Merry Lea lost a valuable ally and trusted friend on September 13 when Mark Eisfelder, age 57, died unexpectedly following a heart attack. Mark worked for Zehr Construction for 36 years, and in his role as a carpenter and foreman, frequently worked at Merry Lea during the past 19 years.
“His hand was on every building on the property,” observed Luke Gascho, Merry Lea’s executive director. This is an understatement. Mark’s first project was renovating the Barn at the Kesling Farmstead in 1998. The next year, he began the first of three additions at the Learning Center Building and completed the Michael Yoder Dome at the Glacial Retreat Center. Mark’s labor raised the Farmstead’s pavilion in what was once a cottonwood thicket, and it added the restroom building and other outbuildings to the same site. In 2008, Mark returned to the Kesling Farm to turn the farmhouse into apartments for graduate students.
At Rieth Village, Mark headed up the construction of the animal barn from 2013 to 2014. The greenhouse prep room and bicycle shed at this site were his handiwork as well.
Less visible projects included a redo of the maintenance shop, renovations at Rieth Cottage, the observation shelter at Onion Bottom, the Council House at the Learning Center, a pavilion and restrooms by the dome and the recent trailside shelters. The week Mark died, he had been renovating a building at Luckey’s Landing, on the west side of the nature preserve.
“It is a wonderful thing to have a contractor that you can trust to understand what you want and to ask good questions,” Luke remarked. When a fallen tree damaged his own property, Mark was the contractor he called.
For his part, Mark enjoyed working outdoors at a nature preserve. He would sometimes send family and friends phone videos of animals he witnessed. Mark had a particular fondness for snakes and was amused to find the shed skins of blacksnakes in the rafters of the Kesling Farmhouse. The blue racers that frequented the Luckey’s Landing Site where he last worked did not disturb him either.
One of the memories traded at a recent staff meeting involved the fact that Mark’s relationship with Merry Lea began in childhood. He first came with his father—a Department of Natural Resources employee licensed to use explosives. One imagines Mark catching snakes in the woods while his father used dynamite to create wetland habitat near Rieth Cottage.
For today’s young visitors, Mark’s legacy lives on in a more visible way than sound shelters. Environmental Educator Jane Litwiller recalls that Mark was the one who found Sippy, a Northern Water Snake. Sippy is on display at the Learning Center Building where she fascinates many children.