This year marks the 100th anniversary of Wildcat Glades Park in northern Newton County, Mo., just south of Joplin.

“Last summer at our water festival we had several people come in and represent 10 different decades, and that was really neat for everyone,” said Donna Whitehead, with Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center.

The facilities include an 11,000 sq. ft. nature center with a 1,300-gallon aquarium, classrooms, exhibits, and a library. Outdoors, there are four miles of trails with eco-type learning stations, a gazebo, and a small pavilion.

Whether you’re birdwatching, going on a hike, or attending a program, there is something for everyone at Wildcat Glades. You’re never too young or old to learn something from nature. Through hands-on environmental education programs and activities, Wildcat Glades connect thousands of visitors to the natural world every year.

The Audubon Center houses interactive exhibits and a children’s discovery area. The outside trails travel alongside rivers and creeks and on top of scenic bluffs.

Wildcat Park has existed under several names over the years, including Shoal Creek Park, Wildcat Springs, Spiva Park, and Whitmer Park. Shoal Creek served as one of the drawing forces of the early settlers to this site.

The park featured towering chert bluffs, up to 100 feet thick, and a very picturesque view overlooking the creek.

“It was first opened as a city park in July 1917,” said Whitehead.

The park opened on July 4 to a large crowd of bathers, and the park had a promenade, concession stands, a water slide and suspension bridge over Shoal Creek.

It hosted many family gatherings, from the social elite to gypsy encampments, and a large theatre, dance pavilion and boathouse were built. Trains from town ran hourly from 10th and Main to the park.

“The park has been here and has been a part of so many things in the community, and it’s a great honor to be still be here and going strong 100 years later,” said Whitehead.

Artifacts from Native Americans who used cherts as arrowheads have been historically found within the park site and there is a rich history of explorers, farmers, miners and even notorious criminals.

Frank and Jesse James visited the mill on several occasions and a local citizen witnessed Bonnie and Clyde crossing the Redings Mill bridge.

John S. Reding built a grist mill on Shoal Creek in 1832 and it became a center for local farmers. It had a capacity to produce 100 barrels of flour a day and there was a cable ferry running north to west to pull loads across Shoal Creek.

“In 1886 a one-lane steel bridge was built and in 1930 a new steel-reinforced concrete span was completed,” said Whitehead.

It was 415 feet long, accommodating two driving lanes with a five foot wide pedestrian walkway. It had four 30-foot arches and three 90-foot arches for support.

“It serves as the trail head for Wildcat Park still today,” said Whitehead. “Wildcat Park continues to serve as a destination for families, conservationists, nature enthusiasts, and school groups.”

Over 55,000 people in 2016 used the nature trails to experience the beauty of this habitat.

“Last year we had visitors from 46 different states and 17 foreign countries,” said Whitehead.

Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center has a mission to continue to protect and restore the natural resources for generations to come. Wildcat Glades works with over 100 volunteers in different positions anddifferent teams.

“We have people in the nature store, we have people that like to work outside, and the front desk, just greeting people, we also have a cleaning crew, and a repair crew. It all just depends on what their interests are in and what they want to do,” said Whitehead.

Carolyn M. Hale, a retired professor in the communications department at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, has been a volunteer for the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center for four years and is very much dedicated to her role as a volunteer.

“I volunteered because I really enjoy the outdoors, gardening, trees, soil. When I was growing up my grandparents had the largest farm in southern Ohio and we spent a lot of time there,” said Hale.

Hale said she was interested in taking her love for the outdoors to the next level by taking a course to be a Missouri Master Naturalist offered by the Missouri Department of Conservation, in cooperation with the MU Extension program at Missouri State in Springfield.

“I took it because I wanted to know even more about nature, preserving the earth, and animals when I share my knowledge volunteering,” said Hale.

While taking this course, Hale went on several field trips to areas all over the state and got to hear presentations from people on several different topics. Now, she has taken that knowledge and applied it to her own life at her home.

“We also had to have a special project while taking this course and mine was creating a butterfly garden. I knew a little about butterflies but I was able to learn so much more,” said Hale.

Hale expressed that the program was a very worthy program for those who have an interest in wildlife, and it has allowed her to expand her volunteering efforts.

Hale volunteers once a week in the winter, and in the summer she volunteers more often than that due to the amount of programs and traffic the center gets.

“Wildcat Glades is a very pleasant place to work and I love to see the programs that we offer to our children; introducing the outdoors to our children is very important,” said Hale.

Throughout the years the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center has had several programs for children and adults and long-time volunteers even go and present presentations to schools and other places.

Along with the several programs and activities the center will be having for 2017, the final kick-off for celebrating 100 years of the park will be “A Midsummer Night Dinner on Redings Mill Bridge” on June 6.

“We will be having a magical evening on the historic Redings Mill Bridge including historical information and artifacts from the past 100 years,” said Whitehead.

There will be a gourmet dinner served on linen and listening to the sounds and sights of Shoal Creek as the sun goes down.

“Another very important thing we are gearing up for is the dedication of our new natural play areas for kids of all ages,” said Whitehead.

On April 21, the center will open a playground unlike any other. There will be an eagle nest children can play in, they can build a tee-pee, tunnels, and also play with natural instruments.

“It’s really playtime with education about nature, and we’re trying to encourage kids to get out in nature more and show them that nature is very important for their growth,” said Whitehead.

The Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center is open year-round from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, and in March through October it’s also open 1-5 p.m. on Sunday.

For more information about programs, activities, or volunteering at Wildcat Glades, check them out on Facebook or their website at or call them at (417) 782-6287.