The Bena Family: The farmers who gave the land back to nature

50 Stories for 50 Years

is presented by New Leader Manufacturing

While the Nature Center has been around for 50 years, few people can say they knew the land before that. 

Gordon and Nancy Bena, however, certainly can.

Gordon’s family — his father and grandparents — grew up on the property that many know today as the Bena Prairie, Trail, and Brook.

“As kids we used to dam up the brook every weekend and make a little swimming hole,” Gordon recalled. “Every night the water would come down the timber and by morning it would wash away our efforts of the previous day. A lot of memories of that old creek and Carrie are still in my mind.” 

Carrie Christle (Bena), Gordon’s grandmother, was born in 1894 and moved with her family to their 114 acre farm — on the site of the Bena Prairie today — in 1900. Back then, the Bena property was a day-long horse and buggy ride adventure from downtown Cedar Rapids. Carrie and her family would travel into Cedar Rapids to trade the crops they had grown — mostly potatoes — with people in town for other items they needed.

After living on the land for nearly a century the Bena family transitioned the land to Indian Creek Nature Center, so the native habitat could be restored to the Bena Prairie, Bena Brook and Bena Trail users are now able to visit.

Gordon’s grandfather, Wencil Bena, also grew up in the Otis Road neighborhood near Carrie’s family farm. The families living in and around this area at the time (including the Penningroths who owned the barn, which became the original home of the Nature Center, down the road) were a tight-knit group. 

Wencil and Carrie wed in 1914. The Bena family (Carrie and Wencil and their children Leo, Julia, and Ernest) bought the farm from Carrie’s parents and lived there, raising their own chickens, pigs, and livestock. They were true pioneers, Gordon said. The home (pictured above) was heated by a wood-burning stove that they also used for cooking. 

The Bena family legacy to the land is enduring. Carrie lived on the farm until age 99, spending 30 of those years living on her own. She passed away in 1993, just a few months after moving from the land that had been her home for all her life. 

Talks began after that about the Nature Center purchasing the farm and beginning the process of prairie restoration and land protection on those acres so lovingly cared for by the Bena family for nearly a century. 

“Carrie loved the land, it was her life,” Gordon said. “She loved watching things grow and didn’t mind at all the hard work that went with it … well into her eighties she was still out in the field helping to do what was needed done. ”She’d do her chores every morning starting at 5 a.m., he recalled. “At that time it consisted of milking cows (by hand) and feeding the pigs and chickens … I never heard her complain. She couldn’t get her hands dirty enough. Carrie used to sit on the back porch of the farmhouse and look out over her land and smile.”

Gordon said he was so moved years after the purchase of the property by ICNC when the creek running along the property was deemed Bena Brook by the Nature Center. “Carrie and Ernest wanted the land to be used for the enjoyment of everyone and with the brook carrying the Bena name, all their efforts won’t go in vain.” 

Decades after Gordon Bena built swimming holes in the brook, Creekside Forest School and Fresh Air Academy students frequently visit to explore the brook now named in honor of the Bena family.

Gordon and his wife Nancy remember Carrie commenting later in her life that it would be so nice for the land to go back to the way it was when her family first arrived. “Thanks to the Nature Center, that has become a reality,” said Gordon. 

“And there’s not a lot of people that can spend the rest of their life going back to their old homestead,” he added, noting that it’s not lost on him how special that is. He’s happy to be sharing the property with so many visitors to ICNC year after year, especially children who are connecting with and learning to respect the land. 

When Gordon thinks about what his grandmother might say today, as the Nature Center celebrates its 50th anniversary, a smile appears on his face. “She’d like what you all are doing. I believe that she would be happy that there are people enjoying the woods and all that, enjoying the land.”

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