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BOWLING GREEN - A neatly typed court order dating to 1934 that declared the creation of the Wood County Park District hangs in a wooden frame inside the park district's front office.
The sixth-oldest park district in Ohio came into existence 75 years ago because of a gift from a Grand Rapids family who wanted their land along the Maumee River to become a park.
"That's why the park district was founded," said Director Neil Munger said. "The Nyswander-Thurston family wanted to donate the land to the county and the best way for that to happen was to form a park district."
While that first park - known today as Mary Jane Thurston Park - was turned over to the state in 1969, the Wood County Park District has survived and thrived since its rather humble beginning.
The public is invited to help the park district mark its 75th anniversary from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the W.W. Knight Preserve at White and East River roads in Perrysburg Township. There will be fishing workshops for children, naturalist-led nature hikes, and a laser-shooting gallery with an emphasis on safe hunting practices.
The 43-acre Knight preserve is one of 20 sites encompassing more than 1,100 acres that the park district oversees.
"I think it's a good thing that they've got pieces and parts of it geographically located so almost anyone in the county can enjoy a park close to home, and of course the Slippery Elm Trail has just been phenomenal as far as usage goes," said Wood County Commissioner Jim Carter, who worked as the part-time manager of Mary Jane Thurston Park when it was still under the county's control.
Mr. Munger said it's unfortunate that the park that served as the seed for the county park system is no longer in the district, but at that time there were few options. The district operated on the proceeds of 0.05 mill allocated to it by the county commissioners - about $50,000 a year.
"Back in the day, with the little bit of money they had coming in, it just wasn't enough to keep it up," Mr. Munger said.
The park district also lacked funds to maintain the popular Otsego Park and the Stone Hall built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The park was closed in 1987 because of safety concerns, not reopening until Wood County voters approved the district's first tax levy - a 0.5-mill, 10-year levy - in May, 1988.
Former Park Commissioner Bob Callecod said that marked a turning point for the park district. Four previous levy attempts beginning in 1974 had failed, he said, in part because much of the rural county didn't see the need for county parks.
"We had a provision that $50,000 a year would be distributed to local communities that couldn't afford improvements to their local parks because we felt we absolutely had to have the support of the smaller communities," Mr. Callecod said. "We made sure that was implemented. That was one of the joys I had as a commissioner once the levy was passed, that I was able to hand a check to one of these small-town mayors who during the campaign said there is no way we are ever going to see any of this money."
While local parks got a boost from the countywide levy, longtime park Commissioner George Thompson said the main priority at the time was maintaining the handful of properties the district owned: Otsego Park, William Henry Harrison Park in Pemberville, and the old county infirmary in Bowling Green.
"The concept originally was just to preserve what we had so it wouldn't go down the chute," Mr. Thompson said. "As time progressed, people were making suggestions, offering to donate land, and we kept on growing and growing until here we are today."
Wood County voters have shown consistent support for the park district, replacing its 1-mill, 10-year levy last year.
Not long after the election, park commissioners came under fire for handing out what was seen as exorbitant raises to district employees.
In January, the board voted to rescind the raises following public criticism and hired a consultant to conduct a salary survey. Final results are to be presented to the board at its regular meeting tomorrow.
Mr. Thompson, a park commissioner for 22 years, said he's committed to maintaining the facilities - and good name - the park district has developed over the decades.
"My dream is to keep on building the parks, more parks, more activities for families to get families together, out in the outdoors finding and discovering new things rather than sitting at home playing on the TV," he said. "That's been my goal all along."
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