DENTON — They still call it the Lettuce Patch, because this corner of the field can grow anything.
The woman who had owned the land before them named it, just as she had named the nearby Crick Crossing, Wildlife Refuge, Poison Ivy Canyon and the Hill with the Special Grasses.
Lucile Johnson had studied English at Nebraska Wesleyan University in the 1930s, but she spent most of her life learning about the trees, grasses, animals and streams on her farm a half-dozen miles from the west edge of Lincoln.
“We both liked to walk in the snow,” said her friend, Judy Stiefel. “That’s how I learned the names, too.”
Stiefel fell in love with the land after she and her husband, Tim, started renting it from Johnson nearly 50 years ago. She would ride her horse along the water and through the trees and up the hill, checking on their cattle.
The Stiefels bought the land, and they learned where the beavers built their dams and where to look for the fox pups.
“They were the cutest little devils you ever saw,” Tim Stiefel said. “They’d stick their little heads out.”
The couple stopped farming and ranching a few years ago, and started selling off their acres. They thought about what to do with Johnson’s former farm. They wanted a buyer who would take care of it, who would appreciate its wildness, who wouldn’t carve it into housing.
“Lucile’s land, this land, we loved this land,” Judy Stiefel said.
It made sense, then, to sell 100 acres to the city of Lincoln last year and to donate the adjacent 13-acre Lettuce Patch to the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District.
Both are important pieces in the 10-mile puzzle that will become the Prairie Corridor on Haines Branch, a ribbon of tallgrass prairie and trail that will eventually connect Pioneers Park with Conestoga Lake and the Spring Creek Prairie Audobon Center south of Denton.
It’s a big project, designed to preserve prairie, promote ecotourism and provide environmental education. And it could take years to complete.
Overall, it will encompass 7,600 acres along Haines Branch, which eventually joins Salt Creek in west Lincoln. The partners in the project — the city, the natural resources district, the Lincoln Parks Foundation and Spring Creek Prairie — already have 5,300 acres protected, through purchases and easements and land inside Pioneers Park and the prairie.
The initiative carries a roughly $22 million price tag, but that could change with the costs of buying land or locking in easements. The partners won’t invoke eminent domain, so they have to negotiate with dozens of landowners.
“We view this as a generational legacy project,” said Nicole Fleck-Tooze, special projects administrator with the Parks and Recreation Department. “It will be a project that unfolds over time.”
If a landowner says no, they’ll move on to the next one, and try again later.
But Judy and Tim Stiefel said yes — with two conditions. The first: the Lettuce Patch would serve as a trailhead.
Lucile Johnson’s former farm was split diagonally by railroad tracks, and the larger tract the Stiefels sold to the city, the 100 acres to the south, has already been partially reseeded with native tallgrass.
The northwest corner, a 13-acre triangle along Southwest 84th Street, is perfectly positioned to serve as a parking lot and trailhead, the couple said — a natural hub connecting passages to Pioneers Park, Conestoga Lake and Spring Creek Prairie.
But the trail to Conestoga Lake would need a little more land to the north of the Lettuce Patch. So in December, the Lincoln Parks Foundation bought an adjacent 20-acre property with a 1,700-square-foot house.
The corridor will take 5 of those acres for the project, and the foundation will sell the house and remaining land, Fleck-Tooze said.
The corridor partners are busy on other fronts, Fleck-Tooze said. They’re actively talking with five other landowners. They’re developing a strategy for reaching out to donors. And they’re getting ready to launch a social media campaign to promote the project.
They’re also getting ready to work on the ground they want to preserve, reseeding the rest of the 100-acre tract and building the parking lot and trailhead and reseeding part of the Lettuce Patch.
The Stiefel Johnson Trailhead should be done by fall.
And that was Tim Stiefel’s second condition. He wanted it named to honor the two women who were such devoted stewards of the land for so long.
“They’re the ones that looked after this land for 75 years,” he said. “They took care of it.”