Development and Benign Neglect
Volunteers from the community stepped in and helped with the development of Hartley Park. Many projects were proposed; some were realized and some forgotten. The story of Hartley Park became one of benign neglect alternating with ambitious community-driven projects.
“Transformation of Hartley Estate into Retreat Gains Impetus: Wildlife Sanctuary is Pushed,” proclaimed a Duluth Herald headline on April 6, 1942. This plan included creating rearing ponds for trout, an eight-acre pond with nesting geese and ducks, an upland game bird sanctuary, a thirty-acre municipal forest of pine and spruce, a five-acre Christmas tree farm, and a wildflower sanctuary. The Duluth Conservation Club intended to furnish most of the labor.
By the end of 1942, the park department reported that the conservation club had succeeded in the reforestation of five acres of a grassy area using seedling evergreens from the state forestry department. Club members also improved the fence around the small duck pond, which Guilford Hartley had created in 1913 by damming Tischer Creek. The club brought in mallard ducks that nested and raised several dozen young, some of which flew south in the fall. A few ducks stayed behind; club members sheltered them in a barn over the winter.
Other groups carried out additional projects. Duluth’s Parent-Teachers Association, the Duluth Board of Education, and the WPA worked together to organize a school garden project. Twelve acres were planted with vegetables; the produce was canned and used for the hot-lunch program in several Duluth schools.
The next year the conservation club planted pine seedlings, raised more ducks, and released game birds such as pheasant and partridge. A caretaker lived at the park most of the year. He helped prevent vandalism, fed the game birds and ducks, assisted in planting trees, and removed countless rotting fence posts. The Boy Scouts planted several hundred pine and spruce seedlings around the old stone house where they hoped to establish an overnight camping site.
After the United States entered World War II, the Civilian Defense Victory Garden Committee encouraged citizens to plant Victory Gardens. At Hartley Park, the Victory Gardeners plowed up the best gardening area and divided it into 33 x 66 foot plots. Over two hundred gardeners took advantage of these plots and produced many fine crops. By the time the war was over, all of Allandale Farm’s buildings had been removed; only the steps to the farmhouse and the root cellar’s partially excavated ruins remained.
After the war ended, priorities shifted to recovery, and activity at Hartley Park slowed. Budgets remained tight, and the park department struggled to catch up on projects that had been put on hold during the war. In 1947 the city welcomed a proposal from the federal government to purchase a twenty-acre tract on the north side of Hartley Park for the site of a multimillion-dollar veteran’s hospital. The project never materialized, and the government eventually declared the land to be surplus property and sold it to a private party for $2,304. Houses were later built in the area, permanently eliminating any possibility of returning it to park status.
Although the city did not have the resources to develop Hartley Park, people continued to use the land for a variety of recreational activities. Willard “Buck” Doran, a sportsman and owner of a hardware store in the Woodland neighborhood, personally made sure there were fish in the pond. Starting in the mid-1950s, Doran supervised an annual trout planting program at Hartley. Ben Gustafson, fishing supervisor for the French River Fish Hatchery, acquired the trout from the Lanesboro Fish Hatchery, and Doran enlisted the help of local children to release them. By 1962 the children planted five hundred to one thousand trout every spring.
Trout planting continued for at least fifteen years, providing a fun day for everyone involved. In April 1969, the Herald reported that “150 to 200 children are expected to turn out for the annual trout planting program at Hartley Pond…. Children who take part in the program assist conservation officers. In past years they have turned up with every type of container, including coal buckets and even scoop shovels.”
Unfortunately, the trout did not always survive, and by the early 1960s, the fifty-year-old dam on Tischer Creek began to fail. Doran reported in 1962, “Last winter the trout froze out because the dam couldn’t hold water and the pond water level got too low.” The Woodland Community Club, assisted by an engineering unit of the Duluth Army Reserve, drew up plans to build a new and bigger dam. A committee headed by club member Arvid Gross raised money to pay for a bulldozer and concrete, and Army Reserve engineers helped build the new dam in September 1963. Doran’s family recalls that a plaque was installed near the dam, thanking Doran and the Army Reserve for their work to keep the pond alive.
Resurgence: The Hartley Nature Center
By 1970s Hartley Park had once again fallen into a state of benign neglect. Trails created by dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles were causing extensive erosion. A massive flood in August 1972 destroyed the dam (and likely took with it the plaque honoring Doran and the Army Reserve). Restoration began a few years later when the city rebuilt the dam, making it bigger and higher, resulting in a larger pond. Izaak Walton League members took an interest in the park, organizing cleanups and tree plantings and lobbying the city to create a management plan for the area. A citizen committee began working to make the park a center for environmental education.
The Hartley Nature Center nonprofit environmental education corporation was established in 1987 and immediately began providing educational opportunities in the park. Next, organizers began raising funds for a building. At the same time, the park was expanded by twenty acres when the children of Len Naymark—who had owned the parcel and hoped to develop it into senior housing—donated land at the park’s southeastern corner in honor of their father.
Completed in 2003, the nature center features four classrooms, office space, a library/meeting room, bathrooms, an exhibit hall, and green building elements throughout. Partially powered by a grid-tied solar energy system, the structure is used as a teaching tool to illustrate low-impact building techniques and living. In 2015, under the direction of executive director Tom O’Rourke, the center reported that it served 24,000 visitors annually through programs such as field trips, summer camps, nature-based preschool, stewardship internships, ecological data collection, restoration, and more. Hartley Nature Center has a lease with the City of Duluth to co-manage the park and operate and occupy the nature center building until 2052.
The story of Hartley Park is far from finished. In 2016 the city received a $600,000 state Legacy Grant to make improvements to the park and existing trails. According to the News Tribune, those plans include “thinning about ten acres of red pine stands, creating wildlife openings in about five acres of the park dominated by aspen, building new multipurpose trails and expanding parking.” The work includes better bike trails and the removal of environmentally harmful invasive buckthorn thickets.
Because of its history, Hartley Park remains unique among the city’s major parks, most of which were established before significant development had taken place on the land, thus preserving relatively undisturbed forests and streams. In contrast, Hartley Park records a century of changes, from mucky, tree-bound swampland to productive lettuce fields to reforestation projects to today’s community-based environmental education center.