When Bill Claxton was a kid growing up in Green Township in Noble County, he started planting trees.
It all started when his folks bought some apple and pear saplings through the mail. When they came, Claxton remembers his parents’ disappointment. The roots were dried out and they appeared worthless.
"I put them in a bucket and brought them back to life and planted them," Claxton said of his 8- or 9-year-old self. "I’ve been planting trees all my life."
Now Claxton Woods, the 93-acre tree farm just north of Spencerville that he planted out of barren farm land more than 20 years ago, will live on through ACRES Land Trust. The tree farm, donated to ACRES on Dec. 16, will remain full of the wide variety of trees that Claxton has planted over the years, said Casey Jones, ACRES’ director of land management.
Founded in 1960, ACRES protects land and preserves natural areas in 34 counties in northeast Indiana, southern Michigan and northwest Ohio. It is headquartered in Huntertown.
If anything, Claxton, 85, wants this labor to be appreciated by others.
He created two winding walking trails, each a little more than a mile, and put up gates to keep out campers and vandals. That seemed to work, but ACRES is now debating whether the trails will stay open to the public, Jones said, as the organization takes stock of associated costs of keeping them open. They are currently closed.
The farm is full of pecan, catalpa, basswood, English walnut, oak, sugar and silver maple, white pine, cedar and persimmon trees. But the trees weren’t planted for pecans or walnuts, but for timber, Claxton said. The timber won’t be ready for harvest for another 40 to 50 years, making it hard to imagine what timber prices might be then for walnut and pecan wood.
ACRES officials are keeping the farm’s value confidential. According to the DeKalb County tax assessor’s office, land assessed as farmland is valued about $2,000 an acre. If it is residential, an acre would rise to between $10,000 and $25,000, depending on improvements.
But it’s not what the land costs that matters to Claxton. "What we’re doing is we’re cutting down timber and we’re cutting down timber, but there’s very few trees being planted," said Claxton, who, if anything, calls himself an environmentalist. "I thought it was necessary for me to do something for humanity."
Trees, he said, do many things, including providing oxygen and preventing soil erosion.
He started planting in 1991 when he retired as an electrician. He bought the land a few years earlier after he told his Realtors what he was looking for and what he could pay. They found the perfect site about a mile north of Spencerville, 22 miles away from his home in Churubusco.
"I’ve worked up there every week, two and three days a week," he said, enumerating chores like mowing weeds, cutting down brush, and spraying to keep out invasive plants such as thistles, honeysuckle and mustard garlic. "There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t belong there."
Marking out his plantation in plots of 80 square feet, he has an estimated 43,000 trees. He doesn’t like to talk costs, but planting all the trees cost somewhere around $22,000. Hiring people to plant the trees and do the spraying are added costs.
Although the deed arrangements allow him to continue working on the plantation, he decided to give over the land with posterity in mind.
"I’m not going to live forever. My children, they’re really not interested in trees," Claxton said. "If I’d sell it, somebody would go in and build houses on it. The only way I can leave it as a tree farm is to donate it and take care of it as a tree farm."
He contacted ACRES last spring.
"Bill read about (the) James P. Covell Nature Preserve south of Auburn. Then, he read about the Heinzerling Family Five Points Nature Preserve in Garrett and felt he could trust ACRES to protect his land – forever," wrote Lettie Haver, ACRES outreach manager in an email response. "This project moved more rapidly than most. They all have their own pace. We work with land donors for decades sometimes. ACRES is in the forever business, so, we are patient."
With this acquisition, ACRES now has about 200 acres in its Protected Lands program, a designation used for managed forests, recreational areas and hunting or fishing properties. The nonprofit has about 700 acres in agriculture which will now be required to use conservation methods like no-till and cover crops, Jones said.
The rest of the 5,800 acres ACRES owns are part of the Nature Preserves program, land that is guaranteed against development or transfer.
Even if Claxton Woods is a tree plantation, it serves as a nature preserve, too. There are deer, raccoons, wild turkey and like a fairy tale, one white cat that seems to live there. Claxton has it domesticated enough that it will accept a cheese cracker, he said, but he hasn’t given the kitty a name and is pretty surprised the coyotes haven’t gotten to it.
He won’t be able to stay away from the woods, just like the Magic Wand restaurant in Churubusco, where you’ll find him nearly every morning getting together with friends for coffee and breakfast. His wife, Shirley, often comes along.
"She puts up with me," Claxton said. "She’s been a helpmate for 64 years."
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