Dutro-Ernst Woods is a 33-acre urban nature preserve on the site of the former Ernst Nursery. It is dedicated to the Ernst Family and Ruth Dutro, a local biology teacher who inspired countless students. The flat, wide walking trail meanders through a prairie-in-restoration and early successional woodland. Because of the ecological restoration process, native plants and wildlife populations are increasing and beginning to thrive. Stop by often to observe seasonal transitions and changes in the land.
When you visit, be sure to stop by Red-tail’s Chronolog monitoring station. Follow directions listed on the sign and join an important citizen science project just by taking a picture with your cell phone. Your photo will add to a digital time lapse which helps Red-tail’s land managers and our community track changes in the newly restored prairie as it changes over days, seasons, and years. See the most up-to-date time lapse on Red-tail’s Chronolog page.
Visit our Current Conservation Projects page to learn more about restoration efforts at this site.
History of Dutro-Ernst Woods
From 2012 to 2015, Red-tail Land Conservancy acquired the 33-acre Dutro-Ernst Woods in Delaware County, Indiana to preserve and protect forever. Dutro-Ernst Woods is an urban nature preserve whose history and landscape can be told in two parts– that of the western woodland named after Ruth Dutro, a local biology teacher, and the eastern prairie, named after the Ernst Family. The story behind Dutro-Ernst Woods is one of vision, passion, and persistence which honors people whose dedication to making the community a more beautiful and resilient place will last for generations.
The 16-acre forest on the west end of Dutro-Ernst Woods is a woodland restoration with oak as the primary native species. It is named after Ruth Dutro, a biology teacher admired for her sincerity, intellect, and use of natural areas to inspire thousands of students.
Ruth Irene Dutro was born in Hagerstown, Indiana on June 18, 1907. She received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Manchester College (now Manchester University) in North Manchester, Indiana, and a master’s degree in biology from the University of Michigan in 1939.
In 1942, she began teaching biology and environmental science at Ball State University’s Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, Indiana. She also served as an associate professor of biology at Ball State University. She was a colleague of Dr. Robert Cooper, after whom the Robert Cooper Audubon Society is named, and Dr. Otto Christy, founder of Christy Woods, the 17-acre Ball State arboretum. By the time she retired in 1972, an estimated 4,500 students had gone through her classroom or field trips.
Throughout her teaching career, she held other educational positions across the country. Ruth was a naturalist at Yosemite National Park in 1934, Pokagon State Park in 1944, and Rocky Mountain National Park in 1947. From 1948-49, she volunteered at Church of the Brethren Workcamps in postwar Germany and Austria.
Ruth led students on field trips to explore natural areas. She encouraged close observation. Her students would record details in journals and sketch trees, understory plants, wildflowers, and leaves. Students recall her contagious excitement upon seeing interesting mushrooms, worms, leaves, or flowers. Science fair projects under her tutelage earned national honors.
Retiring from Burris Laboratory School and Ball State in 1972 after 30 years teaching biology, Ruth returned to Hagerstown where she funded scholarships for Hagerstown High School, her alma mater. She was a volunteer at the local hospital and funded civic projects, including Hagerstown public pool and other family-oriented recreation.
Many students maintained a relationship and correspondence with Ruth even after they graduated. Some recall biking to her home in Hagerstown for lunch and vibrant conversation. She has been described as both an institution and a friend and lauded for her modesty about the impact she made on so many people.
When asked what she missed in retirement, she replied, “I miss the intelligent interaction with students and the daily lesson prep that kept me on my toes.” She passed away on March 6, 1996, at 88 years of age.
In 2010, Josie Fox, a former student of Ruth Dutro, noticed the 16-acre wooded parcel at the west end of what is now Dutro-Ernst Woods from across the road. While observing the stand of mature oaks, she noticed an imposing “For Sale – Commercial” real estate sign. The woodlands were under threat of being devastated by commercial development. After repeated trips from her home on the West Coast to the site, Josie and her husband Geoff Fox purchased the 16 acres at market price and donated it to Red-tail Land Conservancy in December 2012.
Dutro Woods later became Dutro-Ernst Woods with the donation of the adjacent 15 acres on the east end by Karen Ernst Da Silva, also a student of Ruth Dutro. Thus, two of her former biology students came together in gratitude and recognition of Ruth Dutro’s years of teaching land conservation.
The 15-acre greenspace on the east end of Dutro-Ernst Woods is a restored shortgrass prairie that was the former site of Ernst Nursery. It was founded by Devol E. Ernst, a businessman who dedicated himself and his family to positively contributing to the community.
1870 – 1930
Charles Ernst immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1870 and settled in Moscow, Ohio on the Ohio River. Many Germans went to the area thinking that vineyards could grow as they did on the Rhine. At the turn of the century, Charles Ernst began the first Ernst Nursery as a fruit tree business in Moscow and later moved to Eaton, Ohio. John J. and Edward Ernst continued Ernst Nursery in Eaton, selling feed and a wide range of landscape trees and plants.
1930 – 1970
In the 1930s, Devol Ernst, son of John J. Ernst, studied horticulture at the University of Illinois. He was attracted to Muncie, Indiana because of the development in and around Ball State University and that of the Ball Family. He met and married Naomi Prillaman of Yorktown and together they settled in Muncie. In 1936, he purchased unused land from Elm Ridge Cemetery, located across Kilgore Avenue, and established Ernst Nursery. He would later lease 16 more acres from Elm Ridge to create more space for landscape trees and shrubs. Ernst Nursery in Muncie was incorporated in 1947.
Ernst Incorporated became a bustling thriving nursery business. Workhorses plowed the fields that provided space for the landscape trees and bushes. Depending on the season, the expansive glass greenhouses were filled with chrysanthemums, poinsettias, hydrangeas, lilies, and azaleas. At Christmas time, an open house always brought people from far and wide to buy their Christmas trees and plants. Cars would line up on Kilgore Avenue to wait for a parking spot. People would wander through the greenhouses filled with the reds, pinks, and whites of the poinsettias. The garden center provided floral arrangements and more. At its height, Ernst Nurseries were in Eaton, Ohio, Pana, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri as well as Indianapolis, Anderson, and Muncie, Indiana.
The Ernst home was on nursery property. Devol Fritz, Gretchen (Thomas), Heidi (Ogden), Karen (Da Silva), and John Kris were all born there. Fritz, Gretchen, and Heidi worked at the greenhouses during summer, mainly distributing mums.
The family moved to town in the early 1950’s nearer to Ball State University and Burris Laboratory School. At Burris, all five children were in science classes taught by Ruth Dutro. They benefited from her love of nature.
The Ernst Nursery in Muncie closed in 1975. Augusto and Karen Ernst Da Silva purchased the land. Over the years, they removed the buildings, greenhouses, and underground tanks.
The Ernst children moved on to make contributions to communities of their own. Fritz and Kris both continued to work in the nursery profession. Gretchen owned a small business and Heidi works in real estate. Karen was a public school teacher, teaching American History, English, and art for 35 years, and now works as a consultant on the connection between literacy and art.
2014 – Forever
In 2014, Red-tail Land Conservancy approached the Da Silvas about purchasing 15 acres where Ernst Nursery was formerly located. The property would be an addition to the adjacent 16-acre woodland that was donated to Red-tail in 2012 by Josie and Geoff Fox. With a partial land donation from the Da Silvas, funds from the state of Indiana’s Bicentennial Nature Trust, and a donation from the Foxes, Red-tail was able to acquire the land to be protected and managed in a natural state.
With that purchase, Dutro-Ernst Woods nature preserve was established. Work on restoring the land began immediately with planting trees, preparing the soil for prairie seeding, and creating trails. At a ceremony on November 3, 2017, Dutro-Ernst Woods was opened to the public.