Merrill celebrates 100 years as the City of Parks
TINA L. SCOTT
On June 16, 1921, the Merrill Daily Herald ran an editorial with the headline: “Merrill The City of Parks.” So says the Introduction in a nice booklet prepared in 2019 for the Merrill Historical Society’s History Hunt. The booklet further reads:
“The text [of the editorial in the Merrill Daily Herald] credited the American Legion with originating this new phrase in its advertising for the upcoming July 4 Home Coming celebration, and opined, ‘We believe it will stick.’”
It seems they were right. Today, Merrill proudly proclaims it is the City of Parks on Police Department and Fire Department uniform badges (since around 1970), and even when the badge designs were updated, the slogan was again used. Signs around town and the website prominently celebrate the designation. It’s a designation Merrill is happy to be known for.
Today, the Merrill Area Parks & Recreation Department is dedicated to improving, maintaining, and expanding our City’s park system for the enjoyment of both citizens and visitors alike. And that park system includes 14 parks that encompass more than 1,200 acres of land. Some of those parks go beyond a traditional view of what a park is or can be, with parks falling into five broad categories: Community, Neighborhood, Special Use, Mini, and Linear parks.
Most residents are probably most familiar with Merrill’s Neighborhood Parks, which include Ott’s Park in Merrill’s Sixth Ward, Riverside Park at the end of O’Day Street, Stange Kitchenette Park on the Prairie River near the T.B. Scott Library, Streeter Square on the corner of Third and Mill Streets, and Normal Park off Center Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets. These Neighborhood Parks have much to offer, with playgrounds for the children, ball diamonds for sports fans, the Gazebo and concerts at Normal Park for music lovers, and just acres and acres of riverfront (in some cases) and green space (in all). Many have park shelters and/or concession stands and are available for rental for private parties.
Then there are the Community Parks: Lions, Stange, and the Merrill Area Recreation Complex (MARC). Two of the three are most often associated with sporting events. Lions Park features an outdoor ice skating rink and sledding hills in the winter and ball diamonds in the summer and is home to Merrill’s Little League program. This park alone is 13.8 acres and also has Prairie River access.
Just across the street (Third Street), Merrill’s Stange Park features walkways that meander back and forth over the Prairie River and adjoins the T.B. Scott Library grounds. Its 11.6 acres also include a picnic shelter, new restrooms, a playground, and a basketball court.
The MARC is one of Merrill’s largest parks, encompassing 96 acres with four youth softball fields, soccer fields, and 2.5 miles of walking, biking, cross country ski, and snowshoe trails that connects with Council Grounds State Park. The site is used to showcase Merrill’s annual fireworks display and is also home to the Smith Multi-Purpose Center which features an indoor ice-skating/hockey rink that is available for rental for large functions when it is not covered in ice, a multi-purpose/community room, and a concession area.
Merrill has one one-acre Mini Park, more commonly known as the Skate Park at the corner of Hwy. 64 and Polk Street near the T.B. Scott Library.
Bankers Square, the new Main Street park more often referred to as a Pocket Park, sitting as it does in the pocket of property between Merrill Community Bank and the Merrill Foto News buildings where The Guys Shop once stood, might also be considered a Mini Park and has picnic tables and seating and a great view of the Wisconsin River, the dam, and portions of the River Bend Trail. Named Bankers Square because two banks [Lincoln Community Bank (now known as mBank) and Merrill Community Bank (then known as Merrill Federal Savings and Loan)] owned the two city lots that now make up the park, and completed just two years ago, Bankers Square also features a large lit Christmas tree that pipes Christmas music out into the Main Street business area during the holiday season [made possible by area merchants]. And the park is a place to relax and gather and hold special events.
“Special Use” Parks
Merrill designates the term “Special Use Parks” for parks with specific “features that set them apart from the others” and includes Athletic, Gebert, Memorial Forest, and Prairie Trails in that category. Athletic Park is a ball field, and the other parks – Gebert, Memorial Forest, and Prairie Trails – feature walking/recreational trails, wildlife observation, and/or fishing access.
Athletic Park, located at the corner of Sixth Street and Logan Street, is an historic landmark comprised of a five-acre baseball field that started hosting amateur and semi-pro baseball games in 1925 and still hosts games today. Did you know that the lengendary Henry “Hank” Aaron, Satchel Paige, and the Acme Packers have all played there? It is enclosed by an eight-foot granite wall that was constructed during the Great Depression by the Works Progress Administration, includes a lighted baseball field with new LED lights, and has restrooms. A project called the Athletic Park Honor/Memorial Brick Project is currently under way where donors can purchase an Honor Brick to help raise funds. [Details are available through the Smith Center or The Beacon Bar on Fairview Road.]
Gebert Park is located at the corner of Bramble Way and Summit Avenue and is a 15-acre conservation protection area and a wildlife habitat with nature trails for hiking.
Merrill Memorial Forest is located on Heineman Road off of County Trunk Highway R and is a 920-acre wildlife habitat area and a public hunting ground. There are walking trails for those who want peace and solitude. It includes an 80-acre wetland area called the Don Manthei Recreational and Wetland Area, peaceful walking trails, and new bike trails going through the property. Those trails were designed and built by a local resident and lots of volunteer hours with help from a WDNR Stewardship Grant. Those new biking trails connect to Lincoln County’s Underdown Bike Trails, making it one of the longest continuous single track bike trails in the state.
Prairie Trails Park was developed after the Mill Street dam was destroyed and the lake that had been created by that dam on the Prairie River disappeared. Much of the resulting property was then developed into Prairie Trails Park which is near the Corner of Hwy. G and County Road K, along the Prairie River. It features 99 acres of land that includes 2.5 miles of pedestrian trails along the river [which is a class A trout stream] that makes a nice walking loop. It also includes an outdoor education pavilion, a scenic overlook, a boardwalk bridge over the river, a handicap accessible fishing pier, and two canoe landings. Everything is ADA accessible, and this park was also made possible by the WDNR Stewardship Fund.
A Linear Park
The River Bend Trail, one of Merrill’s newest parks which is still being developed in some areas, is considered a Linear Park. This park was made possible entirely by the initiative and efforts of dedicated community volunteers who created the River District Development Foundation (RDDF) and used the Foundation to raise nearly $1 million to purchase more than 1.25 miles of old railroad corridor from the Canadian National Railway. That corridor has become the basis for this linear park that will ultimately stretch from the Walmart/Pine Ridge shopping area on the East side of Merrill, south to the Wisconsin River, and then follow the River’s edge northwest to Council Grounds State Park. The paved area that started in 2014 covers almost seven miles, and paving was just completed on the [not yet open to the public] portion of the trail that extends from West Main Street/Hwy. 64 out to Council Grounds.
Funds are still needed to complete this section and add railings and lights all along the way. The RDDF and the Friends of the River Bend Trail continue to raise funds, and donations can be made in care of the Merrill Chamber. Many area businesses, foundations, and individuals have contributed to making this park a reality. The River Bend Trail includes paved trails used for walking/biking/hiking/cross-country skiing, beautiful views, and access to the Wisconsin River “that hasn’t been possible for over 100 years” according to the City’s website, fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities, scenic rest areas with benches, educational story boards that educate visitors about Merrill and the City’s history, a new handicap accessible fishing pier, and a renovated railroad bridge that crosses the Prairie River where it meets and flows into the Wisconsin River. When restoration is complete, the cupola from the old T.B. Scott Mansion will also sit on the River Bend Trail.
The River Bend Trail is also home to “Tyler’s Playground,” a unique, naturalized playground on the trail created in 2020 and dedicated to the memory of Tyler Holbach, who died by suicide in 2017, and to ending the stigma around mental health. Tyler’s Naturalized Playground is a concept that originated in 2013 when the Chamber Foundation accepted a donation of land from the former Anson-Gilkey property along the Wisconsin River. The Chamber Foundation donated 15 of those acres to the City for development and kept about 2 acres to develop into the playground it is today. The playground includes lots of climbing and natural play areas made from stones and stumps, wood and branches, and includes pods developed by Eagle Scouts and other volunteers. A wooden teepee, stump reading circle, memorial bridge, tree house, wooden bridge with crawl-through tunnel, a music area, stepping log cuts, and an outdoor play kitchen are just some of the features of Tyler’s Playground which is also still being developed. Tyler’s mother, Tammy Duwe, has been a huge proponent of the park and generating support for the playground.
The Agra Pavilion, located across the river from the hospital on the River Bend Trail, is also available to rent for family gatherings and special events.
Merrill loves its parks
One thing is for certain. Although it’s now been more than 100 years since Merrill was first known as the City of Parks, the City’s citizens are still loving and embracing that designation and expanding on it with their volunteer time, their money, and their passion and creativity to develop exciting new park and outdoor recreation options for residents and Merrill visitors to enjoy. And with a dedicated City staff that makes up the Parks and Rec Department, they are also committed to maintaining those beautiful green spaces long into the future. I daresay, Merrill will find a way to create even more new parks for all to enjoy as the City grows and develops for future generations.