The history of Seven Ponds Nature Center began in 1966. Two people with faith, a vision, and the will to make it a reality, started the whole thing. Patty and Rip Schemm found themselves in a position to realize a lifelong dream: to establish a facility for conservation and environmental education. They found plenty of willing helpers.
Patty and Rip offered 100 acres of land and lakes and the resources to construct a small building to the Michigan Audubon Society. The land was part of an extensive wetland area in Lapeer County known as the Seven Ponds. This tract contained a series of seven small glacial lakes connected by channels and surrounded by marshes, woodlands, and fields. The land was accepted by Michigan Audubon in October of 1966. MAS designated the Genesee, Grosse Pointe, Lapeer, and Oakland Chapters as participants in the undertaking and Seven Ponds was on its way. The Seven Ponds Nature Center Governing Board was formed to coordinate operations.
About this time Bee Naish, a member of Genesee Audubon, came over to see the fledgling nature center and brought her husband Don, an engineer at General Motors, along as driver and navigator. This day was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the Schemms and Naishes which would be of tremendous benefit to the nature center for many years to come. Don Naish's engineering knowhow and Bee Naish's knowledge and appreciation for the out-of-doors were the perfect complement to the Schemm's vision and resources, and both served in a variety of capacities at Seven Ponds.
Rip Schemm and Don Naish designed the first building for the nature center and construction began in December of 1966. The building was enclosed, heated, and lighted by the time a three foot snowstorm hit in February of 1967. It was finished by volunteers coming in on skis, sleds, and snowshoes. This building was intended primarily for weekend use but before it was finished it was evident that a full-fledged nature center building was needed. The old farmhouse by the front entrance was also remodeled at this time and soon the first Seven Ponds naturalist moved in.
On May 13, 1967 the nature center opened its doors to the public with Edward M. Brigham serving as the first Director. Progress continued on many fronts. Miles of trails were opened, brush cleared, and low spots filled in order to make the center's varied habitats available for use. The new building was staffed on weekends and visitors were made welcome. Also in this year the Endowment Fund was established and the Great Blue Heron was adopted as the center's logo. Much of this was accomplished with the help of enthusiastic volunteers, and volunteerism continues today as an essential element of the center's operation.
1968 was a significant year in the history of the center as long-time supporter, Stephen Stackpole, contributed funds for the boathouse, dock, teaching platforms, boardwalks, the A-frame Bridge, and a boat and motor. Planning and fundraising were also started for a new building, for which Alden Dow of Midland was retained as architect. Don Naish took over the position of Director in a volunteer capacity.
In 1969 Seven Ponds became a semi-independent organization with its own board and bank accounts under direction of the MAS Board of Directors. The Detroit Audubon Society became a participant in Seven Ponds with two representatives on the Governing Board. Also in that year, an attractive Cape Cod home was built near the front gate in order to house a full-time Director. Frank McCamey, Jr. was hired as full-time Director and he took up residence in this home.
In 1970, 75 additional acres were acquired, again through the generosity of Patty and Rip Schemm. This, added to the already impressive area available for educational purposes, increased the potential of Seven Ponds. Also in 1970, a maintenance position was added to the staff, a bookstore/gift shop was started, and voluntary contributions, both in labor and funds, intensified.
Growth continued through 1971. Funds were accumulated for a new building. An in-depth program was started with Almont schools, there was increased participation by foundations, the Governing Board was granted more autonomy, a secretary was added to the staff, a prairie reconstruction was started, and plans for the new building were finalized. The new structure would contain a meeting room/display area, project room, bookstore/gift shop, library, kitchen, offices, restrooms, and a large basement, all attached to the original building. Use of the nature center for a variety of purposes was increasing at a rapid rate.
In 1972 ground was broken for the new building. The Kresge, Skillman, and Wickes Foundations and many private donors contributed substantially to the project. A Board of Sponsors was created to help fund the work. Amidst the turmoil and confusion of construction, school children and others were skillfully handled by staff and volunteers.
By 1973 the new building was ready. It was first used for an MAS Board of Directors meeting on April 12, and formally dedicated in May. At the same time, long-time supporter Paul Townsend gave Seven Ponds the 77 acres known as "Paul's Woods.” This provided the center with some mature forest habitat as the center grew to 246 acres. A waterfowl feeding area in the center's "North-80" was also donated by Em Yeasting in memory of his wife. Also in this year, the prairie reconstruction was expanded, a ladies auxiliary, the Stingers, was formed, and additional naturalists were hired.
In 1974, Don Naish returned as Director in a volunteer capacity.
In 1975 growth continued in programs and services. More programs were taken to the schools as economic conditions made it difficult for schools to come to the nature center. Many school groups became repeat visitors. A maintenance building was completed and expansion of the prairie continued.
In 1976 the Macomb Audubon Society was formed and became a participating MAS chapter in the management of Seven Ponds Nature Center, with two representatives on the Governing Board. The Naturalist's Residence by the front entrance gate was also remodeled and brought to its present form. The prairie reconstruction became Earl's Prairie, named for Seven Ponds naturalist Earl Neeb who was tragically killed in an automobile accident during the year. The prairie was expanded to nine acres.
Through the late 1970's the nature center continued to develop and expand its services for the community. In 1977 the first Heritage Harvest Day was held and a nature photography club was formed. In 1978 the Herb Garden was created and an Astronomy Club started up.
Through the 1980's the nature center maintained a high level of programing for schoolchildren, members, and weekend visitors. A wonderful variety of classes, workshops, field trips, and special events were offered. The center continued to relay information to its supporters through its newsletter, Heron Tracks. Volunteerism continued to grow. ASNATS (Assistant Naturalists) helped with a variety of educational programs, Stingers raised funds through rummage sales and other activities, the Governing Board continued to oversee the operation of the center, and individual volunteers helped make things happen in about every phase of the center's operation. The Astronomy Club, Friends of Herbs, Eastern Michigan Collectors, and Lapeer Audubon continued to meet at the center to enjoy their outdoor interests.
A number of features were added to the grounds during this same time period including the Woodland Wildflower Garden, the North-80 Observation Tower, the Prairie Observation Tower, and the Butterfly Garden.
Several people served as Director of the nature center during this period. Mike Janis became the full-time Director in 1983 and stayed for three years. In 1986 Don Naish returned for his third stint as Director, again serving in a volunteer capacity and eventually completing 16 years in this position.
On April 8, 1988 Seven Ponds Nature Center lost its founder and steadfast supporter when Rip Schemm passed away at age 86.
Seven Ponds entered the 1990's with the addition of a teaching platform on the North-80 pond, construction of a stone wall in the Woodland Wildflower Garden, erection of an observation platform on Big Pond, natural landscaping of the buildings, and addition of a small dock on Prairie Pond. In addition much work was done to upgrade the center's buildings and trail structures during this time period, including the first rebuilding of the A-Frame Bridge. In the area of education, many existing programs for adults and children continued while a Traveling Naturalist program for school classrooms and natural history field tours for members were added.
Seven Ponds continued to grow in size during this time period. The Naishes donated 4 acres of land to the center in 1991. Local land owner Warren Bickes donated 63 acres of wetland along the center's western boundary which included Mud Pond in 1993, 1994, and 1995. Longtime Governing Board member Dick Liskow donated his home of 30 acres in 1995. These contributions brought the total acreage of the nature center and nearby lands to 343. The Liskow Property was subsequently sold to the State of Michigan and the resulting funds were added to the nature center’s Endowment Fund.
In 1992, Mike Champagne became the full-time Director of Seven Ponds and the nature center held its first Holiday Auction fundraiser. In 1994 the center was the recipient of a bequest from longtime member Margaret Frischkorn, which established the Frischkorn Memorial Trust. The annual fundraiser and the trust would give the center’s finances a boost for many years into the future.
In September of 1995 Seven Ponds filed its Articles of Incorporation with the State of Michigan, continuing as an affiliate of the Michigan Audubon Society. This would give the nature center the ability to hold title to its own land.
The late 1990’s took the nature center to its 30th anniversary and progress continued on many fronts. A new bridge was constructed over the creek in the North-80, a Boy Scout Explorer Post was begun, the Ewenique Spinners began meeting at the center, and efforts to reduce invasive species were stepped up. As the century came to a close, the Board of Directors, staff, volunteers, and members took on the task of strategic planning to lay the groundwork for the upcoming years at Seven Ponds Nature Center.
The nature center completed the strategic plan in year 2000 and over the next few years worked very hard on the plan’s objectives. Many positive things happened during this time period. The nature center was designated a Watchable Wildlife Site by the State of Michigan, a quarter mile long boardwalk trail was constructed through the swamp forest in Paul’s Woods, the SPNC Birding Club started up, the Herb Garden and Butterfly Garden were both moved to their present locations, Jonathan Woods Nature Preserve was transferred to the nature center, Earl’s Prairie was completed, the Hiking Club began regular outings, the Beekeeping Club was established, much work was done to improve the Woodland Wildflower Area, and the SPNC Photography Club began meeting at the nature center.
On November 12, 2004, Don Naish passed away. Don served Seven Ponds in a variety of capacities over a nearly 40 year period and was always there when the nature center needed him.
On March 22, 2005 the title to the various properties which had been donated over the years to form the nature center were transferred to Seven Ponds Nature Center from the Michigan Audubon Society. With the Jonathan Woods Nature Preserve, this brought the total acreage owned by the nature center to 468.
In 2005, the nature center began work on a very large project identified in the strategic plan, renovation of the Interpretive Building. This endeavor would take up much of the center’s time and energy for the rest of the decade, with each year bringing additional progress. In 2005 the Board of Directors and staff met on a regular basis and brought a consultant in to help with the effort. In 2006, an architect was hired and the center approached major donors. In 2007, plans for the project were refined and the nature center started the quiet phase of the fundraising campaign. In 2008, the Capital Campaign and capital project were announced to the Seven Ponds Nature Center membership and in October of the year ground was broken on the project. In October of 2009, the nature center both reached its $1.8 million campaign goal and completed work on the building. The resulting building renovation, building addition, and new parking lot transformed the nature center, providing a facility which will serve the nature center for many years to come. The resulting building was named the Schemm-Naish Interpretive Building, recognizing the four people who were instrumental in the center’s history.
In 2010, Seven Ponds Nature Center obtained its own 501(c)(3) status, becoming independent from the Michigan Audubon Society. Seven Ponds appreciates its longtime relationship with MAS, and remains a partner with this conservation group.
In 2011, the nature center completed several significant building projects including a second rebuilding of the A-Frame Bridge and work on the Farmhouse and Director’s Residence. At the end of this year, the nature center grew by 18 acres with the addition of Robert Arrol’s property on the west side of Richie Pond. An additional donation of 12 acres of adjacent property raised the nature center's acreage to its current total of 498.
The nature center lost one of its founders on October 21, 2013 with the passing of Bee Naish. A staunch supporter from the very beginning, Bee worked tirelessly in the library (so named in her honor), on Heritage Harvest Days, and in many other capacities around the nature center. Her curiosity about the natural world was never ending.
As 2016 came to a close, the nature center faced a period of transition, as three long-time employees neared retirement. Office Manager Dan Hayes retired in December after 38 years with the center. Executive Director Mike Champagne retired in March of 2017 after 25 years at the helm, having guided Seven Ponds through much of its greatest growth. And after nearly 23 years with the nature center, Naturalist Lois Rheaume retired in April. With the retirement of these three staff members, the nature center lost 85 years of Seven Ponds experience.
In February of 2017, Daryl Bernard was named the center’s next Executive Director, and Seven Ponds marked its 50th anniversary with a Party at the Ponds celebration. This was also the final year of Heritage Harvest Days, as the center looked to strengthen its focus on its mission.
Patty Schemm, the last of Seven Ponds' four founders, passed away on September 17, 2019, in her home in Sarasota, Florida at the age of 99. A steadfast supporter from the start, after her husband Rip passed away in 1988 Patty assumed a more influential role simply by her proximity, her character, and her generosity. At the age of 97 Patty shared the vision her and Rip developed more than a half-century ago. "Over time, a desire emerged to protect this property and its waterways in a way that would share its natural beauty and wonders with the community at large."
The history of Seven Ponds is a rich one. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have now taken part in the center's programs, gaining a greater awareness of the natural world in the process.
First and foremost, Seven Ponds is the story of people, of the unwavering support of Patty and Rip Schemm, of the tireless dedication of Bee and Don Naish, of the hard work and devotion of literally hundreds of staff and volunteers. It's the story of the financial support of foundations, civic groups, corporations, and individuals. Seven Ponds exists today as proof of what can be accomplished through cooperation and faith.
Updated October 2019