Wildwood Nearly Wasn't a Park

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As we celebrate recreation month in July, Metroparks is proud to share a little history of our amazing park district and how some of your favorite parks got their start.
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By Shannon Hughes

A park for and by the people, Wildwood Preserve balances respect for ecologically rich natural areas with historical, cultural and recreational opportunities. But Wildwood wasn’t always a park. If not for the foresight of a few dedicated volunteers—our most popular park would have been a subdivision.

Wildwood’s story is truly a testament to the grass roots environmental movement and how it can make a positive impact on our region.

If you have ever been to Wildwood, you are probably familiar with the 32,000-square-foot, palatial former home of the spark plug magnates, the Stranahans. What you may not know is that the home and surrounding 500 acres of upland woods, ravines, prairies and floodplain were scheduled to be sold to the Cavalear development group in 1973 for $4 million. With 1,000 houses and condos slated to be built on the land, it was estimated that 100 million would be made in real estate development.

But, what cost would this be to the natural world?

When the sale become public knowledge, that was the question on the minds of citizens like Dr. William Mewborn and John Lusk. Concerned that the land’s natural features would be lost to the community, Dr. Mewborn, a well-known veterenarian, approached Metroparks about buying the estate and preserving it as a preserve.  Unfortunately, in the 1970s, Metroparks didn’t have the capital required to purchase the estate and had not been successful at gaining grants for land purchases.  If the Stranahan estate was to become a Metropark, a special levy had to be passed by the voters of Lucas County.

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It was not a great time to be on the ballot. Mewborn and Lusk, a member of the Board of Park Commissioners, created a grass roots campaign that a lot of citizens and businesses in the area could get behind. Many predicted the levy would fail, so it definitely was not a given, and members of Citizens for Metroparks awaited the results anxiously.

On November 5, 1974, Lucas County voters went to the polls with the future of the former Stranahan estate placed firmly in their hands.  By a 64,490 to 58,577 vote, they passed a levy that provided $10 million over 10 years to buy the estate and turn it into the ninth Metropark.

To honor the citizens who pulled together to save the land, Metroparks held a public naming contest for the newest park, and in May of 1975, a committee selected the name Wildwood Preserve -- a choice that came from two of over 360 suggestions.

Today, we can’t imagine Metroparks without its flagship park, Wildwood. Thanks to those who came before and understood the importance of preservation in Lucas County, nearly 2 million people now enjoy Wildwood annually. Many of them enjoy walking along boardwalk trail beside the Scenic Ottawa River, which appropriately named the Lusk-Mewborn Trail.

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Photos - Top: Bob Metz, left, was director of Metroparks at the time of the Wildwood campaign. Above, Bill Mewborn and John Lusk

Video - In 2014, to mark the 40th anniversary of Wildwood Preserve, Metroparks and WGTE created the Emmy-nominated documentary, "Land as Good as Gold."