In September and October I focused on hiking as my primary exercise. I did this not only because I was in one of my periodic bicycle funks, but also because hiking would help me smooth my gait. I still had the stiff-legged look, best described by W. S. Gilbert in Patience: “To cultivate the trim/ rigidity of limb/ its best to get/a marionette/ and form your style on him.” Walking on uneven ground would be fun and would pay off in my everyday life more than spinning on a bike would.
In looking for places to hike, I stumbled upon an oddly named state park, Nolde Forest, south of Reading. Since the Pennsylvania state forests and state parks are separate administrative structures, I wondered why “Forest” was in the name of the park. As usual, there’s a fascinating story behind it.
Jacob Nolde was one of many Germans who settled in Berks county during the second half of the 19th century. His life is the quintessential American success story. A weaver, he found work at a factory, rose to the top, and eventually started his own company knitting hosiery. By 1900 he was one of the leading citizens of Reading, employing hundreds of workers.
Just because you work in Reading doesn’t mean you want to live there, and so Nolde purchased land in the hills south of the city for his estate. Much of Penn’s Woodlands has been stripped bare by a century of lumbering, and two centuries of charcoal, iron, and steel forges, and Nolde wound up with barren hillsides. On one tract of land he found a single pine growing amid the meadow that sprang up when the trees were cut. Seeing that one tree, combined with his memories of Germany’s Black Forest, led Nolde to decide to replant his land with pines.
In 1910 Nolde realized that his enthusiasm and money were achieving results, but that continuing and caring for his new forest required a professional forester. He hired an Austrian, William Kohout, to manage his forest holdings and increase the size of his personal Black Forest. When Jacob Nolde died in 1916 the project was continued by his son Hans. In 1926 the Nolde mansion was constructed. Three years later William Kohout passed away, still employed managing the Nolde family forest. By the late 1960s the land and mansion was purchased by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and added to the state park system as Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center.
This October day was warm, and I set out in early afternoon. First up was a walk around the exterior of the Nolde mansion. The building, which now houses the park offices and rooms used for educational and public events, is an odd mishmash of styles. One could imagine the parties the Nolde family would host, and cars pulling up outside the building dropping off people who could have stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources hasn’t devoted much to keeping the exterior of the mansion in shape. Its a pity, as restoring the garden would take work, but give tribute to the Nolde family and add pleasure for the visitor. The Italian tile in the garden is chipping, the fountain doesn’t work, the ponds are full of stagnant water, and there’s a big hole in the ground where another fountain or a birdbath is missing. The hole isn’t barricaded and its a matter of time until someone steps in it and get hurt.
I’ve included photos of the tile at the fountain. The center of the panel is a tribute to the Nolde family heritage. German-American folk art, or Fraktur, often incorporates birds in the design, and the bluebirds in the panel are a stylized version. Note also the flowers, another common element in Fraktur.
Having spent time at the mansion, I drove to the trailhead at the mill on the property. I hiked about two miles along Angelica Creek, using the flat Watershed Trail, the slightly hillier Kohout Trail, and a couple of others. Whenever you hike at Nolde, bring a map – there are trails all over the park, and they intersect frequently. While trails are generally well marked, its easy to miss a turn, as I was soon to find out.
After my hike and extensive photography of Angelica Creek and the small cascade at the former mill, I drove to the far side of the park. I’d heard about an overlook, and I wanted to try to find it I headed down a muddy and spring-laden trail, only to find it wasn’t what I wanted. Having reached three miles, I turned onto what I expected to be a connecting trail that would lead me back to my car. Instead I was traveling further from the parking lot, further into the northern part of the park. I realized something was wrong when I looked down the cut in the photo below and didn’t see the road I’d traveled on to get here. I immediately turned on my heels and walked back the way I’d come.
While it wasn’t very dark, the sun was setting, and I began to have panicky thoughts. My walking was improved but I was far from sure-footed. If I fell no one would find me until morning, if then. I had no jacket if the night was cold. I had no flashlight either. And no food or water. Cell phone reception was very poor.
Fortunately I found the right turn once I backtracked, and I was soon at my car. As the sun set I even walked a short stretch of the Coffeepot Trail, simply because I liked the name. I finished the day with a bit more than four miles and a desire to hike at Nolde again.