Ottawa County parks have robins, streams, hemlock trees, trails, and chipmunks. They also have history.
Wander the trails at Paw Paw Park at Holland and you’ll find a sign marking where immigrant Jan Rabbers in 1847 built a dock at the fork in the narrow river, to bring supplies by flatboat to the new village of Zeeland.
Hike under the towering beech and oak at Kirk Park and you might find the grave marker for Ponesso W. Cobmosay, who died May 31, 1856 at age 5 years, 5 months, three days.
Preserving history is not a primary function of the Ottawa County Parks & Recreation, but many parks have intriguing back stories that make those lands significant. As our community invests in parks, it also is preserving bits of the past that have shaped our communities.
“I think people are interested in the stories of the land. People want to know what happened here,” says John Scholtz, Ottawa County Parks director. “People might come to enjoy a natural place, but there’s always something there that tells a story, and I think people want to know those stories, he said.
Our parks have many stories to tell, adds Marjorie Viveen, an historian and Ottawa County Parks Foundation board member who has spent years documenting the back stories of Ottawa parks and the Grand River corridor.
“They have a story about ecology. They have a story about preservation. They have a story about recreation and good health. And they have a story about history, too,” she explains.
Those stories aren’t all in the distant past. It’s entertaining to learn, while hiking the remote dunes at Olive Shores Park, that it was the setting of key scenes of the 2002 Tom Hanks film “Road to Perdition.”
Not far away, Pine Bend and the Weaver House had multiple historical incarnations. It was developed as Fridrich’s Point Resort in 1901. Chicago vacationers would come on the Pere Marquette Railroad to the 21-room hotel that featured, among other things, a small zoo and a landing on the Pigeon River.
By the 1920s, the land was site of a popular dance hall, where – during Prohibition – locals would hide liquor in stump fences and tree lines to partake at the evening dance. If police happened by, a lookout on Croswell Street would call a warning by telephone line.
A bit south, the eponymous oddity at Tunnel Park is a remnant of the wonder-filled Lakewood Farm, also known as the Getz farm and zoo, where exotic animals and lush gardens entertained thousands of visitors in the early 1900s. The reason for building a tunnel through a dune, however, is lost in the sands of time.
Heading north again to Kirk Park, a visitor walks where Gerald Ford practiced leadership skills long before becoming president. The park was site of a Boy Scout camp known as Camp Shawandosee, where a teenage Ford was a senior Scout leader.
Through the northern tier of the county, the Grand River corridor is a path through time, with numerous notable settings researched by Viveen.
Consider the story of Madeline La Frambois, who took over the family business after her husband’s murder and became one of the most successful fur traders in the Northwest Territories in the early 1800s. Of mixed Odawa and French descent, she spoke four languages and ran trading posts throughout what’s now western and northern Michigan.
A visit to the Crockery Creek Natural Area is a chance to walk land where she grew up in a native village.
In 1821, La Frambois would sell her business to Rix Robinson, a name known up and down the Grand River corridor, where he had more than 20 trade sites.
Connor Bayou Park is an area purchased in the 1830s by Jared Connor from William Ferry, the founder of Grand Haven. Later in the 1800s, the land was home to two large picnic grounds known as Krumpeck’s Grove and Waldon’s Place.
Nearby, Riverside Park is somewhat unassuming, Viveen notes, but on that very property in 1856, the Robinson area officially became a township in a meeting at the cabin of Rix Robinson’s brother.
And near there early in the 20th century was another Prohibition era hotspot called Jack Jungle, which featured vaudeville, circus performers, a famous chicken dinner and, says Viveen, “was the naughtiest place you could go if you wanted to drink.”
Finally, in a reminder that what goes around comes around, consider an 1899 brochure touting “By Bike from The Rapids to the Haven.”
A popular bike tour from Grand Rapids to Grand Haven is described as “rather long for lady cyclists, but if taken in easy stages, it will afford much pleasure and add to one’s knowledge of home scenery.”
Today, 118 years later, Ottawa County Parks is again celebrating that “home scenery” by developing the Grand River Greenway, which will include the Idema Explorers Trail – ultimately 27 miles of pathway “from The Rapids to The Haven.”
Along with rivers and birds and trees and dunes, Ottawa County parks have stories – and roots, as Viveen points out.
“I think people appreciate knowing their roots, whether its roots for your family, roots for your community or roots of your public places. I think it gives you a greater substance than you would have without it.”
Cooperation preserves historic pump house
Sometimes the historic significance of a site warrants special attention.
That was the case with the Pump House Museum and Learning Center, a 118-year-old building in the Historic Ottawa Beach Parks complex along the north shore of Lake Macatawa at Ottawa Beach.
Originally a power plant for one of the area’s resort hotel, the building later housed pumps sending water to area cottages. A group called the Historic Ottawa Beach Society (HOBS) formed to restore the building to its 1924 appearance to serve as a museum to interpret the area’s history.
The building is leased by HOBS, which raised a significant part of the funding for the $580,000 project. Other funding came from Ottawa County Parks and Park Township. The Ottawa County Parks Foundation provides the opportunity for others to participate with the county in acquiring and preserving historically significant sites as part of the parks system, such as the Moss House, a historic home located at the Bend Area, funded with a $17,000 gift through the Foundation.
This article was published in the Holland Sentinel on January 20, 2019.