Wilson Picnic Grove: Tribute to Love and Kindness

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Before Penn State Behrend became a college, it was a country estate owned by Hammermill Paper Company founder, Ernst Behrend, and his wife, Mary (pictured above). The two built Glenhill farmhouse—and many of the outbuildings that remain today—as  a fresh-air reprieve from life on the East Lake Road mill property, which could be, well, odiferous. (In those days, factory owners often lived on the plant property or next door.)

At the “farm,” the Behrends and their children, Warren and Harriet, kept goats and chickens, raised German shepherds (including the renowned Bruno, for whom the café in Reed Building is named), rode horses along the bridle path into Wintergreen Gorge, and picnicked in a wooded spot near Trout Run.

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Years after Mary Behrend donated her property to Penn State to establish Penn State Behrend, a longtime Hammermill employee, Norman W. Wilson, who recalled fondly many picnics with Ernst and Mary, donated the funds to build – you guessed it –Wilson Picnic Grove, a rustic shelter with a wood-burning fireplace tucked in the shade of tall trees and overlooking a tributary of Fourmile Creek.

Wilson donated the shelter in memory of his wife, Flora Nick Wilson, who had died two years earlier in 1969. Like many couples, they met at work. Flora was a private secretary for Ernst Behrend, and Norman was a young man Ernst had taken under his wing.

Norman had started his career at Hammermill as a millhand and office mailboy at the age of sixteen after having attended just a year of high school at East High in Erie. By twenty-nine, he was vice president of the company, a feat that a September 1970 Erie Times-News article called “a Horatio Alger-type story seldom equaled in Erie history.”

Wilson News story

In that 1970 article, Wilson was quoted as saying, “I’ll never forget the kind reception I got from Ernst R. Behrend the day I went to see him about a job. I had a letter of introduction from a minister, but remember that I was just a young boy, not even through high school. Yet he treated me as a man and put me to work.”

Wilson spent his entire career working for Hammermill, and after Mary donated Glenhill Farm to Penn State, he became involved in the college, as well, serving on the Behrend Campus Advisory Board.

Members of the board conceived of the idea of a picnic shelter, wanting to encourage use of one of the most beautiful spots on campus. But recognizing the greater need for athletic and academic facilities at the growing college, they felt they couldn’t ask the University for funds to take on a recreational project.

That’s when Wilson stepped up and asked to build the pavilion as a memorial to his late wife who had loved the outdoors.

The Flora Nick Wilson Grove and Pavilion was dedicated on November 9, 1971, to the “enjoyment of the students, faculty, and friends of the Behrend Campus.” Photos from the dedication show snow covering the ground around the shelter, which was filled with wooden folding chairs and guests, including Norman Wilson who spoke warmly about his former boss, his wife, and his hopes for the future.

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“I could not feel comfortable about participating in this ceremony without expressing my respect and affection for Mr. Ernst R. Behrend, after whom this campus is named,” Wilson said  at the dedication. “It was he who gave me my first job at Hammermill. It was he who introduced me to his lovely private secretary, who was destined to become my Guiding Star, for always.”

“Mrs. Wilson loved the outdoors. She contrived impromptu picnics on the shortest conceivable notice. She rarely missed the early morning breakfast rides, or late moonlight supper rides on the Arizona ranch we liked best. She loved to motor, and to take her turn at the wheel. In her youth, she played basketball, fenced, golfed, and skated. She ran a tight house (and that included me!) She shopped, was a marvelous cook, and gave a great party. She liked people and they liked her.”

“Now, may I record my pride in everything about the Behrend Campus, including the students, the faculty, the advisory board, the director and the tremendous progress that has been made already. It is my fervent hope that the students, faculty, and friends will indeed find enjoyment in the frequent use of this memorial, and that the fellowship and goodwill for which this campus has become noted, will be enhanced thereby.”

Norman W. Wilson died July 5, 1979 at 94, but his generosity and spirit lives on at Behrend in the quaint shelter along Trout Run. He’d love it if you’d picnic there soon. It’s beautiful in any season.

Wilson Picnic Grove in 2021

Special thanks to Jane Ingold, instructional librarian and archivist at Penn State Behrend, who provided the background photos and articles for this story. Ingold has spent many years documenting the college’s history, assembling a treasure trove of memorabilia and recollections in Lilley Library.

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