DURHAM — Grasshoppers sing and tiny birds dart among the bright yellow wildflowers and tall grasses in a meadow in the Horton Grove Nature Preserve, and only two new kiosks and a freshly mown trail signal that humans visit this place.
In its antebellum past, the pasture was busier. Piles of stones at the forest’s edge and remnants of old fences show the land was once cultivated, meaning slaves from adjacent Stagville Plantation probably toiled here.
The Triangle Land Conservancy will celebrate Horton Grove’s grand opening this Friday and Saturday, dedicating a 708-acre preserve that melds present and past. Visitors will experience nature on nine miles of trails, as informational signs and programs treat them to a lesson in Southern history, said Jeff Masten, the conservancy’s director of conservation strategies.
“What we’re bringing to this is a combination of human geography as well as the environmental,” Masten said. “Part of the reason that this works is that Stagville has been such a willing participant – it’s really a symbiotic relationship.”
The Triangle Land Conservancy operates four other nature preserves and a river-paddling trail, but it hasn’t opened a new preserve since creating 296-acre Johnston Mill in Chapel Hill in 2000. Horton Grove – the group’s largest preserve and it’s first in Durham County – has been in the works for years. The conservancy began acquiring land in northern Durham in 2004 and prepared Horton Grove Nature Preserve for public use as funding came in from donors and state and national grants, Masten said.
On Friday, donors, volunteers and community members will gather to celebrate the opening with speeches, a seed-scattering ceremony and a night of stargazing led by Morehead Planetarium. Saturday’s festivities, co-hosted by groups including Historic Stagville Visitors Center and the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, will feature hikes, African drum music, three food trucks and tours of Stagville’s historic buildings, which include the pre-Revolutionary War Horton Home and slave quarters constructed by slaves themselves.
For the state-operated Stagville Historic Site, publicity surrounding the new preserve provides a chance to reach new people, said Kimberly Puryear, assistant site manager. The plantation was one of the largest in the South, and in 1860 encompassed some 30,000 acres and was home to 900 slaves.
“It will be a wonderful opportunity to spread awareness about the site,” Puryear said. “It helps to get the word out, and it helps to combine various interests.”
For the conservancy, the opportunity to pair with the state’s historic site provided an extra reason to open the land to the public, said Anne-Marie Vanaman, director of development and marketing for the conservancy.
The conservancy acquired the Horton Grove land between 2004 and 2008 through a series of donations from D.R. Bryan, developer of the nearby Treyburn community. Prior to the donation, the state had paid $1.8 million for a conservation easement on 308 acres of Horton Grove to protect streams that feed Falls Lake.
After deciding to make the Horton Grove land into a public preserve, the group spent about $75,000 building trails, kiosks, and a parking lot and holding the first of three controlled burns meant to rid the preserve’s historic meadow of invasive species.
Though the process took time, Masten said Horton Grove’s opening is right on schedule.
“To do a project like this, especially as a nonprofit, you have to acquire the funding,” he said. Much of the groups’ backing comes from its roughly 3,000 active donors, but companies such as Burt’s Bees have also supported the project.
“They are just really gung-ho,” Vanaman said. “They are all about the pollinators.”
Horton Grove will protect habitats for species on the decline, like certain butterflies and bees, the bobwhite quail and the grasshopper sparrow. It also will provide five miles of stream buffer to protect water flowing into Falls Lake, the primary source of drinking water for Raleigh and six other Wake County towns.
Visitors will be directed by informational signs in kiosks and can travel along three miles of trails – another six miles will soon be added – which snake through the meadow, the preserve’s dense forests and will ultimately open near the buildings at Stagville.
The Triangle Land Conservancy was started in 1983 to protect land in six counties – Chatham, Durham, Johnston, Lee, Orange and Wake – and hopes to eventually have a nature preserve in each one (Lee County still lacks one). For now, though, it will focus on expanding Horton Grove’s trails and digging into archives to learn more about the land’s history in collaboration with local historians, Masten said.