Chesterton Tribune

Board seeks court approval to move Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary library out of Dune Acres

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Flora Richardson, once described as a strong-minded and strong-willed naturalist, turned her property in Dune Acres into a wildlife sanctuary and library for public use more than 40 years ago.

Soon, the not-for-profit Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary may undergo its biggest change, ceasing to exist in the form it has since established in Flora’s will in 1960.

The board that serves as trustees of her will has recently proposed tearing down the house and setting up a library in memory of William and Flora Richardson at another site or sites. The board has informed program director Elma Thiele that it plans to eliminate her job.

Board member Robert Hartmann said the precise plans at this point may be a little premature until the necessary court approval is secured. However, he said he doesn’t envision a problem, saying that the change would alter the will only slightly.

Hartmann, a former Dune Acres town council member, said the change sought by the board would uphold Richardson’s wishes even more than the current arrangement. By removing the home, he said the board would turn the 3.4-acre lakefront property into a true wildlife sanctuary as Richardson wanted. By opening a library at another site or sites, he said, her wishes to support the public’s education and research of the Indiana Dunes would be maintained.

As it is now, Hartmann said the library gets little public use.

“Nobody goes there now,” he said.

Thiele, who took over as the sanctuary’s paid employee three years ago after the death of her husband, who held the post for the previous six years, said the sanctuary’s mission is three-fold, focusing on education, research and preservation of the Indiana dunes region. The library, and its extensive collection of books and photography, is one component of that mission.

Thiele agreed that the library attracts few visitors and that relocating it outside the gated, though public, community of Dune Acres might attract more use. Although the home brings out many naturalists for meetings, it’s rare for a guest to scour the library shelves.

“It was one of the visions Flora had for the library,” she said of public use. “It just hasn’t happened.”

From Hut to Library

Flora Richardson’s name is still on the mailbox at 64 West Road, where the sanctuary is nestled among some of Dune Acres’ more luxurious homes. The water pump that she and her husband, William, used to haul fresh water to their old cabin -- the same one that Flora lived in into her 80s -- still stands at the bottom of a dune ridge.

Inside the home, a watercolor of Flora, done by Beverly Shores artist Julia McVicker, hangs in the entranceway. From the expansive living room windows is a clear view of the dunes forest, the beach and Lake Michigan.

The library, open to the public by appointment only, contains the Richardsons’ collection of several thousands of books on natural science and biographies, including those of Charles Darwin and Madame Curie. Possibly one of the most interesting books -- one which Thiele will handle only with gloves -- is a dense, limited edition report, one in a 10-volume series, prepared for the U.S. Secretary of War in 1853-56. The book delineates the zoology along the preferred route for a new railroad from Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The data on the animals along the corridor is in fine detail, as are the line drawings of the species, all of which were hand colored in still-vibrant hues.

Displayed on the shelves is an old photo of Flora on a trip to the pyramids in Egypt and an earlier photo of her dressed in a long white dress typical of early 20th century, standing by her and her husband’s snow-covered hut.

According to a 1979 Chesterton Tribune story, William D. and Flora Slack Richardson built their first hut at the site out of canvas and sapling in 1910 to serve as a retreat from William’s work as chief chemist and vice-president of Swift and Co. in Chicago. At some point, the couple built a more durable cabin on site, a decade or so before the town of Dune Acres was officially established in 1923.

Flora “never forgot she was there first,” the Tribune reported, citing a friend of Flora’s who said she never really accepted town laws and building codes.

William was a pioneer in photography, and his dunes photographs of the early 1900s were exhibited in Tokyo, London and Paris. Today, the library maintains an extensive collection of his photos, both original prints and those placed on video.

Alice Gray, an early dunes activist who became a living legend of sorts for living alone in the Indiana Dunes when she came here in 1915 at age 34, was a frequent visitor at the Richardsons’ shelter while William and Flora were in Chicago. When the Richardsons returned to their dune home, they sometimes found the hearth stones still warm from Gray’s fires.

William died at his Chicago home on Jan. 14, 1936 after a long illness. An article about his passing, written by a W. Lee Lewis, eulogized him by the following:

“Chemistry has lost a scholar, beauty a disciple, and many of us a friend ... W.D. Richardson was an individualist, more sufficient in himself than most of us who lean all too heavily at times on others ... for the most part self-contained and to a degree a non-conformist, never given to effusiveness in his personal relationships ... meticulous in dress and speech alike, he was impatient of all inaccuracy or mental sloveliness.”

Flora continued coming to their cabin after William’s death. Sometimes she was given rides by longtime friends George and Julia McVicker of Chicago, who had a weekend home in Beverly Shores. When she couldn’t get a ride, she would take the South Shore trains and backpack to 64 West Road -- even in her 80s.

The 1979 Tribune story said Flora resisted making improvements at her cabin until in the 1950s when she got the idea of making a public library out of her and William’s many years of studying nature and the Indiana Dunes. The basic cabin was then replaced with a more permanent home -- the one that stands today -- for the resident librarian. The library’s board of directors was established on Oct. 16, 1958.

The Tribune story recalls George McVicker, who had served on the library board, as saying that some of the rare books from Flora’s extensive private library -- arts books from 1547 and 1579 -- were turned over to a rare book dealer and sold, with one book fetching $25,000. The funds were placed in a trust fund “to insure proper capitalization of the library.”

Flora Richardson died at the age of 89 on July 5, 1960. She had lived in the new home for only about a year before her death. Thiele said Flora herself was not the driving force behind the construction of the house -- the library’s board felt a woman in her 80s needed more proper quarters than a rustic cabin -- and that she was saddened when her and William’s old cabin was taken down.

“That hurt her. It was so full of memories,” she said.

Library Past and Future

Flora had no heirs. Her will established the wildlife sanctuary and natural history library at her and William’s home, asking that “the sanctuary and library be made available to use of persons interested in the preservation of wildlife and the book collection,” states a 1961 Tribune story.

The first lecture prepared by the Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary was given in November, 1962, illustrated by photos of the dunes taken by William between 1900 and 1905 on glass plates, with the negatives hand colored. The lecture outlined the progression of the seasons in the dunes and how the nature of plants and animals change as one walks from the lake over dune ridges to the forests. That and subsequent lectures given by the sanctuary were drawn from the more than 1,000 slides made by William.

In its early years, the library circulated the original photos to area schools, apparently without foreseeing the damage that would be done by passing through so many different hands. The library began circulating film strips of the photography instead -- with sound provided on accompanying albums, which Thiele notes was rather sophisticated for the time. According to the Tribune, the library’s film strips were circulated with sound to schools, hospitals, service clubs, and nursing homes in all 50 states, serving nearly 164,000 people a year.

The library/sanctuary operated pretty much unchanged until 1992, when the board of directors decided to increase its investment in the paid staff person. Instead of having a caretaker/librarian on site, the board created the post of program director, who, along with the duties of maintaining the home, grounds and library, would also promote education of the Indiana Dunes and conduct research. The idea, Thiele said, was to have a director who had a more expert knowledge, particularly of the dunes. She noted that previous caretakers planted Japanese yew trees on site, which are non-native species and a delicacy for deer. “The deer ate them all,” she said.

John Thiele served in the post for six years until his death in 2001, at which point, Elma, took over. She acknowledges that it’s uncommon to inherit a job due to the passing of a spouse. Not that she wasn’t qualified though. She holds two bachelors degrees in theater and in natural history interpretation and a master’s degree in secondary science education. Having worked as a curriculum consultant to schools, Thiele coordinated the curriculum for the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center in its infancy.

As sanctuary program director, Thiele cataloged the library collection with the help of a Westchester Public Library staffer laid off during the recent budget cuts. She has conducted what she calls “soft” research, including data collection on feeder birds for a program through Cornell University and beach condition reports through the Lake Michigan Federation.

But her main focus has been on education, and Thiele said what saddens her about the impending change at the sanctuary is the loss of the educational component. The sanctuary’s collection includes videos available on free loan to educators, and the sanctuary is preparing its 8,000 print photo collection for use by educators. Thiele has collaborated with a group that John was instrumental in forming, the South Lake Michigan Region Environmental Education Network, as well as programs with the Great Lakes Research and Education Center. She also provides professional development workshops and presentations.

The board of directors has told Thiele -- who lives in the home with her teenage daughter and their 19-year-old cat -- that she should plan to relocate by Sept. 1.

“I’m doing some exploration before I jump into the job market,” Thiele said. Given the local economy and the limited opportunities in the environmental education field, she said she is not pinning her hopes on staying in the dunes region.


Posted 3/18/2004