We had very fresh and very hot refreshments,” he said. “Now people carry in something to drink and finger food or cake or small items.” The club still has carry-in dinners at least once a year. The clubhouse’s basement is now fixed up to have dinners in the basement, and there is also a barbecue pit outside the clubhouse.

Membership was and still is a nominal fee. Roberts is a life member. Today, memberships range from $5 for ages 18 and younger to a $500 individual life membership.

The Blatchley Nature Study Club grounds are very natural. “It’s all rough grounds of hills and valleys with newer stairways,” said Roberts, who likes to go out and enjoy the large variety of wildflowers. “Very early in the spring, the first thing that blooms is Salt and Pepper,” he said.

Roberts recalled the generosity of Dr. Brooks. “When the hikes first opened, Dr. Brooks saw to it that we had an example of each of the Indiana orchids.” The orchids have since died out, as has Blue Eyed Mary and other flowers. “We pretty much have let things grow as nature intended,” he said. The unpaved trails at Blatchley he considers “moderate” difficulty because “it’s uphill and down, and you have to be somewhat agile to handle it.” He also said, “We encourage people to stay on the trail, or they’re trampling on wildflowers.”

Looking back on all of these years, he said what makes him smile the most is “remembering the variety of people who have been in the club through the years.”

He also shared more about himself. “I’m a Noblesville native, was born here in 1932 and went through the Noblesville commons schools, graduated from high school in 1950. Went on to college and law school and then two years in the Army. When I was discharged, I came back and ran for Hamilton County Prosecutor and won that and served four years as prosecutor (1959-62) and entered my family law firm and practiced law for 42 years. I was the first prosecutor to move the office into the Courthouse. It had always been a part-time job before that. The job began to mushroom and required more time. I got an office in the Courthouse. And then I retired in 2002 and have been living on the farm since then.”

“My wife’s family had a farm there, which they entered from the government, never being out of the family. We moved to Westfield after we were married and the children came and we moved there in 1967. I’ve been there since.”

He was married 54 years to Leanna Barker Roberts, a teacher, who passed three years ago, at age 94. He has two children, a son, Thomas, and daughter, Mary Kathryn, five grandchildren, Ramona, Rachel, Joseph, John and Paul, and one great-grandchild.

Today, Roberts enjoys doing what he likes to do in retirement. “I keep busy. I have a big yard to take care of. I try to keep tabs on the farm.”

– Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.

Want TO GO?

What: Blatchley Nature Study Club’s 100th anniversary Spring Wildflower Walk and Centennial Celebration.

When: Guided wildflower walks are 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Blatchley Nature Study Club, 125 Boulder Drive, Noblesville.

Celebration: “Willis S. Blatchley” history by Chris Wirth will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday during the club’s 100th anniversary celebration. Guests welcome.