Viola Irvine Nature Preserve opens in Dysart

Urban woodland dedication takes place on Arbor Day

Cathy Irvine smiles as she stands beside one of the signs made for the newly-created Viola Irvine Nature Preserve in Dysart following the preserve’s dedication ceremony held on Arbor Day this past Friday, April 29. Cathy donated the 2-acre urban woodland to the city of Dysart, naming it in memory of her late mother-in-law Viola Irvine who once lived on the property. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

In a state that lost roughly 4 million trees in 2020 to derecho devastation, the recent donation of a wooded, 2-acre parcel of land owned by local conservationist and retired teacher Cathy Irvine to the city of Dysart for the creation of the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve could not have come at a better time.

A dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new preserve took place on the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day on Friday, April 29, in the driveway of the late Viola Irvine’s home located at 310 Sherman Street. Viola was Cathy Irvine’s mother-in-law.

While the home itself is not part of the donation, the woods that surround it on Dysart’s southeast side as well as an easement from Sherman Street along the east property line are part of the donation. In addition to the property itself, Cathy also set up an endowment earmarked for preserve maintenance through the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa.

Those in attendance for the dedication included several members of Dysart’s tree board, Mayor Pro Tem Mary Wankowicz, and Lisa Williams with the organization Trees Forever. Speaking to a gathered group of just under 30 people, Wankowicz officially accepted the donation from Cathy on behalf of the city.

“The woodland area nature preserve will be a great asset to the citizens of Dysart,” Wankowicz said. “[Viola Irvine Nature Preserve] is a nice area just to sit and relax. We can’t thank Cathy Irvine and her family enough for this gift and beautiful endowment to the city. We just want to tell you how much we appreciate that and we’ll keep it [up] to the best of our ability.”

Cathy Irvine cuts the ribbon to the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve located in Dysart on Friday, April 29. –Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

The history of the small parcel that now is officially known as Viola Irvine Nature Preserve belies its tiny size. Once belonging to the town’s founder Joseph Dysart, it was purchased by David and Viola Irvine sometime in the late 1950s.

In a previous interview with the Telegraph, Cathy said Viola would sit in her Sherman Street home’s kitchen and gaze at the woodlands to the south – taking in the tranquility of the stately trees some of which are now estimated to be over 150 years old. The woodlands gave Viola a deep sense of peace and comfort, Cathy said, as she struggled through a long illness in her later years.

“[Viola] loved to be outdoors and it was her favorite thing to do,” Cathy said as part of her remarks on April 29. “She was a very generous person. I think she would feel good knowing that this woods was going to be shared with the people of Dysart.”

Part of the dedication involved the unveiling of signage that will be placed at the preserve’s trailhead located along Sherman Street and also along the preserve’s west side along Maple Street.

A bench destined for placement deep in the woods was also on display during the ceremony. Both the signs and the bench were made from trees taken from the preserve.

Entrance to Viola Irvine Nature Preserve pictured last August. -Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

A concrete walkway is still being planned for the preserve by the city’s tree board. The walkway will extend from Sherman Street south toward the woods – running along the preserve’s east side – where it will join up with the trail itself.

During the ceremony, yellow flags could be seen dotting the woods. Each flag, Cathy shared, marked a species of native woodland wildflower planted last fall by her friend Maureeen White of Cedar Falls.

“Right now the Jack-in-the-pulpits are on the cusp of blooming,” Cathy said. “Virginia bluebells will probably open the next sunny day. And the rest [of the wildflowers] will [bloom] in cycles.”

During Williams’ comments as a representative with Trees Forever, she spoke about Iowa’s tree canopy loss from the derecho, telling the audience “you have to keep planting trees.”

“Only in the deep woods do trees plant themselves and that’s why [people] are so important to the tree planting process,” Williams said before ending with, “It’s an honor for Trees Forever to be here. We’re so grateful for the partnership with people like all of you in getting trees in the ground and protecting really important places like [the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve].”

Cathy Irvine holds a feather she found in the woods behind her late mother-in-law Viola Mehlhaus Irvine’s 310 Sherman Street home in Dysart last August. Cathy has been working for several years to turn the woodlands behind the home into a nature preserve for the city – she finally saw the results of her work this past Friday, April 29, during the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve dedication ceremony. --Photo by Ruby F. Bodeker

Following the ceremony, Cathy made her way to the preserve’s Sherman Street trailhead where Pastor Dan Hartwig with the Dysart Tree Board waited, a ceremonial ribbon stretched between two stately white pines.

As Cathy cut the ribbon – officially opening the Viola Irvine Nature Preserve to the public – a smile of delight and fulfillment washed across her face.

Later – as the festivities wound down and people drifted their separate ways – a group of Dysart residents including several small children headed off down the path through the pines for a walk in Viola’s woods.

The Viola Irvine Nature Preserve can be accessed from Sherman Street in Dysart using the trail entrance located along the east border of the home at 310 Sherman Street. Only street parking is available.