BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — With 19 parks, 215 miles of trails, nearly 13,000 acres of land and a National Gold Medal Award naming it the best system in the United States, Metroparks Toledo is well known and loved – attracting over 6 million visitors a year.
When the Metroparks was formed 95 years ago, in August 1928, the city was suffering from a lack of parks, pollution in the waterways and fragile mental health due to the Great Depression, said Shannon Hughes, director of education and programs for the Metroparks.
During the August 23 Metroparks board of directors meeting, Hughes, along with nature photographer Art Weber, historian Ted Ligibel and director of public relations Scott Carpenter all provided insight into how the Metroparks has maintained its mission to preserve natural resources while giving the community an oasis from the city – and the mental health benefits that come along with it.
The lands along the Miami and Erie Canal, which was finished in 1842 but abandoned in 1850, plus a devastating flood in 1913, set the stage for the first park: Side Cut. Opening in 1931, the park preserved locks 1-6 of the canal, and provided access to the Maumee River.
State Sen. W.W. Farnsworth – one of the Metroparks’ original board members – pushed legislation to make all the canal lands that weren’t necessary for the Anthony Wayne Trail to be available as parkland.
“Those abandoned canal lands formed the backbone on which the river Metroparks were built – Side Cut, Farnsworth, Bend View and Providence,” Weber said. “Those canal lands were among the first lands to come under Metropark control. They are leased from the state of Ohio on a 99-year renewable-forever basis.”
Unable to pass a levy during the Great Depression, the parks relied on philanthropy and donations, as well as labor provided through the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration programs, which provided 500 men to build bridges, shelter houses, picnic tables, stairways and roads.
Oak Openings, the second Metropark, was founded in 1931 with 69 acres to start, adding 275 acres a year later, said Hughes.
“Oak Openings was saved because environmentalists came together and identified 100 rare and endangered species,” she said. Areas of the land were preserved in their natural state while others had ponds and gathering areas made for the public.
Pearson, the fifth Metropark, was formed after a failed levy spawned a “Pennies for Pearson” campaign – in which children gathered donors’ loose change and dollars. It was enough to purchase the land that hosted the first roller skating rink in the area, Hughes said.
Bend View, the sixth park, was the last of the river parks for many years. Unable to pass levies, cuts were made, and Bend View – the least visited park – was closed from 1962 until 1972.
Looking at early images of Bend View, Weber noted the beautiful sweep of the river through a 90-degree bend. The lands then were devoid of the heavy vegetation there today and highlighted the abandoned canal bed and towpath that connects Farnsworth to Providence Metroparks.
With the first levy to pass in 1972, things started to pick up speed fast, said Weber, who joined the staff as an information officer that year.
“I came in with a dozen new people, most just out of college and with new ideas,” Weber said. “We could really start looking at the future instead of how we just got through today.”
A major milestone was the 1975 purchase of the 475-acre Stranahan Estate, which led to the creation of Wildwood Preserve, the Metroparks’ most visited park. Ted Ligibil, now a historian, worked for the Metroparks at the time, and recalls the door-to-door campaign to educate the public about how that land would either become more housing or be saved for all to enjoy.
“The message was, ‘This is it, folks. There aren’t any other big places like this, and you won’t have this chance again,’” Ligibill recalled.
Jim Wagoner served as the manager of Farnsworth Metropark and Secor Metropark during his 30-year career. He joined Weber for the board meeting and to share his memories of growing up at Oak Openings. His father was the manager, and as a kid, Jim spent time at the Caretakers Cottage, which had a deer pen out front.
“I started work with the park district right out of high school in 1952,” Wagoner said. “I planted a lot of the pine trees at the corner of Monclova and State Route 64, which are enormous now. That was a cornfield and we planted pine trees there.”
Metroparks board president Scott Savage credits the power of vision that so many people had 95 years ago and throughout the decades.
“The opportunity we have to stand on the shoulders of all these incredible people that came before us is a true honor,” he said.