At the outer fringe of the Philadelphia suburbs, a 160-acre park manages to be a natural oasis, hands-on learning lab and preserver of early American ways of life, all under one umbrella.
The Newlin Grist Mill, a 1704 mill surrounded by a park laced with trails, trout and frog ponds is run by the nonprofit Nicholas Newlin Foundation. Newlin was an Irish immigrant to what is now Pennsylvania in the late 1600s. His son established the mill.
Nine generations later, descendant E. Mortimer Newlin and his wife, Elizabeth, purchased the property in 1956, built up holdings of land around it that could remain in open space and established the foundation to keep the property open to the public with a mission of being both a refuge for nature and a place to learn about the past.
As the area around the mill has developed, and suburban-style neighborhoods have surrounded it, that mission has taken on added importance, even as the ready audience for the organization’s summer camps, nature programs and myriad other activities has grown.
“The mission that they put together is so relevant today,” says Park Naturalist Jessica Shahan. “I think he was a very forward-looking person that he was able to see what the needs of future generations were going to be.”
Today, the park serves not only the needs of humans, but also of the wildlife that sustains them.
Trout ponds and streams offer fishing and an innovative learning opportunity for school groups that participate in Pennsylvania’s Trout in the Classroom program, raising trout in aquariums and then taking a spring trip to Newlin to release them into the stream.
In 2013, Shahan helped establish a native pollinator garden on the property. This garden, which has expanded in the three growing seasons it has existed, has been documented on Plants Map and labeled with interactive signs and tags that connect visitors to online profiles that explain how each plant benefits pollinators.
“It looks like your standard pretty ornamental garden” Shahan said, “but people look closer and
discover plants they’ve never seen before,” like field pussytoes, a low-growing plant with white, puffy flowers that attracts birds and butterflies.
“It promotes the idea that we can we can decorate with native plants and it can be just as beautiful as an ornamental garden with lilies and things like that,” Shahan said.
The garden, which a team of volunteers helps to maintain, is a certified Monarch butterfly waystation, and participates in Monarch Watch, tagging and releasing butterflies to help track their migration.
Yards Brewing Co. has adopted the garden as one of its Yards Bee Gardens to help preserve honeybee habitat, donating seeds and helping with garden expansion.
In addition to these native plant species, the Newlin Grist Mill property also contains some unexpected tree specimens.
E. Mortimer Newlin was a Californian, and it’s possible he may at one time have wanted to establish an arboretum on his land, because he planted a grove of Dawn Redwoods on the property.
Shahan calls these trees “living fossils,” because they were known only from fossil records until the 1940s, when they were discovered in living form in China.
Newlin also brought Giant Sequoias from California, although Shahan says they have become susceptible to a fungus that lives on the East Coast, and the trees have showed varying amounts of damage. Shahan and her staff are working with various organizations to see if they can find a way to build resistance.
While caring for these specimen trees, the park also makes an effort not to over-cultivate, leaving fields in meadow form and managing the landscaping with an eye toward biodiversity.
“We try to pay attention to how our actions are affecting the land around us pretty carefully,” Shahan said.
All of that care and attention ensures that the Newlin Grist Mill will remain a place where both children and adults can learn about nature, how plants and animals behave when they are not obsessively managed and reined in by people, and how old traditions like milling and blacksmithing—both of which are demonstrated on the property—sustained life in early America.
“We do a lot,” Shahan said. “It’s hard to put this site into a box.”
To learn more, visit the Nicholas Newlin Foundation on Plants Map.