TONTOGANY – The field where children used to play has become a place where they can learn.
Otsego School District has been gifted 16 acres of wetland and meadow known as the Fox-Shank Living Laboratory.
District and state officials along with family members who donated the land held a ribbon-cutting Monday at the site, located across Tontogany Creek Road from the high school.
In December 2022, Jacquelyn Shank, Elaine (Fox) Dunn, Mary Lou Wiles, and Jessica McDevitt sold the 16-acre parcel of land to the Black Swamp Conservancy (BSC). The land sellers are heirs of the Fox family who have been property owners, business owners, and residents of the Otsego community for generations.
“We’re so excited for what’s going to happen,” said Wiles.
“We grew up with this as our backyard … and I don’t think (her family) could be any more excited to see this happening,” she said.
The BSC, which is a regional non-profit land conservation organization, gifted the land to the school district at no cost to taxpayers.
Rob Krain, executive director of the Black Swamp Conservancy, said this living lab was one of his favorite projects.
He called the acreage a “good quality wildlife habitat” that will be used by students.
“This is going to be a place for you to enjoy and recreate and learn … this is a permanent preserve,” Krain said.
“We had the land for sale for several years and nobody was interested in it,” said Shank.
And then she learned about the conservancy.
“I was ready right then to sell it,” said Shank, who is a 1948 graduate of Washington Township High School, which sat where the Otsego campus is located.
Dunn said donating the land was “fun.”
She, Wiles and McDevitt are the daughters of Dale and Lela Fox.
“We grew up playing in this field when it wasn’t planted. I can remember the day I was old enough to go across the field by myself to my grandparents,” Dunn said.
“Dad and mom would absolutely love this. They loved Tontogany and they loved Otsego,” she said. “My dad was a hometown boy and wanted to make sure we could do anything we could and we thought this would be a great thing for the community and the school district.”
A sign proclaiming the Otsego Local Schools’ Fox-Shank Living Laboratory greets people entering the property.
The property will contain restored wetlands, walking trails, a demonstration agriculture field, access to Tontogany Creek for students to be able to safely take water samples for data collection, hummocks and hollows, large woody debris, a food forest, and an array of wildlife.
There is a location for a boulder amphitheater and future pavilion.
It will be used as a learning center for students for a variety of educational purposes, where students can explore, play in, and take care of local ecosystems.
“Generations to come will benefit from this project,” said Otsego Superintendent Kevin O’Shea.
Eighth-grader Hannah Euler was among the group of students who helped develop the signs placed throughout the living lab.
“The Fox-Shank Living Laboratory will allow us to become citizen scientists,” she said, “and not just learn about nature in textbooks or through a lesson a teacher gives.
“It allows us to be hands on in our learning. Otsego students will now be able to see the impact of a wetland in their own backyard,” Euler said.
“It is our goal that students can use part of the (living lab) for ag use and for their supervised agricultural experiences (SAE) projects,” said Grant Belleville, vice president of the Otsego/Penta FFA chapter.
He said the land can also be used for soil testing, soil judging, evaluating and using conservation practices, crop production and land management.
“We’re very excited to be able to utilize this land for the benefit of our chapter and our students,” Belleville said.
O’Shea praised Belleville and the FFA chapter for wanting to get the field ready to go and emailing him, wanting to come work on a Sunday.
“We pride ourselves here to be innovative and creative. We look for hands-on learning experiences and this is just an awesome opportunity for the staff and students here at Otsego,” O’Shea said.
“It’s a big deal for the district,” said Brad Anderson, president of Otsego’s board of education, about the living lab. “It’s the first of its kind in the area.”
He said the district could do a lot of really neat things with the property, including educating students in an outdoor setting and providing lessons that don’t exist in the classroom.
Bernard Scott, Otsego High School agriculture education teacher for 38 years, said the wetlands would have been “outstanding” to have had when he taught. He said his FFA students used to farm the field north of the school campus and he was thrilled there was an agricultural plot already in place in the donated acreage.
“I was dreaming of what would be a perfect sized spot for the introduction of small electric tractor to use on the tillage plots,” he said.
Current agricultural science teacher Deb Belleville said her students will use the space for learning about natural resource sustainability, soils, ecology, wildlife and wetlands.
A 1-acre plot can be used for students’ SAE projects, which could include a garden, pumpkins, or whatever they want to learn about, she said.
“We’re very excited about this opportunity. It’s very unique to our school district,” she said.
Pacey Waitt, Jackson Molnar and Jackson Guthrie said last year they helped plant trees around the property.
Otsego eighth graders Pacey Waitt, from left, Jackson Molnar and Jackson Guthrie told guests about wildlife in the lab.
The three eighth graders were stationed at the Wildlife interpretive sign, the first of five interpretive signs placed throughout the property.
They explained how animals can live in fallen trees. Frogs or tadpoles can take over any water that fills the space where the tree used to stand, said Molnar.
Science is their favorite subject.
“It’s a lot more hands-on activity which I prefer to just sitting there and listening to a lecture,” said Waitt.
The remaining interpretive signs that are placed along a trail that winds through the property include Food Forest and Agriculture, Riparian Forest/Hummock and Hollow, Sand Seepage Berm/Emergent Wetland and Scrub Shrub Wetland and Wet Meadow.
Rachel DeNoewer, H2Ohio assistant program manager, was the project lead for the living lab. It first came to her as a concept on a piece of paper.
“There are a lot of great educational opportunities,” she said, “but we’re really here for the water-quality benefit.”
Building natural infrastructure for water to flow through on the way to Lake Erie will help clean the water as it makes its way to the lake, said Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Of the 16 acres, around eight are wetlands and the idea is that as the water runs off the land around it, it will flow through the wetland before it enters the creek and eventually Lake Erie, Mertz said.
State Rep. Haraz Ghanbari presented a commendation.
“This special event is a fitting time to pay tribute to the Otsego Local School District for it has played a valuable role in preparing countless young people for the future,” he said.
The living lab will help students learn the importance of protecting our natural environment, he said.
A map of the living lab, showing the wetlands, the meadow and where the interpretive signs are located.
Otsego Junior High Principal Jon Rife said the convenience alone for teachers who used to take students to the Maumee River for water testing is immeasurable.
“They’re going to have much more than a 15-minute water sample. They can come over here for days or weeks at a time if they choose to do so,” he said.
The property will also be open as a public park during non-school hours.