Called the “Cammenga Property” in the 1960’s, the DeGraaf Nature Center was founded in 1965 by the Holland Garden Club with financial assistance from the City of Holland and local donors. The site was rich with numerous habitats despite it’s small size. The center was the dream of Holland Garden Club member Helen Brower who had a vision to create a place where children and adults could learn about the environment. In time, the site came under the management of the Holland Parks Department.
The Helen O. Brower Visitor Center as it is known today was advocated for by its namesake in the 1970’s after the property went dormant and largely unused for nearly a decade. With a matching grant from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1979, the City of Holland, local service clubs and the Holland Community Foundation raised funds to break ground on a new building in 1981. The building, finished in 1982, was a hexagonal, solar-heated Porter building. Renovations and additions were made over the next several decades with the most recent renovations completed in 2018 including expanded parking, new entry, picnic pavilion, and improved insulation in the nature center building.
The DeGraaf Nature Center was named after the Holland Parks Superintendent during the first 20+ years of its existence, Jacob DeGraaf. Jake worked with the Holland Garden Club and Helen Brower during the 1980’s when the site had a rebirth of use and investment by the community. He was part of the advisory group that asked the garden club in 1983 to train volunteers who could conduct nature-based programs on the site. The programs were well received and by 1984 Jake and the Parks Department hired Shirley Dykema as the nature center’s first coordinator of programs.
DeGraaf Nature Center Timeline of the first 30 Years
- 1962 Concept for a nature center first voiced by Helen Brower of the Holland Garden Club
- 1965 Establishment of 4 acre “Holland Nature Center” by the City of Holland run by the Parks Department
- 1969 City of Holland adds a sanitary sewer through a low section of the property and site begins a decline to dormancy
- 1970’s (mid) Helen Brower called a meeting of concerned parties to advocate for site improvements
- 1979 Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund matching grant obtained to build a visitors center
- 1982 Completion of hexagonal Porter visitors center building (this structure still visible today in the architecture of the building)
- 1983 Holland Garden Club asked to train volunteers to conduct nature programs – led by Shirley Dykema and Betty Ernst
- 1984 City of Holland hires Shirley Dykema as first nature center coordinator
- 1986 Dedication of building as Helen O Brower Visitors Center
- 1988 property adjacent to the nature center was purchased to increase the site to 15.5 acres
- 1988 Mary Terpstra hired as the first dedicated educator for nature center
- 1989 (January) Crissa Austin is the first nature center college intern
- 1989 Rotary Club contributed funds to build the log cabin
- 1990 Auditorium addition added to the Helen O Brower Visitors Center
- 1991 Endowment set up at Holland Community Foundation thanks to donation from the Johanna Roerink Estate
- 1993 Wildlife Unlimited of Allegan and Ottawa Counties funded a wheelchair accessible ramp allowing unrestricted access to the main trail loop
- 1993 Shirley Dykema retires