The Pfeiffer Nature Center


(This 751st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 21, 2005.)


I recently drove down to the little Village of Portville in Cattaraugus County to visit the Pfeiffer Nature Center and fulfill a promise to do so made to Mike Blumenthal four years ago.


In 2001 I wrote a column critical of the Center board. I promised Mike then that I would review the situation later. Happily I can now state, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that my report of the Pfeiffer Nature Center's demise was an exaggeration.


Any Southern Tier visit gives me great pleasure and this trip was no exception. My route took me down the 400 to Holland, then 16 to Olean and finally 417 to Portville. As I proceeded south, the flat terrain of our northern Erie County countryside changed to rolling hills and our open farmland became almost continuous forest. I was reminded how different this scenery is from what it was a century ago. Then scarcely a quarter of New York was forested; today over 3/5 of the state is in woodlands. And I'm sure that the proportion for Cattaraugus County is still more even than that.


Portville is one of those attractive villages that dot Western New York. Aside from its "downtown" Main Street with a dozen or so stores and community offices, I found streets lined with tall trees and lovely homes, many of them I suspect built well over fifty years ago but kept in excellent condition. The Allegany River flows quietly through the village.


At the busy Pfeiffer Nature Center office among those Main Street stores I met executive director Margaret Cherre who would serve as my hostess for the morning. Ms. Cherre was formerly Allegany County Social Services Commissioner and the Center is fortunate to have this well-qualified and dynamic woman now directing its activities.


We were also joined by Chris Piaggi, co-president with botanical artist Carol Woodin of the Center's board of directors. A deeply involved Portville resident, Chris was able to provide much information about the community and region in which the Nature Center is located.


The square mile of Center property is divided into two separate and very different areas and we immediately set out to visit both.


First we drove four miles north to the original Pfeiffer property on Lillibridge Road. These 188 acres are covered with a mature and in some areas old-growth forest of white pine, Eastern hemlock, American beech, red, white and chestnut oaks, striped and red maples and cucumber trees. We walked only a few yards along the six miles of trails that wind through this cathedral-like woodland, but that was enough to impress me.


At the trailhead where we entered are copies of a "Self Guided Walk" brochure prepared by Eagle Scout Jared Cassada. Together with associated trail markers, this guide supports unsupervised visits to the property. But under the newly constructed timber-frame pavilion nearby, Center naturalist Angela Broughton was teaching preschoolers, one of her many educational programs.


The Pfeiffer Nature Center was founded in 1998 through a bequest from Wendy Pfeiffer Lawrence and her family's summer cottage is located in this forest. A plaque on its side announces that the "Pfeiffer-Wheeler Chestnut Cabin has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior." The cabin's living room offers a spectacular view of the nearby countryside. Also, the chestnut wood with which the cabin was constructed reminds us that this species predominated here a hundred years ago before the chestnut blight wiped it out. A similar fungus now attacking the forest's beeches demonstrates that such diseases continue to represent problems.

(View of the Southern Tier from the Pfeiffer-Wheeler Cabin)

We then visited the nearby 425-acre property deeded to the Center by Colonel Charles Eshelman. This is a lowland area of pasture and mixed woodland including sugar bush that will continue according to his wishes to be actively managed with characteristics typical of a farm.


The Pfeiffer Nature Center has all the usual problems of today's private foundations, but with its 300 enthusiastic members and its many active volunteers supporting the two part time staff members, it is now playing an important educational and service role for all of western New York.


A visit to this sanctuary would enhance any trip to the Southern Tier.