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Lay Center for Education and the Arts to offer tours

Posted on Thursday, May 9, 2024 at 10:04 pm

A jewel in the middle of Pike County

By Stan Schwartz

Few people know the history of the Lay Center for Education and the Arts. It’s a learning center and sculpture garden located off of Rt. UU between Bowling Green and Louisiana.

The original 350-acre property was donated by Henry Lay’s family to St. Louis University.

The farm was originally owned by James McElwee, a Revolutionary War hero, and his wife, Rhoda Black. They first settled on the property in 1832.

Joe Sick, the caretaker, lives on the property with his wife and five children. He spoke with the Bowling Green Rotary Club in April about what the Lay Center has to offer the community.

He’s been an employee of the university for six years and oversees the facility’s maintenance and construction on the grounds.

He came to the Rotary Club, he said, to spread the word about the Lay Center, which he affectionately refered to as “A Hidden Gem.”

“Very few people know about it,” he said. “Most of our groups are from St. Louis and St. Charles areas.” He believes that is because of all the talks they do at the university about the center. On the weekends, at least 60% of the visitors are from the university, he added. They could be yoga groups or kids up to shenanigans.

One group of kids he had been overseeing at the center recently was that they were still going strong at 5 a.m. the next morning.

“We have a lot of fun times out there,” he said.

He and his family are on-site if there are any problems.

The Lay Foundation was focused on education and scholarships, he noted. Henry was from Kentucky where he and his wife had family.

“He actually had two sculptures on his property at the time,” Sick said, “and he fell in love with the idea of opening a sculpture park, and spreading the word about American artwork in a rural environment.”

Lay bought the property in 1998.

The original sculptures were made out of wood, he explained, and did not stand the test of time. Since 2017, Sick has worked to remove the wood sculptures and replace them with metal or stone.

They have also added to the property, Sick explained, bringing the total acres up to close to 375 acres.

The university purchased the adjacent property in 2011 to complete the layout of the park, Sick said.

He added that the center boasts seven buildings.

“We have a commercial kitchen and a round meeting hall that can hold 75 people in a classroom setting, and 45 people in a dining setting,” he said.

Henry died in 2000 before he saw his dream come to fruition and he is buried there on the grounds in the McElwee Cemetery, which was founded in the 1800s.

“We have several Daughters of the Revolution buried there,” he added. They do have a cemetery registry. If you’re interested in knowing who, he said, see him at his office on the grounds.

The facility may be rented, he noted, and cost is flexible, but would not exceed $150.

They also have two building with four classrooms total. There are accommodations for four to eight overnight guests.

“Two of them are labs,” he said.

Most of the time students visit during the week, he added, as well as field trips from various schools.

They charge less for non-profit groups, he said, and quite a few churches hold choir practices on the property.

Last year, he estimates, they had 450 students come through.

The next project they’re working on, he said, is installing QR codes in the buildings for people who are unable to physically tour the grounds. They scan the QR codes into their phone and they would provide a virtual tour of the property.

“You can look for that in the next two years,” he said.

On the property, Sick said, is the Elizabeth House named after Henry Lay’s sister. It is a private residence, he added, and asked that visitors respect their privacy. It is the university president’s weekend vacation home.

“The floor in the house actually came from Lay’s childhood barn,” Sick said. “It was started in 1998 and finished in 2000.

The park, however, was officially opened in 2002.

Henry’s vision for the property was to employ 16 full-time employees and include up to 1,000 acres, Sick said, but that did not happen.

The most prominent sculpture in the park is the life-sized wagon train—Westward Journey. It’s actually a two-part installation with the one in the Lay Center at the start of the journey and another sculpture in Santa Fe, at the other end.

They started the installation in 2017 pouring the foundation onto bedrock. The main part of sculpture, he added, weighs 10,000 pounds.

“It is constructed out of bronze,” he said. And the characters resemble the caretakers—Dave and Vicki Cadwaller—who worked on the property before he started working there, as well as the artist himself and others associated with the center.

Currently, there are 32 sculptures in the park. There’s also a large playground at the park’s entrance and several walking trails for visitors.

The 5 miles of gravel trails, he added, are not quite stroller friendly, unless you have a jogging stroller. There are also three miles of hiking trails.

“There’s an additional two to three miles of what is little better than a deer path,” he added. They do offer free golf cart tours that can accommodate up to 10 people. Those interested should contact Sick at the park for availability.

He invites everyone to come out to visit and enjoy the park. The park is open seven days a week and there’s no fee. They do accept donations and/or bench sponsorships.

“There are a few businesses that participate in this program, as well,” he said.