A Private Preserve With A Public Mission

POSTMARK: STRAWBERRY HILL

August 22, 1993|By WAYNE HARDIN

Francis J. "Cuz" Myers, who turned 73 in May, rips off a plug of Red Man chewing tobacco, fills one side of his jaw and offers the package.

"Chew?" he asks.

"No, thanks."

Shrugging, he moves aside enough tools and material on the seat of a red Jeep Wrangler so a passenger can get in.

"Let's take a little ride," says Mr. Myers, superintendent for 12 years at Strawberry Hill Nature Center and Preserve, 519 acres near Fairfield, Pa., midway between Emmitsburg, Md., and Gettysburg, Pa..

Mr. Myers opens a metal gate and maneuvers the four-wheel-drive Jeep, which has roll bars, up a steep, narrow road through the dense shade of red oak, white oak, black oak, poplar, hemlock. The growth is so dense that lichen lives on sun-starved rocks. Tree limbs slap the sides of the Jeep.

Mr. Myers stops the vehicle at a cable stretched between trees to block the road. He opens a padlock on the cable, lowers the cable and drives on.

"Frances really loves this mountain," he says. Frances is Baltimorean Frances Morton Froelicher, known for her long tenure as a community housing activist. In 1941, she founded the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, a non-profit, citizens-action group involved in housing and education issues in Baltimore.

Her connection with this land began in 1960 when she bought an old house and a quarter acre on Middle Creek for $2,700. Two years later, she married Hans Froelicher, former Park School headmaster. Over the years, when land in the area was cheap, they added to the quarter acre, piecing together 35 tracts of land she estimates is worth $4 million today. The name Strawberry Hill came from abundance of wild strawberries growing on the hillsides.

Mrs. Froelicher, 81, who maintains a home in Baltimore, has made it her mission to ensure that Strawberry Hill, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, will remain open space -- forever. She wants Strawberry Hill to be maintained as an environmental center.

"This is dedicated to my husband," who died in 1976, she says. "When you look at what's here, you see why I've dedicated the last years of my life to this place."

"Cuz" Myers shifts the Jeep into low gear to cross a bed o mini-boulders in Swamp Creek.

"Don't get worried," he says. "We'll make it."

The vehicle sways but lurches forward.

"Lot of wild turkey up in here, and deer," he says.

The property, taxed as a tree farm, includes wetlands, meadows, five rental houses and four other buildings. There's a tract called "Aunt Willie's Acres," land along Middle Creek called "Orchid Bank," and a house called "Blue Bird of Happiness."

Crab apple and cherry trees grow along a man-made, creek-fed pond home to bass and blue gill. There are two creeks, which Mrs. Froelicher says were once polluted and are now clean. Volunteers help run a nature center.

"We name everything around here," Mrs. Froelicher says.

To reach her preservation goals, Mrs. Froelicher set up the non-profit and tax-exempt Strawberry Hill Foundation. Friends and relatives from Baltimore comprise its trustee board. In her will, the land goes to the foundation. A separate board runs the nature center, with members from nearby Pennsylvania communities.

Although the organizational structure is in place to protect the land, she worries about the future. She fears the potential for intrusions and development on the boundaries. She's also concerned about lack of money -- funds needed for activities and for hiring an "overall director to do what I'm doing."

"We're being run on a shoestring," she says. "We operate on a $20,000 budget."

To raise money to operate the center, tax-deductible memberships to Strawberry Hill are sold. A membership allows privileges on the grounds, such as hiking, fishing and access to environmental and nature programs.

"The reason you see this place so beautiful is that it's supervised," she says. "It's not that way naturally. It's hard work."

Joining her in the hard work is caretaker Cuz Myers, who came here after retiring from 31 years as a mechanic.

He watches after the place, mows, keeps up the trails, generally does whatever is necessary. At nights, phone calls are forwarded to his home "on the other side of Fairfield."

Neighbors call him if something seems amiss.

"I'm on duty 24 hours a day," he says.

Before it ends, Mr. Myers' tour takes us off the mountain and toward the back porch of Strawberry Hill's closest neighbors, Jim and Leanna Ford.

"We like having Frances as a neighbor," Mrs. Ford says. "We like the way she keeps the place up."

Today, Strawberry Hill will hold its annual open house featurin jeep tours, environmental exhibits, craft demonstrations, nature walks and children's activities. The hours are noon to 6 p.m. The rain date is Aug. 29. For information and directions, please call (717) 642-5840.

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