Volunteer effort transforms dump into tranquil oasis
In the early 1900s, there was no such thing as trash pickup in most places in America, including Chesterton.
Most families served as their own trash collection agency.
“People didn’t have trash pickup back then, so they either had to bury it or take it to a swamp and dump it,” said Richard Maxey, project manager of the Porterco Conservation Trust.
For more than 30 years, one of those dumping grounds could be found in Chesterton off 11th Avenue just north of Chestnut Boulevard.
The discarded and forgotten swampland was the preferred dumping site for decades until the early ’60s.
The Porter County Parks Foundation eventually purchased the 19-acre eyesore and struggled for years with what to do with it.
In 2013, Maxey, who served as a foundation board member, suggested restoring it.
“Why let it go to waste,” Maxey said.
But he didn’t want to just bring back the site’s natural beauty. His vision was to transform an eyesore with tons of garbage from decades of dumping into a rest stop for migratory birds.
“Chesterton is in the natural flyway for migratory birds,” Maxey said. “We have quite a few that stop along the way going north to south.”
Maxey spearheaded what is now the Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary.
“The project is to restore the wetlands to its natural state from 100 to 200 years ago,” he said. “We want to restore it and cover up the dump with vegetation and trees.”
However, when he first hatched his idea, Maxey couldn’t find any government body or agency to help pay for it.
“Everyone kept saying it was too devastated, it was too bad,” Maxey said. “Everyone said it was impossible to do.”
Maxey said he and other supporters applied for an Indiana Department of Natural Resources grant, but the request was denied. The DNR rejected the application, saying the site was impossible to restore.
“We never got any county money, none from the DNR or the federal government,” Maxey said. “I even worked with (U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville) and never got any money from them. No money from the (Porter) County Council.”
Maxey decided to appeal to individuals and local businesses for donations to finance the restoration.
His efforts eventually paid off. Cargill Inc. provided a $37,000 grant to start the cleanup process.
He said the organization works hard to avoid unnecessary expenditures.
“And everyone is a volunteer,” Maxey said. “We do not have a paid staff.”
With starter money in place, the work to clean up the property started.
“We found a lot of empty bottles from the prohibition era,” Maxey said.
To remove all the garbage, Maxey said it would cost almost $800,000. As an alternative, much of the underground garbage was capped so it could not cause further harm to the water or land.
Besides garbage, removal of all kinds of invasive plant species was the next step.
During the past five years, about $80,000 in individual and corporate donations have gone toward restoring the area that’s popular with school children, runners and those walking their dogs.
The Westchester Migratory Bird Sanctuary has grown from the original 19 acres to 42 acres through purchases of adjacent properties. The property is owned by the Porterco Conservation Trust, which became owners of the bird sanctuary property in 2017.
Much of the wetlands have been restored, and native plant species have begun to sprout. Generous donations from families, students and youth organizations have gone toward building gazebos and park benches and installing winding trails with wood chips.
And, of course, the migratory birds are back too.
“We’ve had some sandhill cranes,” Maxey said. “Two made their home here and raised baby to a full adult.”
For Maxey, the restoration of the sanctuary happened not because of him but for the community.
“If you have the right volunteers and dedication, you can do it,” Maxey said. “We’re doing it for the community, so there is something they can come to and enjoy.”
Mary Kaczka is president of the Porterco Conservation Trust, which owns the bird sanctuary. She spends most of her Saturdays there planting trees and coordinating other restoration projects.
“The motivation to keep working on this is very important,” Kaczka said. “We’re restoring this natural area, this habitat for the birds, for the aquatic life and the plants and trees, and for people to connect with all that. That’s why it’s a special place.”