BELOIT - Carl Welty, a Beloit College professor and expert on ornithology, absolutely loved nature.
That's why it's only fitting that, 20 years ago, that a nonprofit nature center was founded bearing his name.
To celebrate the milestone, a special Welty Farm-to-Table Harvest dinner is scheduled for Oct. 18.
"We planned the dinner because we want to celebrate the milestone and really create an experience for people to enjoy," said Welty Environmental Center Executive Director Brenda Plakans.
The Farm-to-Table Harvest dinner menu includes cheese and meats, vegetables, apple crisp, pumpkin pie and much more. It will be catered by Bushel & Peck's.
During the event there will be a panel of local food producers talking about the challenges they face.
"There really is a movement right now for people who want to try and keep their food local and know who is producing it," Plakans said.
Although tickets to the Harvest Dinner are now sold out, Welty Environmental Center also has several other upcoming events coming up for the public to enjoy. They include "Welty No School Day Camp" from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 11; "October Full Moon Hike" from 7:30-9 p.m. Oct. 13; "Welty's Microuniverses" from 2-3:30 p.m. on Nov. 10; "November Full Moon Hike" from 7:30-9 p.m. Nov. 12 and "Make A Gourd Bird House" from 2-4 p.m. on Dec. 8.
Plakans said that the 20-year mark has been reached because of community support and the dedication of many volunteers.
The groundwork for the Welty Environmental Center's creation actually dates back all the way to the 1960s and 1970s, she added.
"In the1960s, Big Hill Park was just falling apart and not really a place you'd want to go," Plakans said. "Around that time there was a movement to learn more about the environment and how to care for spaces."
The improvements began when the Beloit Junior Woman's Club "adopted" Big Hill Park and a Conservation Committee was founded to clean up the space and make it family-friendly.
Group members worked tirelessly to develop a plan moving forward, and in the early 1980s the goals began to come to fruition.
"Over the years there was discussion and planning to have the nature center at Big Hill Park, but it didn't happen," Plakans said.
In 1988, Fred Matthews and Dick Newsome began to explore how to create the nature center as its own nonprofit entity.
The men gathered more helpers and learned how to create a board. After years of fundraising, the Friends of Welty Environmental Center became a 501(c)(3) in 1999.
"Many of the original donors for Welty Environmental Center were former students of Carl Welty," Plakans said.
At the time, the plan was for the nature center to be built at Beckman Mill County Park.
In 2000, however, the house situated in Beckman Mill County Park came up for sale. Rather than build new, the home was purchased for the center.
The little white ranch-style home was Welty's site until the City of Beloit purchased the former Girl Scout building at Big Hill Park in the summer of 2015. They welcomed Welty to join.
"What has been great about being out at Big Hill Park is that it continues to be a work in progress, and we are really growing connections with other service providers in the community," Plakans said.
Over the past couple of years there have been improvement projects like putting in new trails and creating a better trail map. New signs are also in the process of being installed.
"They (the signs) are about topics like the pollinator garden, woodland ecology, the old ski jump and even history of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) projects," Plakans said.
In the future, the Welty hopes to continue improving the prairie surrounding the Big Hill Center. Plakans would also love to see an addition to the Welty staff, so more programs can be offered.
"I see Welty as being a leader in environmental education, and helping people learn more about their role in nature - both because humans have a significant effect on the large, interactive system that is the natural world, and because humans can be allies and advocates for that system. Welty offers opportunities to go outside and learn about the ecology of southern Wisconsin, and ways to support and encourage these systems to flourish," Plakans said. "Whether it's learning about the edible plants in Big Hill Park, or camping out with prairie-grazing goats, or taking an night hike under a full moon, we have lots of ways for folks to get outside and do something fun they wouldn't get to do on their own."
For more information on the Welty Environmental Center or to register for events, visit www.weltycenter.org or call 608-361-1377.
The Big Hill Center, 1201 Big Hill Court, is open from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.