The Mystic and Wonder of the Claytor Nature Center

Sign at the Claytor Nature Center. Photo retrieved from the Claytor Nature Center’s Facebook page.

Cassandra Matthews ~ Assistant Editor

     Located in Bedford, Va., the Claytor Nature Center remains a treasured component of the University of Lynchburg. 

     A. Boyd Claytor III donated the property and his farmhouse, Cloverlea, in 1998. He did so for the purpose of allowing students and the community to learn about and connect with nature. Today, the Claytor Nature Center takes up 491 acres, and is home to an array of opportunities and experiences. 

     Trish Cerulli, the Outreach Coordinator for the Claytor Nature Center, specified how the University of Lynchburg utilizes the property. She said, “As a part of the University, the Claytor Nature Center offers outreach and educational programming to the University and wider community, use of the land and facilities for academic and laboratory coursework and research purposes, and holds special programs for student recreation and campus organization events or retreats.”

     Dr. Greg Eaton, the director of the Claytor Nature Center, described the terrain of the property. He called it a “beautiful natural habitat” bisected by the Big Otter River, and explained that there are wetlands, grasslands, forests, and two ponds. 

     He also described Cloverlea, saying, “[it] is surrounded by formal gardens and has the most breathtaking view of the Peaks of Otter anywhere. The Belk Astronomical Observatory is also there.”

     Although the property is owned by the University of Lynchburg, the Claytor Nature Center’s audience reaches beyond the classroom. Cerulli said, “For our educational programming, families and kids (preK-12) visit regularly, whether they are part of the homeschool community, or looking for something to supplement virtual or public school work.  We have every age of visitor for our independent recreational amenities, like 7.5 miles of hiking trails, Otter Space nature playground, picnicking in the pavilion or in the gardens of Cloverlea, or wading in the Big Otter River in the summertime.”

     She continued, “The Cloverlea Farmhouse hosts many special events, including weddings, so that spot is a common first-time experience for guests attending an event; then they return to see what else we have to offer! The Belk Observatory also draws a different crowd, those excited about space science and exploring the skies during our monthly Daytime Sky Series or nighttime Open Houses. We try to offer ways for anyone to come and connect to nature and the world around them.”

     Cerulli also discussed the University-wide project to further explore and understand the history of the property and those who lived there. She explained, “Alumni, volunteers, faculty members and student interns, staff from the Knight-Capron Library, and community organizations are teaming together to explore the rich history that the Claytor Nature Center holds. Some of this project stems from interesting finds that were hidden away in the Cloverlea attic that tell the story of Boyd and Virginia Claytor in their early years through their time creating a home at the Cloverlea Farm.” 

     She continued, “In summary, what we know so far is that the original portion of the farmhouse was built circa 1790s, and the surrounding property and parcels changed hands several times throughout the years. The property was used for various agricultural purposes, including as a dairy farm, and it is said that the first addition of the house was paid for with the proceeds of selling buttermilk, and therefore called the ‘Buttermilk House’, built in the mid-1800s.” 

     Cerulli said, “There are many points of interest on the property that used to have structures or buildings, including a family cemetery from the Watson and Carnefix families, past owners of the house and land. Mr. Claytor bought the farm in the early 1950s with his wife Virginia Claytor. He acquired more parcels surrounding the farm, and added the East Wing of the house in the early 1960s. In memory of his wife, Virginia, after she passed, Mr. Claytor had the lower gardens and reflecting pool, overlooking the Peaks of Otter mountains, built in the late 1990s. Mr. Claytor made the agreement to give his estate to the University of Lynchburg, and it became the Claytor Nature Center, with gradual plans to add the Education building, EcoLodge, and Belk Astronomical Observatory, as well as other natural areas and amenities that are there today.”

     Dr. Eaton and Cerulli talked about how the ongoing pandemic has affected the operations of the Claytor Nature Center. Dr. Eaton said, “Our programs depend on hands-on, outdoor experiential education, and fun gatherings of family and friends. We host any school groups, so to have the schools closed was devastating. The Claytor Center also closed along with the University campus for five months in 2020. We soon realized, however, that outdoors in nature is the safest place that people can be! So we reopened by reservation only to reduce the possibility of larger groups beyond what was mandated and safe.”

     Cerulli added, “We understand that almost 500 acres of open natural space is one of the safer places to be during a pandemic. Being in nature can be a wonderful way for people to get out of the house and connect with others in a safe environment. We are open to the public daily from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. for independent recreational activities. Our programming and events require registration and health verification by all guests, as well as face covering and distancing guidelines. Indoor access is limited to our lower restrooms at the Education Building, or by appointment or program registration only. We feel it is important to continue offering space and programs that allow folks to connect with nature and their environment.

     Cerulli shared that when it comes to deciding what her favorite aspect of the Claytor Nature Center is, it is hard to pick just one thing. “I love Belk Observatory and the Cloverlea Farmhouse both so much,” she said. “My background is in Astrochemistry, with my M.Sc. from University of Virginia, and I have always had an interest in space science as an amateur astronomer. I have volunteered at Belk since 2010 as a docent; it is what brought me to the Claytor Nature Center as an opportunity to get involved in astronomy locally when I moved to Lynchburg. When I came to the Claytor Nature Center for the first time during the day (at first my visits were at night, at Belk), I saw the Cloverlea Farmhouse and the absolutely stunning view, and it is just magical. I knew I wanted to get married there, even though I had not even met my husband yet!  We did get married at Cloverlea in 2015, since the Claytor Nature Center had become a special place for us for family hikes and picnics with our dogs. Both Cloverlea and Belk provide unique opportunities that allow people to appreciate and learn about our world, all in the setting of a fantastically beautiful place.”

     Dr. Eaton reflected on the ways in which people’s mannerisms change at the Claytor Nature Center. “My favorite aspect is that when people come to the Claytor Center, they become calm and move about more slowly,” he explained. “It is a wondrous place to experience, so they become quiet in order to experience it all the better. I like to think that when they leave they take some of that quiet calm with them, and I hope it lasts like the memories they make here!”

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