Elmwood Park

'Syracuse's Yellowstone' to mark 75 years

September 26, 2002

Dick Case

Larry Rutledge came to Syracuse in 1987 from a big tract of land in Parish, where he had a trout stream, woodland and a place to ski cross country.

"When I looked for a place to live, I never thought I'd find something like my country place in the city," he's saying the other day as we walk through a corner of southwest Syracuse. "I found a house with access to a trout stream, woodland and a place to put on my cross-country skis. I couldn't believe it."

We're touring the 65 acres along Furnace Brook that we call Elmwood Park and Larry calls home. His house is on Elmwood Avenue, and his heart's in this piece of urban wilderness that's been a city park for 75 years.

Saturday, Larry and his colleagues in the Elmwood Park Neighbors Association invite us to revisit or discover their favorite city landscape and enjoy the views.

"Celebrate Elmwood," from noon to 4 p.m., will observe the rededication of the park and completion of $600,000 worth of improvements over the last year. Larry, who's a property manager for Transitional Living Services, can't stop talking about it.

"We want to celebrate not just Elmwood, but all the city parks," Larry says, standing at the dam next to the old stone mill that's been here since the 1850s. "We feel great about the resurgence in the parks by our city officials and by the people who use them."

The main work we notice in Elmwood is the way the streambed has been dredged and repointed. Some of the features created by WPA crews during the Great Depression were covered with silt and loose stones.

A pathway created by those same anonymous workers has been rediscovered on the park's northern side. Across the way, volunteers are clearing brush to reveal more of the park's nearly 70-year-old stonework.

Larry points to a wall of boulders that curves around the edge of a slope: "That was one of the things that enchanted me about the park when I first moved here."

Neighbors called this "The Gully" years ago. It was carved by an ancient brook at the time of the glaciers. Early settlers harnessed the water to power mills along the stream. The first mill, on the same lot as the present landmark, made cannonballs for the War of 1812.

Later, this was a private amusement area - once called "Dreamland" - before Elmwood village came into the city and the land was bought for a park.

That was in 1926, when the city bonded to buy "Dreamland" and Sunstruck Hill near Teall Avenue, now Sunnycrest Park. A newspaper writer toured the gully and pronounced it "Syracuse's Yellowstone."

"Yellowstain" may have been a better name in recent years. I remind Larry Rutledge about a walk in Elmwood seven years ago, when a neglected park cried out for help. Yes, things have changed, thanks to a commitment by city officials and prodding by the neighborhood association, which Larry leads as president.

"Until the AmeriCorps crews came in here, you'd never seen anyone working in the park. There was only one garbage can," he recalls. "Those volunteers were a big help in cleaning up and encouraging us to organize. Those kids really impressed us."

Larry says the association also appreciated encouragement back then from Lyle Halbert, then the city parks planning director.

"The parks people asked us to be their eyes and ears," he explains. "They've also involved us in the planning process."

We check out the new Elmwood playground, finished this spring. "The kids love it. We really need this," Larry says.

The brook laps by us as we walk. A county work crew picks up trash across the stream. We hear the birds, and kids on the Corcoran High School playing fields at the end of the park. There's a couple walking a dog.

"There are six neighbors who come into the park with our dogs almost every day with a plastic bag to pick up trash," Larry says. "A neighborhood Cub Scout pack (48) helped us clean trash out of the dam. Weekends, some of us are clearing out the brush so you can see the stone stairways on the south side.

"You used to be able to sit up there and look out at the park. You know, they had flower beds in there."

Last summer, crews sprayed a mixture of seeds and fertilizer on the park's north slope, hoping to control erosion that fed silt into the stream. Larry isn't sure the new cover took completely. Some repointed stones in the steam have tumbled back into the water.

We remind ourselves of nature's ways. Those old WPA workers made their park out of a raw stream that still resists taming.

Larry had some good news about the old mill, which we may have thought was part of the park because of the location. Actually, it was private until 2000, when Elmwood Fish and Game Club sold the landmark to the city. They'd had the mill and one-acre lot for 57 years.

Besides keeping an eye, and an ear, on the park, Larry's association also keeps in touch with the Elmwood neighborhood. Recently, members worked with the city and Home Headquarters on demolishing two vacant houses on Elmwood Avenue. The lots will be added to the park.

The work had an unexpected benefit: Workers found an old millstone under a porch of one of the homes. "It's to be part of the nature center," Larry says.

We're sitting at the edge of the dam now. I ask Larry about the importance of park friends.

"We realize we can't have a healthy park unless the neighborhood is healthy," he explains.

Just now, Elmwood, bathed in autumn light, looks decent.

"I think it's more neighborly now," according to Larry. "It feels friendly and safe. I think that encourages more people to use the park, and use it respectfully."

2002 The Post-Standard.

Copyright 2002 syracuse.com. All Rights Reserved.

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