The Central Pennsylvania Conservancy is closer to preserving a historic farm at the headwaters of LeTort Spring Run.
Ben Mummert, director of land protection and stewardship with Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, said the conservancy negotiated an option to buy roughly 34 acres on the LeTort Spring Run headwaters in 2015. The property includes the watercress farm and adjoining property.
That option ensured the conservancy would be the only entity able to purchase the property as long as it raised the fair market value for the property as established by an appraiser.
Since then, the agency has been working on raising about $415,000, but is about $20,000 short with a deadline to close on the property coming up in March.
“We don’t know where the last $20,000 is going to come from,” Mummert said.
Mummert said half of the funding came from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of State Parks and Forests because it saw the importance of the preservation and restoration project at a statewide level.
The funding, however, came with a requirement to raise half of the needed amount locally. The initial down payment on the property came from the estate of Dr. David Masland, an environmental philanthropist, in 2014. After that, it’s been the local community stepping to the fore.
“We’ve received tons of donations from local conservation organizations, private businesses like Appalachian Running Company and TCO Fly Shop and families,” Mummert said.
The farm, located at a sharp bend in the road on South Spring Garden Street just before its intersection with Bonnybrook Road, has been an agricultural site since settlers starting inhabiting the Cumberland Valley.
“This landscape was used intensively, starting with James LeTort, the very first European settler (in the area). Its clean water and its productive soils drew people here. They established farms and that quickly became industry,” Mummert said.
In 1893, the property became home to an experiment in industrial-scale watercress farming. Prior to that, watercress had been grown in backyard ponds. A family from New Jersey came to Cumberland County to find the ideal conditions of clean, cold water with high levels of calcium and abundant wetlands, which were then flooded to grow watercress
Changes made to the property in attempt to make it more commercially viable have taken their toll on the landscape.
When the property was all wetlands, there was a stream flowing through named Bonny Brook in reference to the beauty of the area. With the expansion of the watercress beds, the stream was pushed back into a ditch against the railroad, roadway and hillside, prompting Mummert to remark that it isn’t beautiful anymore.
“That’s part of what we intend to restore both for ecological function and to improve the site as a park,” he said. “The stream is still in a very unnatural position, which is bad for stream health and is contributing a lot of silt. In the long term, we are looking at a restoration project that realigns the stream.”
The farm was last in production in 2012.
Since it was abandoned, the property has become overgrown with invasive plants that harm wildlife, narrow the nearby LeTort Spring Run Trail and hinder the view from along the trail. There has been some squatting, dumping, littering and vandalism. People have even been known to shoot ducks as they drove by, Mummert said.
Volunteers have been working on controlling the invasive plants and replanting with native plants to restore the ecological integrity of the site, but the conservancy has a much larger vision for the property.
“We really need to develop this site as a trailhead,” Mummert said.
Eventually, the trail may be connected first to Craighead House on Old York Road, and then to the South Middleton Township parks’ trail system.
“Ultimately, the goal is for the public as a park and for the environment as a preserve. Our project is by no means ending once we make the acquisition. In fact, we’re just gaining momentum,” Mummert said.
Volunteers will be needed for trail building, basic maintenance, litter pick up and any number of other tasks.
“We will have a push for volunteers and for donations leading up to ribbon cutting in September when we do public dedication for the property,” Mummert said.