Long before settlers from the eastern United States came to this region, there were Native American villages along Sand Creek, near where Sand Creek Trail now runs. From 1867-71, before Newton was settled, millions of longhorn cattle followed the Chisholm Trail, crossing the present Sand Creek Trail on their way from San Antonio, Texas, to the railhead at Abilene, Kansas.
When Bethel College was established in 1887, Sand Creek ran east of the campus. A small stream, Kidron Creek, flowed south on the campus’ west edge to empty into Sand Creek near the city of Newton. In 1925, a drainage canal, now known as the Kidron-Martin Canal, was dug to alleviate frequent flooding from Kidron Creek. The canal started at a point near the present Kauffman Museum and went eastward past the campus to where it drains into Sand Creek.
For years, community residents used a rudimentary trail that paralleled the canal on the north and Sand Creek on the west. A later extension of this walking path would become Sand Creek Trail. Among the early habitués was Waldo Wedel, who in the 1920s explored the area for fossils and American Indian relics and later became a renowned archeologist and anthropologist.
In the 1930s, a federal effort to control soil and wind erosion resulted in a shelter belt being planted along part of the canal, introducing new tree species such as cedar, pine, Osage orange, Kentucky coffee tree and Siberian elm. For many years, North Newton residents used a small area between the campus and Sand Creek as a community and campus dump. This unsightly location was closed in 1974. Bethel students, under the direction of the Department of Biology, seeded the area with grasses and prairie flowers.
The trail took on new life in 1997 when North Newton resident Jacob Goering, then-Bethel College Director of Development Larry Voth and several area residents saw the possibilities of establishing an improved walking path. With approval of the Bethel College administration, led by then-President Doug Penner, and support of numerous dedicated volunteers (now the Sand Creek Trail Committee [SCTC]), the first clearing and serious development work began in 1998.
The existing trail was widened, and extended northward along Sand Creek, then west, parallel to a belt of Osage orange and other trees, to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Central States building beside Kansas Highway 15.Also in 1998, the area of the former campus dump was cleared of volunteer Siberian elms, with a large number of bur oak and green ash trees planted and now nearing maturity.
Later, a northern loop was added by continuing the trail northward along Sand Creek to Interstate 135, west along the I-135 right-of-way fence and then through a long row of hedge trees, and back south along K-15 to the MCC building.Continued application of wood chips in recent years has made Sand Creek Trail suitable for all-weather use by pedestrians. By mid-2001, nine benches, each memorializing specific individuals, had been installed along the trail. From its trailhead at Memorial Grove through the north loop paralleling I-135 and then back to Memorial Grove, the trail currently is in excess of two miles long.
In 2000, the Bethel College administration decided to discontinue the practice of memorial tree plantings around campus and instead support the creation of an area where individuals could be memorialized. The SCTC agreed to take responsibility for developing Memorial Grove on the site east of the main campus that was formerly the campus dump.
A retired architect and member of the SCTC provided a design for the area, and construction and landscaping contracts were awarded through competitive bidding. Memorial Grove was formally dedicated May 24, 2003, during Alumni Weekend, with then-Bethel College President E. LaVerne Epp giving the dedicatory address. The first formally scheduled event at Memorial Grove was an Easter sunrise service that Shalom Mennonite Church of Newton held April 20, 2003.
The first Saturday in June, the SCTC participates in National Trails Day®, with committee members at Memorial Grove throughout the day. The SCTC periodically sponsors a watermelon feed for the campus and North Newton community at the site.
Arbor Lane, the double row of trees directly north of the MCC Center and on the east side of K-15, had its origin in late 2005. In early 2006, existing scrub trees along the roadway were removed with cooperation from Westar Energy, help from community volunteers and support from the City of North Newton in root removal and disposal of debris. The professionally prepared landscape plan called for planting 54 trees of 18 different varieties, all characterized by their diversity and adaptation to Kansas growing conditions. Planting was completed by mid-April 2006.
In 2010, trail manager Richard Rempel began the application process to the U.S. Department of the Interior for National Recreation Trail status for Sand Creek Trail. The application was approved, with the Secretary of the Interior announcing June 2, 2011, National Trails Day®, that Sand Creek Trail was now a designated National Recreation Trail.
Beginning in 2014, the change of the field north of the MCC building from agriculture to the site of Bethel College’s cross-country course created the opportunity to begin planting trees and shrubs in the stretch where Sand Creek Trail borders the right-of-way fence next to I-135. This project continues, and will include moving portions of the trail away from the fence to make it a more attractive route.