The Hitchcock Center for the Environment was founded in 1962 by Ethel Dubois (1906–1987), a retired guidance counselor. Inspired by the works of Rachel Carson, whose work condemned the indiscriminate use of pesticides and shaped environmental consciousness, Ethel bought a farm in Leverett. With a handful of dedicated volunteers, she provided summer camp and nature programs for low-income children, primarily from Holyoke and Springfield. She wanted to develop a sense of wonder by providing experiences of the natural world that were otherwise unavailable to them.
The service area for the “Long Plain Nature Center,” as Hitchcock was originally known, grew rapidly in the ’60s and ’70s to include science and nature programs for schools and communities throughout Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Counties. By 1976, the Center had outgrown its farm location. With generous support from the Town of Amherst, the Center moved to the Larch Hill Conservation Area in Amherst. At about the same time, the Center changed its name to the “Hitchcock Center for the Environment” and hired its first paid executive director, Gordon Schimmel.
The Hitchcock name recognizes three connections to the environment: Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864) was a noted American geologist, third president of Amherst College, and a founding member of what would become the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His wife, Orra White Hitchcock, was a child prodigy in scientific and classical subjects and became one of America’s earliest botanical and scientific illustrators. Glacial Lake Hitchcock began forming 18,000 years ago, at one point stretching from upper Vermont to southern Connecticut. Edward Hitchcock was instrumental in documenting its origins and impact on the Pioneer Valley, accompanied by Orra who illustrated his findings and lessons.
In 2016, the Center moved into its new Living Building at its present location on West Street. The new building, built to achieve the most rigorous green building certification in the world, Living Building Challenge, allows the Center to grow and expand its program offerings in the community, including using the building itself as a teaching tool for sustainable engineering and design curricula, net zero energy and water programming and more.
Today, the Center remains true to its mission: to foster greater awareness and understanding of our environment and develop environmentally literate citizens.