Who We Are

Indian Creek Nature Center’s mission is to promote a more sustainable future by:

  • Nurturing individuals through environmental education
  • Providing leadership in land protection and restoration
  • Encouraging responsible interactions with nature

Our Vision

At Indian Creek Nature Center, we create champions of nature.

Connecting people to nature early and often breeds understanding and passion for the natural world. Those who are passionate about nature will work to protect it. Children who are immersed in nature early in life become the next generation of environmental stewards.

Everyone can be a Champion of Nature. Even YOU! 

In a world plagued by Nature Deficit Disorder, the opportunities that Indian Creek Nature Center provides for learning, growth and unstructured play in the outdoors are absolutely essential for people of all ages. The future of our natural environment lies in the hands of people who care deeply about nature. Indian Creek Nature Center fosters that connection.

For decades Indian Creek Nature Center has led in sustainable building and operations practices.

We were the first to install net-metered solar panels in the state. A solar panel system was installed on the Sugar House in 1993. Relocated to the barn a few years later, those panels have produced 25% of our electricity. Today, our solar field, as well as panels on our main building (Amazing Space) and Penningroth Barn produce 100% of the energy we use and then some.

This innovative history of sustainability continues at the Nature Center today and into the future.  In 2016, we built our headquarters: Amazing Space. Just three years later, Amazing Space earned the prestigious Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, recognizing it as one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. Learn more about the certification and how Indian Creek Nature Center continues to lead by example in sustainability standards.

Our History

Our Beginnings

In 1849, two farms were established on land that would later become Indian Creek Nature Center. Nestled near the confluence of Indian Creek and the Cedar River, this land changed hands several times before Milo Wolfe purchased what is known today as the Bena Farm. The farm remained in the Wolfe family until 1899, when William Christle purchased it. For twenty years the Christle family owned the property, then sold it to Wencil and Carrie Bena on March 1, 1920. Carrie was William Christle’s daughter. The farm remained in the Bena family until it was sold to Indian Creek Nature Center in 1994.

Penningroth Dairy Farm

In the mid-1920s, Charles Penningroth, a Cedar Rapids attorney, purchased other land bordering Indian Creek. For the next 25 years, under Penningroth ownership, the land was utilized for various forms of agriculture. Construction of the Penningroth Dairy Barn was completed in 1932 in the midst of the Depression. The remodeled barn served as the headquarters of the Nature Center from its opening in 1973 until 2016, when the new Amazing Space building opened. The barn is still utilized for Nature Center activities.

In 1968, the City of Cedar Rapids used Federal Housing and Urban Development funds to purchase about 1000 acres of floodplain along the Cedar River. This land, known as the Greenbelt, stretches from southeast Cedar Rapids to Indian Creek, then extends north through the lower Indian Creek valley. The Penningroth farm was part of this purchase.

Indian Creek Nature Center is Established

In 1970 B.B. Stamats visited a nature center in the Twin Cities and became an advocate for an environmental education center in the Cedar Rapids area.  B.B. and Jean O’Donnell shared this vision and recruited a steering committee of about forty community members.  Indian Creek Nature Center was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1973 but a physical site had yet to be found. Studies identified Penningroth farm, now owned by the City of Cedar Rapids, as the best site.  A lease for the barn and 120 acres of land was arranged and the Indian Creek Nature Center became the first nature center in Iowa. The first public program was held on Groundhog Day in 1974.

Conservation, Education & Investing in the Future

The 80s were a busy time for the Nature Center:

  • In 1980, the Heritage Conservation and Recreation Service declared the Nature Center’s trails the Cedar Greenbelt National Recreation Trail.
  • In 1982-83, the Nature Center piloted its preschool and second grade programs and established its role as a leader in outdoor education.
  • ICNC installed its first stand-alone solar energy system, which charged a series of batteries that generated enough electricity to run the building’s lights but no more.
  • Finances were tight in the early 80s. And in response, the Indian Creek Nature Center Charitable Trust was formed. A $10,000 check came from an anonymous donor through the mail and was deposited into the endowment as the start of the Trust’s Assets.
  • The first tractor (a Sears lawn tractor and trailer) was purchased using money raised by the Guild. It greatly helped management of lands and trails.
  • In 1984, the Nature Center held its first Maple Syrup Festival.  About 450 people attended. Two years later the festival expanded from one day only to a weekend event. The Sugarhouse was built in the winter of 1987 was used was for the 1987 festival.

Prairie, Wetlands and Woodlands

An exceptional and unexpected opportunity came to ICNC in 1994 when the Bena family offered to sell their farm to the Nature Center. The resulting transaction increased Nature Center land to 210 acres. BB Stamats’ and Jean O’Donnell’s dream of a nature center for their community materialized into green prairies, teeming wetlands, and protected woodlands that thousands of visitors enjoy each year.

The Paul & Sigrund Lynch Wetland, the site of hundreds of Nature Center programs on wetland flora and fauna, was established in 1999.

More Visitors, More Land

In 2004, ICNC hosted its one-millionth visitor and purchased the Bena Homestead as part of its “Stitching the Bena Farm Back Together” project.

In 2005, ICNC drafted and began implementing a strategic initiative to provide leadership in land protection and restoration. The initiative expands the Nature Center’s work in the community to provide long-term, healthy ecosystems that benefit wildlife, the environment, and future generations.

In 2009 ICNC, in partnership with Metro High School staff and students, constructed and dedicated its Sense of Wonder Trail/Outdoor Classroom, which was certified as a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom by the National Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation.

Also in 2009, the Nature Center’s trail system expanded with the completion of Wood Duck Way and the Founders’ Trail.

Amazing Space & Etzel Sugar Grove Farm — A New Chapter


In 40 years, Indian Creek Nature Center increased its annual attendance to over 40,000 individuals per year, including approximately 14,000 children attending programs and school field trips. While a cherished landmark, the Nature Center’s barn building presented many inadequacies that hindered its use as a center for learning and exploration. Lack of accessibility to persons with disabilities,  air conditioning, and dedicated classroom space were among the primary obstacles.

To bring the Nature Center into the future, and after much input from stakeholders and the general community, the Amazing Space project was born. The 12,000 square foot building on Nature Center land, and the accompanying campus, addresses the shortcomings of the barn building, while making the Nature Center’s outdoor habitats more accessible. It also leads in building sustainability standards.

The Amazing Space fundraising campaign included $1 million in funds to build the Nature Center’s endowment, ensuring financial sustainability now and into the future. Indian Creek Nature Center is poised to bring the best of nature to the people of Iowa and beyond for many years to come.


The Nature Center received one of the largest gifts in its history in 2016, with the donation of 190-acres of farm from George Etzel. Presented with this incredible gift, the Nature Center’s board and staff knew it was an opportunity to truly impact environmental sustainability in Iowa. By working toward making agriculture more sustainable, ICNC can carry out its mission to create a more sustainable future. Located in rural Marion, Etzel Sugar Grove Farm represents the future of agriculture in Iowa: it’s a place where Indian Creek Nature Center will implement restorative agriculture practices that lead us toward greater sustainability in farming, educating the public on these practices as we work to restore the health of Iowa’s farms, watersheds, and environment.

Amazing Space Achieves Net-Zero Energy

In the spring of 2018, Amazing Space’s solar panels produce an excess of electricity. The excess energy generated at Amazing Space offsets any one of these items:

  • 8 Barrels of Oil
  • 94 Tons of Coal
  • 8,1652.55 Cubic Feet of Natural Gas
  • 59 Tons of TNT
  • 4 Cords of Oak firewood, which is 12,773 pounds of wood

Net Zero Energy means that a building produces on-site at least as much energy as it consumes, through renewable sources (like solar, wind, or hydropower). Net Zero Energy is a certification administered by the International Living Future Institute and is part of the Living Building Challenge certification.

Indian Creek Nature Center is the first commercial building in Iowa to pursue Net Zero Energy certification. One other building is currently under certification review, and it is the headquarters of Design Engineers – the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing design contractor selected by ICNC to design Amazing Space.

Living Building Petal Certification

In September 2019, Indian Creek Nature Center reached an incredible milestone: Amazing Space officially earned Living Building Challenge (LBC) Petal Certification, designating at the time as the first and only Petal Certified project in the state of Iowa and one of only 31 in the world, 24 of which are in the U.S.

Living Building Challenge is a comprehensive certification process set forth by the International Living Future Institute. The certification was designed to integrate human spaces with natural spaces; to celebrate the beauty and structure of nature; and, to lead the way in sustainable design.

Amazing Space now stands on the global stage as a model for comprehensive, sustainable design. By adopting and promoting regenerative building practices, Amazing Space sets the example for other businesses and individuals on how to implement these or similar practices themselves.

Amazing Space achieved six of the seven LBC petals, including Site/Place, Water, Energy, Health, Equity and Beauty. Learn more about our certification here.

A difficult year — Global Pandemic (COVID-19) & the August 2020 Derecho

Like the rest of the world, Indian Creek Nature Center faced an unprecedented year in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time in the Nature Center’s history, in March of 2020, the building was closed to the public and programs were halted temporarily as infections of the deadly virus spiked. Thankfully, we were able to continue a number of programs virtually and implement safety procedures for our community. We were able to slowly and cautiously reopen and continue to provide nature-based learning and recreation opportunities to our community.

However, the Nature Center was struck by tragedy once again in August of 2020, when a catastrophic storm ripped through the community on August 10. With sustained winds of over 100 miles per hour, the derecho devastated our beloved woodlands, destroying well over half of the Nature Center’s tree canopy. Read more from Executive Director John Myers here.

Indian Creek Exhibit, Organic Certification & Creekside Forest School


After a tumultuous prior year, ICNC kicked off 2021 by announcing a brand new preschool: Creekside Forest School. CFS is a nature-based, independent preschool program for three- and four-year-old children. Children will spend 30-70% of their day outdoors learning in the context of nature. In addition to kindergarten readiness, Creekside Forest School also teaches positive peer play behaviors and “learning to learn” skills that increase success in future school experiences. In August we hired our new preschool team and in September the school officially opens.


After more than five years of planning, careful crafting and, finally, installation, Indian Creek Nature Center’s long-awaited Indian Creek Exhibit opened for public viewing in March of 2021. The exhibit was planned as part of the design of Amazing Space prior to the building’s construction in 2016. The exhibit brings fresh energy to the exhibit hall, as well as a new educational and inspirational experience to the community.


In April, the Midwest Organic Services Association certified that the eggs and produce from Etzel Sugar Grove Farm are organic. Organic certification is a commitment to the future of agriculture and would not have been achieved without the support of countless volunteers, staff, and corporate sponsors including Frontier Co-Op, United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI), and Trees Forever.