Meadowbrook Park, at 130 acres, is the district's shining example of how long-range planning and acquisition of property for the longterm yield remarkable results over time. While many park sites in the district were gifted, leased or purchased all in one transaction, Meadowbrook as it is today is the result of more than one distinct acquisition of land. The Meadowbrook Park of 2007 is both close to and far from the original vision for the site-retaining some elements of the original draft plans from the early 1970s and picking up new ideas along the way that propelled it to award-winning status.
THE FIRST PARCEL
In 1967, the Urbana Park District purchased the original 28 acres of Meadowbrook Park in south Urbana from developer M.J. Ennis, who had purchased the entire 160-acre farm property from The McCullough family. The still undeveloped site became the second-largest park property in the district, coming in just a bit larger than Woodland Park. It was farmed for income with such time as the staff and board determined that there were enough funds to begin development. The process of acquiring the total 130 acres and developing them took more than twenty-five years to fully realize, and tile park continues to evolve in 2007.
THE FIRST DEVELOPMENT PLAN
After acquiring the first parcel of land, the Board of Commissioners, led by Bruce Larson, retained the services of University of Illinois landscape architecture student Craig Patten, under the direction of landscape architect Robert Zolomij. He laid out a plan in 1971 that called for a very natural park whose focal point was a proposed "pond at the Southwest corner, where a small stream now runs. The land is very low, with poor soil, naturally suited for such a pond .... Also planned by Patten for the park site is a series of trails for hiking, bicycles and horses. No automobiles would be allowed in the park."
The district continued to make plans for the site for the next few years under the assumption it was to be part of a school-park collaboration. According to The News-Gazette in November of that year, "Patten's plan calls for the combining of facilities of the school and park districts at the site, in keeping with the trend towards increased school-park cooperation." 1n 1972, the park district purchased an additional 10 acres to equal a total of 37.5 acres of the then-McCullough Park site.
Board correspondence of the time indicated that the park district "paid full-price for this land and no donation was involved. ln fact, since it included the poorest land on the tract marginal for farming and not suitable for houses, more than the fair price was paid for the first 28-acre tract in 1967 with the understanding that the price paid for the remaining ten acres to be purchased later (in 1972) would be at the same price and help equalize the difference in value:· The total price paid for all 38 acres was $104,000.
A News-Gazette article covering the board meeting in April of 1972 referred again to Patten's plan for the entire site. It "called for converting the farmhouse into a museum with picnic areas near the farmhouse, and open spaces for baseball or other activities."
FROM ARBORDALE TO WINDSWEPT
At that same board meeting, the park board announced a $1,000 donation from the Champaign County Development Council Foundation toward the purchase of trees for the park. Board President Bruce Larson had suggested at an earlier board meeting that the site also should have a tree nusery. In May, Commissioners Walter Keith and Oscar Adams were charged with coming up with the official name for the park.
The board also heard a presentation from Patten about a modified park plan. According to The News-Gazette, "Patten's latest plan [for the McCullough site] does away with the proposed pond on the site, because he feels there would not be enough surface area for the lake compared to the watershed, and periodic flooding would run over into adjoining property."
Keith and Adams came back with their suggestion for a park name in July. But there was neither excitement expressed for the name by the board as a·whole, nor excitement about the park itself from one newspaper that covered the meeting.
The district went ahead and requested names from citizens. Urbana resident Betsy Gillies (later elected commissioner) submitted the winning name Meadowbrook Park. She stated in a personal interview in 2007:
"The Board of Commissioners mentioned to UPDAC that they were looking for a name for the park. I chose that name because the little stream was so pretty. A brook was what we were going to make out of it, and the meadows were there-it seemed like a good idea."
ANOTHER 70 ACRES
A master plan for Crystal Lake Park and a political battle for the Champaign County Fairgrounds led to the purchase of the next 70 acres of Meadowbrook Park.
A 1972 master plan for the park district called for adding the Champaign County Fairgrounds to Crystal Lake Park using the power of eminent domain. The Illinois Department of Conservation awarded the district a grant of $300,000 for that purpose in 1975. But the County Fair Association was not interested in moving and enlisted the assistance of the Illinois Department of Agriculture to fight back. The grant was withdrawn by the state. Fortunately for the district, the money was not completely lost. If the district was able to find a different suitable property, it could use the grant. Seventy acres adjacent to the existing land in Meadowbrook Park was purchased with that money. The 70-acre parcel was not part of the original plan for the site. In fact, the district was never supposed to purchase or develop more than the original 37.5 acres. Yet, circumstances changed and the district had the foresight and the resources available, with the help from grants, to make the additional purchases.
In the mid- 1960s, the McCullough Farmstead land was all to be sold and was ultimately going to serve three purposes: school, park and residential neighborhood. [The park district made its original purchase with this purpose in mind.] The planned residential expansion led school district officials to determine that it was necessary to make future plans for a school on the site to meet the needs of a growing population. Land was purchased to provide open space for school and recreational facilities, with assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Discussions had already taken place between both districts that encouraged future school site development to be joint development, with the school district taking care of amenities such as hard surface courts or fields. On adjacent land, the park district would offer other recreational opportunities and even opportunities for nature exploration. This type of cooperative arrangement already had taken place with the development of the Thomas Paine School-Lohmann Park site and the King School-King Park site.
In 1966, the Urbana School District applied for a grant, and in 1968 it purchased a tract near the intersection of Race Street and Windsor Road adjacent to the one already owned by the Urbana Park District. Over the next ten years, discussions and plans continued for school-park development, but no action was ever taken. The land was held and farmed until 1978, at which time the school district determined that no new construction would take place on the property. The rules of the HUD grant allowed ownership to be transferred to another government body [Urbana Park District], as long as it was used to fulfill the open-space obligation. In order for it to become park district property, the
Urbana Park District was required to purchase the land from the school district and enter into their own agreement with HUD so as to ensure the land's use for open space. The rules of the transfer also required that the land be sold for the original purchase price, making the transaction easier on the park district pocketbook.
The park district purchased the 22.4 acres in February 1978 for $40,880.36, divided into five annual payments of$8,176.07. An additional agreement for distribution of revenue from continued farming of the land was also included.
As of 2007, the Urbana Park District maintained approximately 80 acres of re-created prairie in Meadowbrook Park and another prairie plot next to the Anita Purves Nature Center. But the seed was planted for this type of development nearly thirty-five years earlier.
In October 1972, Urbana resident Jean Nance wrote to then park commissioner Susan Stone:
"Before the coming of the white man, much of the area which is now Champaign County was prairie, the rest woods. We can get at least an idea of what the wooded areas looked like at Brownfield and Busey Woods. However, almost no-one has any idea what a prairie looked like. although locally a landscaping firm, a milk company, a park and a school use the name. In Champaign County we do have Trelease Prairie. a University project. However, this prairie is almost all grass and gives no idea of the variety of plants found on a true prairie. There is a small remnant of prairie on the Illinois Central right-of-way between Rantoul and Paxton but it is not protected, and if discovered by the public could be rapidly destroyed.
I suggest that the Urbana Park District plant a "prairie plot," preferably in Prairie Park. This is not only appropriate because of the name, but this park is on soil which was originally prairie, it has large, unshaded, un-landscaped areas, and it is near two schools which could use the plot as an educational exhibit. (At this time the Brookens Administrative Center was the brand-new Brookens Junior High School. And so she refers to both that school and Prairie School.)"
Nance went on to offer her and her husband's services in propagation and in providing seeds for prairie plants. The time was right for such a suggestion, as the district was introducing a master plan that called for expanding the Thornburn Environmental Awareness Center, at that time
housed in one room, to an eventual complete center of its own. And interest in the environment was increasing among citizens, UPDAC and the Board ofCommissioners.
Susan Stone responded in a letter to Nance :
"I think this is an excellent idea and one that should prove feasible. As we are about to have our site development plan for Prairie Park and the adjacent schools re-examined and, where necessary, adjusted. I shall pass on your suggestion at this strategic moment. If it should prove difficult to introduce the prairie plantings at that site for some reason which I cannot foresee, then I shall certainly urge consideration of this for one of our other park areas, such as Meadowbrook."
While much of the park's land continued to be farmed, volunteers planted an inaugural patch of recreated Illinois tallgrass prairie in 1977 and expanded it in 1984 to total 16 acres. Parcels were also added in 1990, 1991 and 1993. In 1996-1997, another 35 to 40 acres were added with help from the Champaign County Audubon Society. Betsy Gillies recalled, "They started out with a 5-acre patch near
Race Street. A lot of it was volunteer effort. I was pleased they
were headed in that direction. "
The first Organic Garden Plots were developed about the same
time as the prairie. Today the gardens are one of the district's
longest-running programs and most popular gardens in the park.
UPDAC, the citizens advisory committee, formed a subcommittee in the 1980s to study Meadowbrook and make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners. They reviewed the existing master plan and helped the district work out a vision for the park in preparation for its revision.
In a report to the board in 1989, UPDAC laid out their proposed vision for the park site. The overall vision was described in the following manner:
"In general, we envision the park largely as a natural prairie-meadow area that community members can use for walking, bicycling, nature observation, picnicking, outdoor games, and cross-country skiing. This overall vision has several parts:
A. The park's natural setting should be the attraction of the park and the focus of all the activities undertaken there. The park should be, in effect, a cross between a typical urban park and an undeveloped nature preserve.
B. Consistent with the overall vision we see no need for athletic playing fields, courts, swimming pools or camp grounds. We do recommend open meadow space for outdoor games as well as one or more children's play areas.
C. Although we envision considerable development (as explained below, we place very high value on a visual appearance of minimal human intrusion. We would prefer that the functions described below be fulfilled with minimal alteration of natural prairie conditions and that needed alterations be designed to reduce the visual impression of human intervention. We do contemplate, however, considerable change in the formatted garden area, which we discuss in detail below.
D. One implication of point C is that roads, parking areas, and other major alterations of the natural area should be places if possible on the fringes of the park and designed to blend in with the surrounding natural setting.
E. We also place high value on developing ecosystems that are as close as possible to native prairie systems. This leads us to suggest that the District plant only native species and that it take affirmative steps to foster species diversity.
F. We envision the park as a place for nature study and to that end desire to see the development and preservation of wildlife habitat as one of the park's priorities. We would like to see, for example, pockets of dense shrubs and brush and the maintenance of this ground cover, particularly along stretches of the stream. We also recommend the use of bird boxes and other stimulants for wildlife breeding in the park. Paths might be laid out so that dead and dying trees can be allowed to stand without danger to those using the paths.
G. Finally, we see nature education as a particularly strong mission of the park and favor steps to enhance the park's utility for that purpose. Some of the education might be undertaken by the District or by organized groups using the park. Most of it, however, should be self-directed education by individual users."
The subcommittee also recommended that the prairie be expanded to 15 acres, that the stream be left in a natural state and that the organic garden area be expanded.
This vision for the park has guided the district in its management and development and led to a plan that has focused on the interaction between humans and nature-both in terms of education and recreation.
While smaller projects had been undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s-such as improvements to the farm buildings, moving the herb garden, and planting trees, The park really began to take off after a 1993 referendum passed and the district was able to increase its operating budget to support maintaining a developed park.
The district used funds raised by the community to match a S200,000 grant from the U.S Department of Conservation. Another $310,000, a federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act [ISTEA] Grant was awarded in 1994 and used to construct the 10-foot-wide concrete path around the park's perimeter.
In 1995, support again came from the community to build a large playground.
The idea came from two mothers: Julie Garcia of Champaign and Linda Tortorelli of Savoy. They approached both the Urbana and Champaign Park Districts with the idea to build a giant playground with community help and donations. The Urbana Park District said yes. The master plan for the park called for a playground, and this community-built playground seemed like the perfect fit.
PrairiePlay playground opened in April l995. Concrete pavers with messages and handprints surround the playground in honor of the donors and volunteer laborers who made it possible.
THE WANDELL SCULPTURE GARDEN
The updated 1990 park master plan included adding a sculpture garden on the small looping path next to Windsor Road. Then Executive Director Robin Hall had introduced this idea to the board.
The Wandell family donated the funds for the park in honor of Celia and Willet Wandell, who owned Wandell nursery in rural Urbana. Wandell had been a friend of the park district earlier in its history. He had donated the plants to start the first mini park in downtown Urbana in the early 1970s.
The sculpture garden was dedicated in October 1998. Ten large sculptures from local and international artists, many of whom had displayed their work at the popular Pier Walk show in Chicago, were on display. Over the next few years, pieces came and went, and some were added to the garden's permanent collection through donations, commission of works for the park, and outright purchase by the district.
After the sculpture garden, the site began a new wave of development and a period of steady growth that included the addition of several new gardens and a Prairie Overlook-all funded with help from donors.
South Urbana resident and former UPDAC member, Eric Freyfogle, made a donation to the district in 1999 to construct an overlook that would allow for more of a bird's-eye view of the prairie. It is an accessible structure, complete with interpretive information about the plants and forbs you find in the park.
THE GARDENS AT MEADOWBROOK
The Gardens at Meadowbrook is what park district staff today refer to as the collection of gardens in the western half of the park. These are made up of the:
-Organic Garden-the first gardens to appear on the park site.
-Herb Garden-tended by members of the local Herb Society.
-Hickman Wildflower Walk-named in honor of Peg Richardson Hickman.
-Timpone Ornamental Tree Grove-a gift of the Ray Timpone Family.
It showcases smaller trees ideal for the home garden.
-Sensory Garden-sits next the farmstead and is filled with unique
plants that appeal to more than only your eyesight.
-Shade Garden-in its final phases of development in 2007. Made
up of native plants that grow well in shady areas.
A gift of the Walker family in honor of Denise and Ernest Walker. It is being developed as an oak savanna-the transitional area between forest and prairie-along the southern edge of the park.
MEADOWBROOK PARK TODAY AND TOMORROW
It is fortunate for Urbana and the greater community that the Urbana Park District had the foresight to purchase all of Meadowbrook Park, even though development was delayed for many years. It is also fortunate that the district was able-both on its own and through the eyes of volunteers, experts and consultants-see the Meadowbrook Park that could be. Without this amount of good planning, McCullough Creek would still be buried in tile and there would be no prairie restoration-two natural amenities that the district could hang its hat on and build a truly great park.
ln the coming decade, Meadowbrook Park will have several maturing gardens in the western half of the park, and will have completed renovation of the barn as a more suitable and weather protected place for public programs and school tours with the assistance of a gift from former commissioner Susan Stone and her husband, Victor. Walker Grove will be an established savanna, giving the south end of the park new character and allowing the district to offer environmental education about another Illinois native ecosystem.
The park district will need to continue to address issues of parking, as Meadowbrook is quickly becoming one of the most popular destination parks in the region. They will also need to have a plan in place for the possible future development of nearby land in the City of Urbana and on University of Illinois property to ensure the park and its natural resources, both original to the site and those that have been recreated with love and labor, are protected for future generations.
Text from Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.