The Story of Lichterman Nature Center
The first time you drive through the entrance of Lichterman Nature Center or walk into the Visitor Center you are bound to be impressed by this extraordinary place. Nestled in the heart of suburban East Memphis, surrounded by shopping malls and office buildings, lies a 65-acre woodland oasis with nature trails, a lake, meadow and new, state-of the art facilities. The story behind the Nature Center, left virtually untouched by the real estate development around it, is unique.
The property on which the Lichterman Nature Center is located can be traced back to the mid-1800s as part of a 5,000-acre plantation owned by Samuel and Joseph Mosby. In 1870, the Mosbys sold 1,900 acres of their estate to George H. Bennett – a famous breeder of thoroughbred race horses who built a racetrack on the property and produced many a champion, including the winner of the 1909 Tennessee Derby, “Abe Frank.” The farm portion of the estate (1,052 acres subdivided into 30 lots) was sold to Charles G. Smith on April 27, 1927.
On May 9, 1928, Smith sold 300 acres of Bennett’s Farm to Clarence Saunders, who four years earlier lost a sizable fortune, including his unfinished “Pink Palace,” when he was unable to retain control of his self-service grocery store chain known as the Piggly Wiggly. The southern portion of this estate survives today as the Lichterman Nature Center.
The following year Saunders engaged architect Hubert T. McGee – also the architect for the Pink Palace Mansion – to design a 7,000-square foot log home for his country estate and summer home. In addition to the log home insured for $76,500 in 1930, the estate boasted an 18-hole golf course, two lighted tennis courts, a lake, a boat house with observation deck, a 220 x 125-foot swimming pool, several servants quarters, an entertainment lodge, farm buildings and barns.
Saunders surrendered his summer estate on May 19, 1932 to the previous owners, the Smiths, for failure to pay certain debts owed. A victim of the Depression, Saunders lost the property and it was returned to the Smiths. The property changed hands yet again on May 3, 1938, when the Smiths forfeited their estate due to an unpaid collateral note.
William H. Terry, the famous baseball player and manager of the New York Giants, purchased the property from the Smiths to become the estate’s fifth owner. “Memphis Bill” Terry joined the Giants in 1923 as a pitcher and first baseman. He then led the franchise, as manager from 1932 to 1942, to three pennant victories and a World Series championship in 1933, before being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954.
While living on the estate, Terry spent most of his time converting the millionaire’s playground into a working farm. He eliminated the golf course and returned the area to pastureland. He built a large milking barn on the southeast corner of the property (now Ridgeway High School) and raised cattle. Terry sold the property in 1944 to pursue other business interests in Memphis and later in Jacksonville, Florida.
Ira J. Lichterman and William A. Loewenberg, brothers-in law and business partners in the Southern Leather Company, purchased the property from Bill Terry. They renamed the property “Lakecrest” and continued to raise dairy cattle, as well as work the orchard and plant crops on portions of the land. Company picnics and family get-togethers were also common during the early years at Lakecrest.
In the early 1960s, the Lichterman and Loewenberg families noted the rapid eastward growth of the Memphis suburbs. Thus sections of their estate were sold and developed for growing business and residential areas, as well as public facilities. Portions of Lakecrest were sold to the city school system to build Ridgeway Elementary and Ridgeway High School, with another large portion becoming the site of St. Francis Hospital.
On May 29, 1963, Ira J. Lichterman died. As a memorial to him, his wife, Lottie, and brother-in-law, William Loewenberg, donated 12.4 acres of the estate, including the historic log home and the lake, to the Memphis Park Commission. An additional 11.48 acres were donated to the Park Commission in 1978, with the remainder of the land being purchased by the City of Memphis through a grant in the early 1970s.
Lichterman Park was dedicated on June 23, 1972. Originally plans were made to develop the area into a wooded city park, complete with tennis courts, picnic areas, trails and a science center housed in the log home. However, due to lack of city funding, it was estimated that development could not begin for at least another two years. The park sat idle until 1976.
Local residents began to speak out for development of the Lichterman Park during the spring of 1976. The neighborhood had grown rapidly in the early 1970s and the need for a community park was strongly felt. Members of the Kirby Woods Garden Club and the Ridgeway Parent Teacher Association rallied support from the community and petitioned the city to take action. Their efforts were rewarded when the Mayor and the City Council in the 1976-77 budget recommended $125,000 for park development.
During the summer of 1976, the Memphis Park Commission carried out a thorough survey of interested groups and individuals, soliciting constructive ideas for use of the property. Their recommendations offered unanimous support for the development of a nature center, preserving the woodland character of the property and utilizing the log home as a visitor center.
In 1977, an additional $125,000 was allocated for development of Lichterman Nature Center. The initial development was to take place in four stages: (1) restore the health of the lake through dredging and dam repair; (2) construct an entrance drive and parking area; (3) build a major picnic area off Lynnfield Drive; and (4) construct tennis courts off Ridgeway Road. A commitment was also made to restore the vandalism-wrecked log home as closely as possible to the original, with renovations allowing for its use as a public education center.
Staff members of the Museum gave additional direction to the project in 1979 with submission of a proposal outlining details of the Nature Center’s development and programming. The Memphis Park Commission accepted the proposal with development continuing in 1980. Over $600,000 in capital improvement funds would be spent at the Nature Center, restoring trails and facilities for a projected opening in 1983.
In the three years that followed, fences were built, plant and animal surveys began and plans for Lichterman Nature Center’s programming, trails and exhibits took shape. Local youths joined hundreds of other volunteers to carve out three miles of trails, build bridges, plant wildflowers and landscape grounds. Additional visitor facilities, including a trail head shelter, wildflower greenhouse, pier, boardwalk and wildlife rehabilitation building were planned and completed. Lichterman Nature Center was officially opened to the public on April 14, 1983.
Almost eleven years after the grand opening of the Nature Center, in February of 1994, fire destroyed the historic 7,000 square foot log home that had served as the facility’s interpretive visitor center. The Adirondack-style building had been built in 1928 by Memphis entrepreneur, Clarence Saunders, and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The tragic fire at the Nature Center presented an opportunity to create a state-of-the-art environmental education facility for the 21st Century, the “new” Lichterman Nature Center which opens to the public October 28, 2000.
Lichterman Nature Center is a part of the Museum of Science & History - MoSH, which operates the central Museum, Giant Screen Theater, AutoZone Dome at the Sharpe Planetarium, the Magevney House and the Mallory-Neely House.