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Tony Manzara dumps a load of dirt as he works on a rain garden area at the Sally Manzara Interpretive Nature Center in Lake Elmo on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018. Founder Tony Manzara put in $300,000 of his own money toward the center, as a memorial to his late wife, who died in 2015. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

New Minnesota nature center blends nature, humor, community service

LAKE ELMO, Minn.—If you feel like playing buckthorn croquet, there is only one place to do it — the Twin Cities area's newest and most quirky nature center.

The Sally Manzara Interpretative Nature Center in Lake Elmo, only four months old, has become a gathering place known for classes, nature walks, art lessons and corporate retreats.

And often, laughter. That's the usual response to the 10-foot-tall birdhouse, with the 6-foot-tall statue of a cardinal in front.

"Things are going along nicely," said founder Tony Manzara, as he took a break from working on a rain garden last week.

Manzara spent $300,000 on the center, as a memorial to his ex-wife, who died in 2015.

The city donated a 1-acre plot in Sunfish Lake Park. Forty volunteers painted, hammered and plastered, working a total of 2,000 hours.

"We are quite blessed to have such a beautiful group of friends," said Connie Kirk, who married Manzara in 2016.

Since it opened in June, the center's events calendar has been packed.

It hosts a weekly "Walk, Talk and Snack" session for seniors. A local artist teaches painting classes monthly, and a 3M employees' group recently held painting classes there. A two-day Art in the Park event is scheduled for Oct. 13-14.

Native American students from the Stillwater district come regularly for outdoor classes. Kirk said that on one recent visit, students painted deer hides and erected a teepee.

The center is designed with disabilities in mind.

"It's a quiet, wonderful place where children with autism or any disability are totally welcome," said Kirk. The interior is painted with soft colors, and lights can be dimmed.

The center is particularly aggressive — and creative — in its battles against the pervasive weed buckthorn.

While many parks host buckthorn-removal events, the center has upgraded the idea to an entire Buckthorn Festival. "We also call it, 'Conquer the Mighty Buckthorn Day,' " said Kirk.

The Nov. 10 event will have music, games and teams competing to kill the most buckhorn. The team to beat will be the 20-member 4-H team, which has already registered.

Manzara will display his handicrafts made of buckthorn wood — including a set of croquet mallets, balls and hoops made of buckthorn.

Weed pullers will roll dice — made of buckthorn, of course — to see who gets free chili, said Manzara.

"If you are going to do this, why not have fun with it?" said Kirk. "What better things can you have in your life than to be surrounded by people?"

"I think Sally is smiling down on this right now. She is happy with her legacy."