In the late 1800s, a young woman saw an irreplaceable treasure in the vastly shrinking woodlands of Atlanta. Ahead of her time, perhaps, this naturalist led the charge to preserve 65 acres of forest in the shadows of city expansion and neighborhood development.
It’s believed that one of her favorite places in the forest was a creek bank covered with ferns, which she named "Fernbank."
Emily Harrison’s vision still thrives through the conservation work and science education of Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The Museum’s mission includes an ongoing commitment to Fernbank Forest, which was purchased by the Trustees of Fernbank to preserve and protect it for future generations. Today, at 65 acres, Fernbank Forest is the largest old-growth urban Piedmont forest in the country.
As an adult, Harrison dreamed of maintaining Fernbank as a "school in the woods" for nature study. In 1939, Harrison and Dr. Woolford Baker, a biologist at Emory University, led a group of 15 "conservation-minded environmentalists" to establish Fernbank as a 501(c)(3) non-profit with the intent to purchase and preserve the 65 acres of old-growth woodlands.
Fernbank Museum of Natural History may be the only natural history museum to “grow” out of forest. After nearly years of inspiration and decades of planning, ground was broken in 1989 for a natural history museum that would fulfill Ms. Harrison’s dream of a “school in the woods” and inspire future generations of naturalists and scientists.
Built along the border of the forest to preserve the integrity of the undisturbed woodlands, Fernbank Museum of Natural History officially opened to the public on October 5, 1992. Fernbank Museum is one of the most popular and iconic cultural attractions in Atlanta. Fernbank continues to inspire life-long learning of natural history through immersive programming and unmatched experiences that encourage a greater appreciation of our planet and its inhabitants.
The original Trustees of Fernbank led the effort to keep this natural area undisturbed, generating interest from other organizations for partnerships. In the early 1960s, Fernbank Trustees entered a partnership with the DeKalb County School System that allowed teachers to use the forest for science education. As part of this 48-year lease agreement, DeKalb County agreed to fence the forest and begin a security and maintenance program. The partnership between DeKalb County and Fernbank also allowed Fernbank Trustees to deed four acres of land adjacent to the forest to the School System for the construction of DeKalb County’s Fernbank Science Center, which opened in 1967 to offer science programs to DeKalb teachers and students.
As outlined in the agreement decades earlier, the 48-year lease expired after the close of the 2012 school year. At that time, stewardship of and programming in Fernbank Forest returned to Fernbank Museum, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.
Fernbank Science Center, which is a unit of and funded by the DeKalb County School System, is not formally affiliated with Fernbank Museum of Natural History. The two organizations continue to inspire future generations of scientists while offering programs (including forest access) for DeKalb County Schools through Fernbank Science Center and programs for the public-at-large at Fernbank Museum of Natural History.