MANSFIELD -- It’s easy to drive right by the entrance of Fleming Falls and not know it’s there. Situated on a residential street just outside Madison Township, the 183-acre nature preserve is a hidden gem, a peaceful oasis hidden in plain sight.
“What's fabulous about this park is it's quiet ... you can't go to another park and hear 15 waterfalls,” said Cheryl Harner, a Richland County Park District Commissioner and member of the Fleming Falls Preserve Committee.
The Richland County Park District purchased the property in November 2019 from the Lutheran Outdoor Ministry in Ohio, which operated Camp Mowana there for more than 75 years. Prior to that, Fleming Falls was a turn-of-the-century vacation destination and a Boy Scouts of America camp.
The preserve will protect more than four acres of high-quality wetlands, nearly two miles of headwater streams, and more than 100 acres of forested uplands on Fleming Falls Creek, according to the Richland County Park District. The creek is a major tributary of the Black Fork of the Mohican River.
“This really is a treasure. Not many people from the county know about it because they weren't necessarily Lutheran or campers here,” said Jeff Burkett, another member of the Fleming Falls Preserve Committee.
A small group of about 30 volunteers gathered there Saturday morning, diligently working to make Fleming Falls ready for public use. Once Fleming Falls opens, the public will be allowed to hike its footpaths and ride bicycles along the existing paved trails.
Harner and Burkett said the area could be open to the public as early as midsummer -- but it all depends on how quickly the work gets done.
Before the preserve can be opened to the general public, the Richland County Park District plans to make safety upgrades to the trails, repaving existing roads and parking lots and mark out a preliminary trail system.
Restoration work has been ongoing since the park district took ownership of the property. Some of the buildings onsite are being restored for public use. Much of that work involves restoring the property to as natural a state as possible. Invasive species have been weeded out and replaced with native plants. Homes and cabins have been removed from the property. Old septic systems have been taken out.
The preserve was purchased with a grant from the Clean Ohio Fund, which requires that landowners preserve high-quality habitats, wetlands, forests and other natural resources.
“Our first and foremost duty is to protect the trees, the habitat, the deer, mink, and turkey and all the wonderful wildlife we have here,” Harner said.
Nevertheless, the former Camp Mowana conference center will remain, as will the former Oswego Lodge and outdoor amphitheater. The lodge and some of the cabins will be preserved and turned into “education stations” -- each housing exhibits or activity spaces for field trips and children’s programming.
Harner said the preserve will serve as an educational hub -- a place for summer camps, school trips and junior naturalist programs.
“That's really what we want to do is have a robust educational program so we can teach kids to interface with nature appropriately,” she said. “You can't go to the city and find us. This is a very special place and it needs to be treated in a manner that it will be here for our children, and our grandchildren and our grandchildren's children.”