Find Your Fun Fill of Nature and History at Potawatomi Wildlife Park
Writer & Photographer / Lois Tomaszewski
Nestled on 300-plus acres of rural land in the southeastern part of Marshall County is what some people called the county’s hidden gem. That secret isn’t so secret anymore as families, nature enthusiasts and outdoor adventure seekers are finding their way to Potawatomi Wildlife Park.
“We want to be known now as the place to go,” says Park Manager Lacey Pfeiffer.
There is no admission fee to visit the park, to hike the trails, gaze at the stars or play in the Tippecanoe River, which makes a loop to form part of the park’s boundaries. The park is open every season and every day, and the staff is seeking to fulfill its vision as a thriving community hub that fosters connections through nature, history and recreation for all.
Incorporated as a 501(c)(3) charity in 1982, the park continues to be guided by four principles – sustainability, community, adventure and education. Although there have been changes and challenges, the park’s director and board are focused on the future, and on delivering an outdoor experience that benefits everyone.
“We have five miles of trails and a diverse landscape,” Pfeiffer says.
The park system features prairie, woodland, wetland, pond and river landscapes, with plenty of opportunities to observe wildlife, get in some outdoor exercise, or simply contemplate life in the shade of a tree on the banks of the peaceful Tippecanoe.
“You get walking out here and you forget about your worries,” says Board Member Wyatt Stephan. He is the son of the late Michael Stephan, who served as park manager for 30 years.
Board Member Mandy Bailey is a frequent visitor and enjoys spending time hiking. “Every time you come out here, it is different,” she says.
Another feature of the park is its connection with area history. The 1800s village site of Potawatomi Chief Osheakkebe, also known as Stephan Benack, honors that history at a portion of the preserved site within the park. Settler history is also on display at the Boots Cabin, built in the 1830s and the oldest building in Marshall County. It was built in Argos and relocated to the park. The cabin is one of the first encountered along the park’s entrance drive
There is always something to do at Potawatomi Wildlife Park, Pfeiffer says. In addition to the mowed hiking trails that traverse the different landscapes, park visitors include active geocachers or yoga practitioners who come to the park for its tranquility. It frequently hosts astronomy clubs as a designated dark-sky site, and welcomes birders to wander the woods and prairies, photographing or identifying the feathered residents.
Park programming includes guided hikes, fishing contests and workshops. The park also hosts school groups, youth organizations and other community groups. The Bessinger Pavilion, gazebos and other park facilities are also available to rent for weddings, family gatherings, reunions or corporate retreats.
For those who are mobility impaired, Pfeiffer says the board received a grant to help make the park accessible. With a reservation, a tour via utility task vehicle can be arranged so everyone can enjoy the scenic beauty and spend time with nature.
On October 7 the park’s staff and board will host a grand opening of the Michael and Sharon Stephan Nature Center. The recent expansion and renovation of the nature center was funded by memorial donations after the passing of Stephan in 2020, and his wife, Sharon, who served as park coordinator, in 2022. New additions include touch-friendly elements for children, an exhibit on Potawatomi history, and the return of some of the park’s local wildlife taxidermy
The annual fundraising campaign is ongoing through the end of the year, with the hope of raising one-third of operating funds for the next year. Donations are appreciated.
Bailey volunteered to serve on the board because she connects with the mission and vision started decades ago by Founder Vernon Romine. He was a local landowner who visualized a park open the public where visitors, especially children and the poor, could enjoy recreation.
“I felt I wanted to make sure this is around for my grandchildren,” Bailey says.