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Sheldon's purchase no folly

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HURON, Ohio - When Dr. Dean Sheldon bought 54 acres of swampland and barrier beach along Lake Erie in 1954, the site became known locally as "Sheldon's Folly."

But a half century later, the Huron obstetrician's acquisition is the cornerstone of a 465-acre state nature preserve named for him.

On Saturday, state officials, naturalists, and conservationists - including Dr. Sheldon's son, Dean Sheldon, Jr. - will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the purchase that led to the creation of the Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve.

The site, next to Sawmill Resort just west of Huron, is one of the last surviving remnants of the coastal wetlands that used to stretch across thousands of acres along Lake Erie's western basin.

"It has virtually every habitat found along the lake, except for an open stream," said John Blakeman, a naturalist and retired schoolteacher. "No other place along the lakeshore has so many habitats in so concentrated an area."

Those habitats, found between Lake Erie and the preserve parking lot a mile to the south, include open lake waters, sand beach, open marsh, inland marsh, and several types of forests and wetlands. The preserve attracts nearly 300 species of birds during migration season and is home to many types of reptiles, wildflowers, and other native plants.

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"In the springtime, you can hold your arm out and literally have birds landing on it," Mr. Blakeman said.

Dean Sheldon, Jr., was 20 when his father bought the 54 acres from Cedar Point, which once used the site as the amusement park's main entrance. During a visit to the preserve this week, he recalled the incredulous reaction his father's purchase received.

"There really wasn't anything except some houses and a few vegetable stands between Sandusky and Huron," Mr. Sheldon said. "People told him they didn't understand why he would want to buy such a place that was so uncivil. His interest was in preserving a unique piece of northern Ohio biology."

Dr. Sheldon and his family built a cottage on the edge of the woods and planted hundreds of trees on the farm fields at the front of the property along Cleveland Road.

They opened their land to hikers, fishermen, and bird-watchers, and hosted tours for school groups, Boy Scouts, and sportsmen's clubs.

"I led field trips by the hundreds," Mr. Sheldon said, gazing over the marsh's dark green arrowhead plants and water coated with lime-green duckweed. "We welcomed people and accommodated whatever they wanted to do."

When Dr. Sheldon died in 1964 at age 60, the family carried on his vision of a privately owned nature preserve for 15 years.

Dr. Sheldon's widow, Celestina, sold the land to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 1979. The next year, the state bought 330 acres of marsh and barrier beach to the west and dedicated Sheldon Marsh State Nature Preserve, which has since grown to its present 465 acres through additional purchases.

ODNR Director Sam Speck will be among the guests at a 50th anniversary banquet from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday at the Cedar Point Center on the Firelands campus of Bowling Green State University in Huron. Free events at the preserve from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. will include tours, bird walks, and animal exhibits.

"I think the celebration is important," Mr. Speck said. "It celebrates the vision of individual people that got this started in the first place. .●.●. It also underlines the importance of protecting these remaining wetlands."

Jonathan Granville, director-secretary of Erie MetroParks, said Dr. Sheldon planted the seeds of shoreline habitat conservation in Erie County. He pointed to the park district's acquisition last year of more than 1,000 acres of lakefront property next to Sheldon Marsh in a partnership with two nationally known land trusts and state and federal officials.

"The Sheldons and the preservation of Sheldon's Marsh really kicked off north-central Ohio's natural areas preservation effort," Mr. Granville said.

Asked about his father's legacy, Mr. Sheldon looked out at the woods along the one-mile path to the beach and smiled.

"I tell you, if he'd walk down this road today, he'd be ecstatic," he said.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078

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