If you’ve enjoyed the land or programs at Indian Creek Nature Center at any point over the last 50 years, you have B.B Stamats — and her love of horseback riding, specifically — to thank.
The story goes that B.B was riding along Indian Creek, from her family’s stable property located about half a mile from ICNC near the Rosedale Road Bridge, on one of her regular horseback riding sessions, when she came upon the Penningroth Barn site.
She’d had the idea that the Cedar Rapids area needed a place for dedicated environmental education, much like a nature center she’d recently visited in the Twin Cities. And on that particular ride, she realized the Penningroth Barn site might just be the perfect spot.
B.B. reached out to good friend and fellow community go-getter Jean O’Donnell. The two worked hand-in-hand to turn their idea into a reality, forming a steering committee and drumming up support, financial and otherwise, to turn Indian Creek Nature Center into a reality in 1973.
B.B — which she always went by instead of her full name, Bette Barron — passed away in 2009, but her legacy, both at the Nature Center and in the Cedar Rapids community, lives on. Fifty years after that fateful horseback riding session, B.B’s sons Bill and Peter Stamats think their mom would be wildly thrilled with how the organization has continued to flourish.
“I think she would be amazed and happy and that the Nature Center is thriving 50 years later,” said Bill.
“She would be more than delighted with where things are today,” agreed Peter, noting that the new Amazing Space building and additional land that has been purchased over the years would be something his mom would think of as tremendous.
Bill was about 12 or 13 years old when he remembers his mom hatching the idea for the Nature Center. “I remember a lot of intense meetings at our dining room table,” he said. “I remember Jean O’Donnell being there and I remember Bill Schneider being very involved.”
“I remember going to the old barn and visiting with Rich Patterson when he was hired,” Peter added. “I was so taken as a kid by just some of the dioramas and educational offerings that were there. I remember walking out with Rich Patterson and he showed us how they tapped the trees for maple syrup.”
It’s those same kind of memories the Nature Center staff today hear from so many in the community.
“My mom was a driver, she felt the need to do things,” said Bill, noting that later in life she became a landscape designer. “Back in the 60s and early 70s there were a lot of women of her ilk that didn’t work but felt the need to contribute to Cedar Rapids. And she took the combination of her love of nature — she was very active in the Garden Club — and her love of horses — she loved riding along that trail — to move this idea forward.”
B.B started several horse shows in Cedar Rapids, and Bill feels it was her success with these ventures that helped propel her efforts in creating the Nature Center forward in part. She was active in both the Cedar Rapids Garden Club and Junior League, other great supporters of this new idea.
And a new idea it was. While there was a push in the 60s to being more ecologically proactive, the Nature Center was one of the first privately owned nature centers west of the Mississippi River.
“At the time it was created, the Nature Center was ahead of its time,” Peter said, noting that his mom had a strong science background, having studied it at Sweet Briar College. “…that was a real undertaking for them to really go out into the community and talk to other community members about creating something like that.”
“And I think that legacy is so important today as we face climate change,” said Bill. “She was really onto something. I think she definitely wanted to push sustainability because she thought it was very important which is really amazing if you think about it. She knew that if you learn about nature at a young age then it sticks with you. I’m just really proud of my mom for having the idea to bring this to Cedar Rapids.”
For so many families, the decision by B.B. to start a community nature center has impacted generations. The Stamats family is no different.
“I have fond memories of taking my own kids to events,” Bill said, remembering the otter release event, most particularly because the otters were quite smelly, and attending Maple Syrup Festival for many years. And Bill’s son, an organic farmer now living in Washington State, was married here at the Nature Center back in 2018. Bill noted that it was the perfect venue, both in having the family connection and in the layout of the patio and pergolas in front of Amazing Space for a Hindu ceremony. B.B. was surely there in spirit and nature.
Peter’s son spent a summer working at the Nature Center. “It certainly is an institution that has stuck with our family for a long time.”
Both Peter and Bill carry on the tradition of their mother by spending time in nature, most notably on morning walks. “Part of her legacy was always being outdoors,” said Peter. “Being in the open air, being respectful and engaged with nature.”
As one way to celebrate the 50th anniversary, Bill, a highly talented and sought after artist, donated his time and talents to create an original painting of the Penningroth Barn — one of the original sparks of the idea for the Nature Center we know and love today — that will be auctioned off later this year. “It is still iconic, and I still think it resonates as part of the Nature Center’s heritage. Even though we moved so much of the programming over to Amazing Space, it still carries that weight.”
While five decades is a lot to reflect back on, both Peter and Bill Stamats agreed this is one special milestone.
“My mom was a force to be reckoned with when she set her mind to something,” said Peter. “She really wanted to engage with the community when she came to Cedar Rapids and the Nature Center is one of her legacies from her time in this community.”
“The Nature Center celebrating 50 years is a really nice legacy for her,” agreed Bill. “And so I think she would just be very proud, very proud of what she started. We all are.”