Pickerel Lake Park Fred Meijer Nature Preserve

Pickerel Lake Park Fred Meijer Nature PreserveOne of my favorite places in the Grand Rapids, MI area to get in touch with nature is Pickerel Lake Park Fred Meijer Nature Preserve.  If you need a place to reflect, relax, and enjoy relatively a unspoiled natural setting you owe it to yourself to visit this spot.

The park encompasses approximately 305 acres on the 72 acre Pickerel Lake.  A boardwalk crosses the lake and an unpaved trail traverses its shoreline.  Birds and wildlife abound.  Fishermen can almost always be found along the boardwalk and photographers and hikers love the quiet refuge.

We can thank Joe Cizauskus for this preserved gem.  A worker at the nearby Wolverine Shoe Company, he scraped together enough money to purchase 232 acres surrounding Pickerel Lake  many years ago and lived here for the rest of his life.  He was passionate about protecting the land and its inhabitants and provided very limited access throughout the years.

Known as "Indian Joe", Joe was actually a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived here at the end of WWI and who disliked his moniker, Indian Joe.  Never married and with no children, he lived for many years with a female companion.  When she died Joe became more reclusive and eccentric.  They lived in an unpainted shack and when that burned down in later years, he lived in his garage.  Legend has it that he bathed with whiskey.

Boardwalk Pickereal Lake Park Fred Meijer Nature PreserveFor many years he sold Christmas trees for $5/tree and allowed some folks to buy trees for $5 if they promised to transplant them.  His pricing structure never changed.  Certain people were welcome on his property having earned his trust and treated his property with respect.  My father was a botany professor for many years and would arrange to take his classes to the property.  Joe loved the fact that students were learning about nature and its importance.  As a child, I remember stops at the property to pick up trees for planting in our yard.  My father would always make sure Joe knew we were there before proceeding and I, though young, realized this was a unique relationship.

Unauthorized folks on the property were often greeted by warning gunshots.  Signs posted read "Don't Kill The Rattlesnakes", a humorous effort to scare folks away.  Fisherman who assured Joe they were fishing for food were tolerated, most others were not.  He allowed the staff and campers at nearby Camp Rogers access, again as long as respect of the land was displayed. Throughout the years Joe refused many offers to sell to developers.

Following his death rumors surfaced that Joe had buried money on the property and people illegally began to dig pits throughout the land in search of this treasure.  Eventually excavators unearthed $11,792 in soggy cash from water- filled jars.   "He had a hard time with banks" and was also known to stuff money into walls and under floors, said his niece, Rose Kerr. The money, mostly $20 bills, was buried a few feet deep in jars, salt shakers, medicine bottles and a teapot, and some of it "was just a glob, like papier-mache," said Kent County Treasurer John Boerema.  Additonally, there were government notes valued at $3,400 discovered when the foundation of the house was bulldozed. The money and notes were turned over to his family.

Following his death in 1988 there were developers interested in this property and, knowing Joe's wishes, his estate finally was able to reach an agreement with Kent County to preserve the property for all of us to enjoy, thanks to a grant from the Fred Meijer family.

I visited the park the other day and, as always, I thought about Joe and his cherished legacy.  Evidence of his life there are pretty much gone though some of his trails remain.  He would love the fact that the park isn't real developed and provides access for many.  He would be saddened by the fish line filament fouling the water and floating cans and water bottles seen here and there.  But without his fierce protection of this jewel would no longer exist.

One of my favorite quotes is, "It is every man's obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalant of what he takes out of it." Albert Einstein  I think Joe Cizauskus certainly met his obligation!

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