By James Woolcock
The Genesee County Parks are celebrating their 50th anniversary in 2018 and our parks are certainly worth celebrating. Did you know that Genesee County has the largest county park system in the state of Michigan, measured by acreage?
While congratulations are certainly in order for the Parks Commission, a recent story on our county parks in My City Magazine (July 2018) told only part of the story. Just a brief reference to our parks prior to 1968 is mentioned, when the Road Commission ran them.
As with the 100-year centennial of our national parks celebrated in 2016, our own county’s 50-year milestone represents the years under the current administrative structure. Just like there were national parks established before 1916 (e.g., Yellowstone, Yosemite), there were county parks as we now view them before 1968. Their story is noteworthy.
I got into this history with a seemingly innocent reading of the Genesee County Parks Master Plan for the years 2013-18. In that document, they set a goal for Richfield County Park in achieving “CCC/WPA designation.” I’m old enough to know what those initials mean and that goal sparked my interest. Having grown up with a New Dealer parent didn’t hurt either. So, off I went into some research and a real history lesson.
First, the basics may be helpful for those not raised under the notion that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR, stood at the right hand of God. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a key component of FDR’s National Recovery Act, per his administrations’ economic recovery plan in the wake of the 1929 Stock Market crash. They were organized by camps, run like military operations, employed thousands of the “greatest generation,” and built/repaired infrastructure all over our country. Many of those projects still stand today.
I learned that the Genesee County area never had a CCC camp, with most or all located in the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula.
So, that left the WPA, or Works Progress Administration. Like the CCC, it sought to put the unemployed back to work, although not organized around a camp structure. On that front, I hit pay dirt. With the cooperation of both Barry June at the Parks office and Corey Jarbeau at the Road Commission, I found a WPA project number on the bottom of a Richfield County Park Shelter schemata, WPA # 7423/25-3-1899.
Please allow me to tell “the rest of the story,” with my apologies to the late Paul Harvey. Our county commissioners first went on record as seeing the need for a county park system in April 1929, transferring a sum of $10,000 from the maintenance fund to the parks fund. Wow, that pre-dated the stock market crash by six months.
The first park to be established was what we now know as Richfield County Park. It would be known as the Richfield Park Unit of the Genesee Recreation Area as it evolved. The first tract of land there was acquired on Oct. 10, 1935, launching our county park system. Two other tracts of land were acquired in that area, including 257 acres from the city of Flint on what is now the north side of Richfield County Park.
A Genesee County Road Commission-sponsored WPA project was implemented almost immediately. They leveled off rough areas, built both vehicle and foot bridges over the Flint River to join the north and south sides of the park, built picnic shelters, tennis courts, and park stoves. Work in both the Flushing and Linden parks also progressed.
They built everything from scratch. In perusing the Road Commission records (thank you, Barry June and Corey Jarbeau), I found blueprints and schemata for the Richfield walking bridge (dated March 1938), the shelters, picnic tables, teeter totters, swing sets, and even a schemata for a croquet court.
Oh, did you also know that they had Keeper Cottages? A staff member at the Road Commission told me that Flushing’s keeper cottage may still be standing. I wonder if a “Keeper” model could be considered again. I know of a retiree in the Richfield area who loves that particular park, knows every square inch of it, and would gladly volunteer for the job.
Of course, a closer look at these structures in the park should tell you something about their age. How many picnic shelters do you find these days that have tree trunks and branches for their supports? How many 90-foot walking bridge spans are suspended from fieldstone towers? When you get your high school graduation picture taken there, do you realize that 80 years ago, the WPA used unemployed individuals ravaged by the Great Depression to build that gem? Likewise, do you realize that when you don’t clean up your dog’s excrement on that bridge, you are literally “shitting” on their memories and hard work?
So, the next time you are in our parks, take a look around at the great work being done today, as well as the work that still stands now 80 years on. The older shelters need restoration and I’m confident that will be addressed. In the meantime, treat them kindly, like you would your grandparents.
As for me, I will use this 50th anniversary to celebrate the great work of both our Parks and Road Commissions. And, should I still be above ground in 2025, I will spend that year reveling in the 90th anniversary of the Richfield County Park. If I’m especially blessed, I’ll be around for the 100th.
James Woolcock retired from a career as a mental health professional to a life of hiking in county, state, and national parks. He is a shutterbug, making photos of those species once considered endangered and still protected, such as the raptors (e.g., bald eagles) and the long-legged waders (e.g., great blue herons), as well as other wildlife and landscapes. He and his wife, Robyn, enjoy traveling, independent films, and spending time with their adult children and grandchildren.