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The History of Metro Parks
by Cheri Goldner, Librarian
Akron-Summit County Public Library
In 1917, just one year after Congress created the National Park Service, the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation that allowed for the formation of metropolitan park districts. The Akron Metropolitan Park District (now Summit Metro Parks) was established December 31, 1921.
The early Board of Park Commissioners – which included Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company founder Frank A. Seiberling – hired famed landscape architects the Olmsted brothers: John Charles and Frederick Law, Jr. Their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, had designed major parks across the country, including New York’s Central Park and Boston Common.
In June of 1925, Seiberling accepted the first gift of land to the park system, a small, triangular plot at the beginning of the Old Portage Trail at the intersection of North Portage Path and Merriman Road. The district aptly named the plot Courtney Park for donor Joseph Courtney of the Courtney Dairy Company. Soon after, during Akron’s Centennial celebration, the spot was marked with a bronze plaque and boulder, which still sits at the intersection.
From this modest start, the park district’s holdings grew rapidly throughout the late 1920s and ‘30s, thanks to the efforts of the board and the leadership of the park district’s first director-secretary, Harold S. Wagner.
Wagner, a native of Boston who had previously worked with the Olmsted brothers, was appointed to his post in 1926 and remained there until 1958. He had relocated to Akron around 1917 while working for influential American landscape designer Warren H. Manning on Seiberling’s Fairlawn development. (Manning had previously designed Seiberling’s estate, Stan Hywet.) When his work on Fairlawn was complete, Wagner stayed in Akron and took his passion for parks to City Hall, becoming first a consultant to city administrators and later the municipal parks superintendent. Thus, he was a natural choice for the Akron Metropolitan Park District.
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed were a time of hardship for many Americans, but Wagner, in his first five years at the helm, managed to build the park district to about 1,600 acres. Early holdings included the Furnace Run, Sand Run, Gorge and Goodyear Heights reservations.
During the Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal proved beneficial to both the residents and the parks of Summit County. Following the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), many residents went to work on public projects, and many of them were in the parks. The influx of labor and resources allowed the Akron Metropolitan Park District to complete a variety of projects including the Octagon Shelter, bathhouse and lake at Virginia Kendall Park; building a bridge at Mingo Camp and extending Sand Run Parkway in Sand Run Reservation; planting more than 350,000 seedlings at Furnace Run’s Everett Nursery; and building a parking area and entrance building at Goodyear Heights Reservation.
The district added Firestone Reservation in 1941, thanks to the efforts of board member Henry Metzger, who helped persuade Firestone Tire & Rubber Company to donate land and money for the project. Other additions during this time included the victory gardens at Goodyear Heights and Firestone reservations, both sponsored by the respective rubber companies. One facility that was heavily used during the war years was Virginia Kendall’s Happy Days Camp. Girl Scouts (pictured at right, planting trees at Goodyear Heights Reservation) used the site during the week, and on weekends the Goodyear Aircraft Corporation used it as a day camp for the children of its employees.
With the war over in 1945, both the economy and people’s spirits began to rise. The park district passed a levy and set about making improvements and restoring services that had been curtailed during the war. The decade ended with another change for the district, when the board decided to change the designation of its park areas from “reservations” to “metropolitan parks,” or Metro Parks.
The 1950s brought new challenges for the Akron Metropolitan Park District. While the district suffered the failure of three levies during this time, the problems extended beyond the financial. The City of Akron’s sewer trunk line through Sand Run Metropolitan Park developed leaks and caused pollution. The construction of the turnpike north of the Brushwood Area of Furnace Run and the relocation of State Route 21 meant the loss of land and led to soil erosion and a buildup of sediment in the lake. In addition, the Tuscarawas Shelter at Firestone Metropolitan Park experienced flooding due to the construction of a new dam on the Tuscarawas River. Some property was acquired during the 1950s, including land at the north end of North Hawkins Avenue and lots adjacent to Goodyear Heights Metropolitan Park.
The decade ended with the retirement of Harold S. Wagner as Director-Secretary on April 30, 1958. At that time, the parks comprised 3,760 acres of land and were being used by more than 800,000 people per year, according to an Akron Beacon Journal story from January 10, 1960. Among the many signs of Wagner’s legacy is Furnace Run Metro Park’s H.S. Wagner Daffodil Trail, named for him because he and his wife originally owned the property and planted the first bulbs there in the 1930s. Today, an estimated 40,000 daffodils grow along the 0.6-mile trail.
Following Wagner’s retirement in 1958, Forrest B. Coup became director-secretary. Coup had previously worked as a CCC foreman at Virginia Kendall and had served as the park district’s first field maintenance supervisor since 1935. Acquisitions during his tenure included the purchase of the old county hospital property for the development of the Treaty Line Area in Sand Run and land along the Ohio & Erie Canal that was transferred from the State of Ohio; it comprises the current Deep Lock Quarry Metro Park. Coup retired as director-secretary in 1963 and was followed briefly by Dr. Arthur T. Wilcox, who served until 1964. Hampton Hills Metro Park and F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm were added during his time, but perhaps his greatest achievement was the creation of the Fall Hiking Spree, which today is one of the longest-running and most popular events of its kind in the nation.
In 1965, the district hired its second long-time director-secretary, John R. Daily, who served until 1995. Under Coup, Wilcox and Daily, the 1960s and ‘70s was a period of much growth and support for the Metro Parks, and during Daily’s 30-year tenure the park system grew to 6,600 acres. That included the additions of Silver Creek, O’Neil Woods, the Bike & Hike Trail, the Kniss Conservation Area, Munroe Falls Metro Park and Cascade Valley. Daily also helped acquire lands in the Cuyahoga Valley in the 1960s that later become part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park, saving them from development. Congressman John Seiberling (pictured at right) was instrumental in saving the valley, and he was among the first to ride the Bike & Hike Trail when it opened.
Since 1998, Keith D. Shy has served as director-secretary. Additions during his tenure include the Overlook in Cascade Valley, Liberty Park in Twinsburg, Springfield Bog Metro Park in Springfield Township and the Tallmadge Meadows Area in Munroe Falls. In 2007, the Portage Trail Group of the Sierra Club presented him with the John Seiberling Environmental Achievement Award.
Today, the park district manages 12,900 acres, including 14 developed parks, several conservation areas and more than 125 miles of trails, with 22.4 miles of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Annual attendance averages 5.2 million visitors.