CHARLESTON, West Virginia — A Charleston-area businessman’s dream of honoring his late wife’s memory will finally come true this weekend. An open house will be held this Saturday to officially open the Claudia L. Workman Wildlife Education Center in Kanawha County.
The facility located along Corridor G just south of Charleston is a tribute to the wife of Jack Workman, a businessman who deeded the property in Forks of the Coal River to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with the understanding that it will be used for a nature education center.
“He had a sincere intent to do something for the youth of Appalachia and he thought that outdoor education and nature education would be something that would be very positive and there was a need,” said Bob Fala, who was Director of the Division of West Virginia of Natural Resources when Workman decided to leave the property to the agency.
Workman’s vision was to create “French Creek South,” as he called it, in hopes of achieving something for southern West Virginia similar to the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek in Upshur County.
“When I became a director, he came into my office one day and he was excited and said he was going to turn this property over to DNR and he had some desire to go along with that,” Fala said.
The property served for many years as the world headquarters for the Workman Pipe Company. There were two industrial buildings on the property that eventually became the DNR District Five headquarters. For many years, the district had been separate from the Mason County-based wildlife offices and Nitro-based law enforcement.
“’This was right in the center of the district. We briefly looked at the two buildings for the nature center that Workman wanted, but it became clear that they weren’t really suitable for that, but they were perfect as office space for the headquarters and the other building for storage,” explained Fala.
The decision was made to build a stand-alone facility as a nature education center. Paying for such a facility was going to be a challenge with coal and natural gas revenues for the declining state. Fala told Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that they would rely heavily on private donations to help build and equip the facility. Necessity caused the Forks of Coal Foundation to be formed and plans for the nature center hatched.
“It’s not your typical nature center because it includes wildlife management education,” said Art Shomo, a retired DNR employee who helped guide the project from the idea stage to the grand opening this weekend.
“There were times where we weren’t sure if it would ever happen, but it’s finally happening and it’s gratifying and exciting to see it open,” he said.
The Foundation has been extremely active in helping to raise money to pay for the exhibits on display. These include full-body mounts of a number of species including deer, elk, turkey, bear, otters, and beaver. There were also other benefactors, including substantial grants from the Abandoned Mine Lands program.
“Several of the exhibits have an audio component. There’s a button you can push to hear the moose trumpet, then go down to the turkey exhibit and push a button and hear four different types of turkey calls,” Shomo explained.
You can also press a button to hear birdsong, open a drawer, and feel the real fur of various fur-bearing creatures in the state, or kids can pick up rock-shaped pillows and make their own “current restoration” design. of the river in the carpet running through the center.
Exhibits showcase the success stories of how wildlife management helped bring each species back to West Virginia. There is also a wood carved bald eagle as there are strict requirements by the federal government on a mounted bald eagle. All exhibits were designed and placed by Minnesota-based Split Rock Studios, with oversight by the West Virginia DNR wildlife section.
In addition, there is an aquarium with several species of fish native to the state and terrariums with, among other things, an eastern black snake and a turtle.
This weekend’s event takes place from 10 am to 4 pm and is free and open to the public. West Virginia Outdoors will originate live from the site Saturday morning on MetroNews Radio.
“This event is an excellent opportunity for families with children and will be a great way to start the summer,” said Ashley Anderson, park activities coordinator for the West Virginia DNR. “We hope everyone will come and experience all we have to offer, including ‘Touch a Snake’ and ‘Bird ID’ activities.”
The facility includes an outdoor seating area for outdoor performances and is located on the 100+ acre Forks of Coal Wildlife Area, which features several property walking trails and historical markers.