SPRINGFIELD -- Forest Park may have been the first in the country to include public boccie courts, but it is a great deal more than that. At 735 acres, it is one of the largest urban parks in the country (Central Park in New York is 840 acres), with large sections of natural woodlands and countless species of planted trees. It is an area of protected open space that would be hard to come by in today's demanding real estate market, land donated by some of the area's wealthiest and most prominent residents -- 45 separate transactions, mostly gifts, in the 1800s.
Orick Herman Greenleaf, who founded the Holyoke Paper Co. and accumulated great wealth, was the first to donate land to the city to establish public open space. In October 1884, he donated 64 acres, the first of a series of gifts forming the nucleus of today's Forest Park. Greenleaf's donation includes the present-day main entrance to the park off Sumner Avenue.
Everett Hosmer Barney is often cited as the most important donor. Born in 1835 in Saxonville, he moved to Springfield in 1864 and formed a partnership with John Berry to manufacture skate blades. In 1890, Barney sold 109 acres to the City of Springfield for $1. When he died in 1916, he left the city his entire 178-acre estate, valued then at almost half a million dollars. According to his will, the land was to be "forever devoted to park purposes under the public park acts of the Commonwealth."
Barney planted trees in the park, including the majestic white pines bordering the athletic fields. He had a fascination with lotuses, importing varieties from Egypt. Once there were seven lotus aquatic gardens in the park; only three remain. He also built a skating pond; today, Barney Pond is still open to the public for ice-skating, and a stone house at the edge offers a respite from the cold -- and occasionally hot chocolate, too.
Barney, his wife, and their only son, who died of malaria when he was 21, are buried in a granite mausoleum atop Barney Hill overlooking Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River. The mausoleum underwent a full restoration last year. Two sphinxes Barney imported from Egypt stand at either end. The family mansion was torn down to make way for I-91, but the carriage house remains and is used for special functions, including weddings and fund-raising events.
Another notable gift came from James Bliss Burbank in 1918 when he donated 103 acres, which led to the construction of one of the park's chief features: 31-acre Porter Lake, named after Sherman Daniel Porter, a member of the Board of Public Works and a popular candy manufacturer. In 1913, Porter and his wife were killed when an express train in South Deerfield struck their automobile. Porter had bequeathed a large portion of his wealth to the city, $10,000 to be used toward the construction of Porter Lake.
With all this donated land, the city needed a plan for development of the park. It turned to the well-known architectural landscape firm of Frederick Law Olmsted in Brookline. The Olmsted Society cites only a "proposed park plan" that was submitted to the city of Springfield. However, Olmsted himself designed landscapes for private landowners that were later donated to the park. These sections are around Porter Lake and near the Longmeadow side of the park.
Forest Park's most famous visitor was children's author Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as "Dr. Seuss." His father, Theodor E. Geisel, was the park superintendent for 30 years starting in 1931. Young Theodor grew up on Fairfield Street around the corner from Forest Park. His "Horton Hears a Who" was inspired by the Forest Park Zoo's most celebrated resident, Morganetta, an Indian elephant, and he drew upon his experiences visiting the zoo when he wrote "If I Ran the Zoo."
First and foremost, Forest Park is a place for outdoor recreation. One would be hard-pressed to find an urban park with more recreational facilities. In addition to the boccie courts, there are an ice rink and a pool, lawn bowling, shuffleboard, 23 tennis courts of which six are clay, basketball courts, 5- and 10-kilometer cross-country skiing and running trails, hiking trails, and bike paths. There are several baseball fields and an outdoor calisthenics course. Walker Grandstand is being restored with about $400,000 from O'Connell Management in honor of the company's late president, Michael Downey, who coached local baseball teams and died last year.
Many birds of prey frequent the park, the most famous being a bald eagle I spotted as I walked through the park last summer. High above me I saw its distinguishing white head and tail markings shining brightly against a clear blue sky. To see a bald eagle anywhere in New England is rare, let alone one flying over a city park. Hiking along the park trails you may see the red-tailed hawk, another year-round resident, that hatched young earlier this year.
What truly separates this park from other city parks is the amount of old-growth forest, with many trees older than 200 years. Unlike Boston Common or Central Park, Forest Park has a thriving forest ecosystem inhabited by wild animals normally found in rural woodlands, including about 300 deer. In fact, the deer population has grown so large that control measures such as contraceptive feed and a seasonal hunt are being considered (though park superintendent Pat Sullivan says the latter is improbable). Nature, it seems, has a way of controlling the deer: Coyotes also roam the park.
Among the most enthralling sights in the park are the beautiful flowerbeds and grass gardens. Three women, all grandmothers, are the caretakers of this vast landscape. Margaret Brace, who has been overseeing the park's horticulture for 17 years, says she is especially proud of the Rose Garden. Created in 1890, it was recently restored to its original condition, including a gazebo in the center, a popular site for wedding photos.
Aside from the natural beauty of Forest Park, other features both historic and architectural await visitors. At the Sumner Avenue entrance is a Romanesque Trolley Pavilion. Fully restored, the pavilion was once a central transit point of the city's trolley system.
Farther inside the park, a walkway that passes a greenhouse and several natural gardens leads to the Kennedy Memorial, where an eternal flame burns as a tribute to the late president.
Near the memorial is one of the more unusual features in the park. Enclosed by a cast-iron fence are slabs of shale, with faint imprints of dinosaur tracks thought to be 150 million years old. They were found in the Connecticut Valley and taken from the quarries of W. M. Murray & Son in Holyoke.
You see smaller footprints around a feature donated on behalf of Michael Carlson, who died last year. Carlson was a common sight in the park as he walked with his two boxers and two Chihuahuas. A plaque on a water fountain for dogs and their owners reads "A Dog's Best Friend."
As the park brochure says, "If greater Springfield is your home, Forest Park is your backyard."
Ken Smith is a freelance writer in Springfield.