TINA L. SCOTT
On June 16, 1921, the Merrill Daily Herald published an editorial entitled, “Merrill The City of Parks.” So it says in the introduction to a beautiful booklet created in 2019 for the Merrill Historical Society’s History Hunt. The brochure goes on to say:
“The text [of the editorial in the Merrill Daily Herald] credited the American Legion for making up this new phrase in their advertisement for the upcoming July 4th homecoming, saying, ‘We believe it will last.’ “
It seems they were right. Today, Merrill proudly proclaims it’s the City of Parks on Police and Fire Department uniform badges (since about 1970), and even as the badge designs were updated, the slogan was used again. Signs in town and on the website celebrate the designation prominently. It’s a name Merrill is fondly known for.
Today, the Merrill Area Parks & Recreation Department is dedicated to improving, maintaining, and expanding our city’s parking system for the pleasure of citizens and visitors alike. And this park system includes 14 parks that encompass more than 1,200 hectares of land. Some of these parks go beyond a traditional view of what a park is or can be, with parks categorized into five broad categories: community, neighborhood, special-use, mini, and linear parks.
Most residents are likely familiar with Merrill’s Neighborhood Parks, including Otts Park on Merrill’s Sixth Ward, Riverside Park at the end of O’Day Street, Stange Kitchenette Park on the Prairie River near the TB Scott Library, and Streeter Square on the corner of Third Street and Mill Street and Normal Park on Center Avenue between Sixth and Seventh Streets. These neighborhood parks have a lot going for them, with play areas for the kids, ball diamonds for sports fans, the pavilion and concerts in Normal Park for music lovers, and just acres of riverside (in some cases) and green spaces (overall). Many have park canopies and / or food stalls and can be rented for private parties.
Then there are the community parks: Lions, Stange, and the Merrill Area Recreation Complex (MARC). Two of the three are most commonly associated with sporting events. Lions Park offers an outdoor ice rink and toboggan runs in winter and Ball Diamonds in summer and is home to Merrill’s Little League program. This park alone is 13.8 hectares and also has access to the Prairie River.
Across the street (Third Street), Merrill’s Stange Park has walkways that meander across the Prairie River and border the grounds of the TB Scott Library. Its 11.6 acres also includes a picnic area, new restrooms, a playground, and a basketball court.
MARC is one of Merrill’s largest parks, covering 96 acres with four youth softball fields, soccer fields and 2.5 miles of hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails that connect to 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 has an indoor ice skating / hockey rink that can be rented for large events when it’s not covered in ice. Purpose / common room and a concession area.
Mini park (s)
Merrill has a 1 acre mini park, better known as a skate park, on the corner of the highway. 64 and Polk Street near the TB Scott Library.
Bankers Square, the new park on Main Street, more commonly known as Pocket Park and located between the Merrill Community Bank and the Merrill Photo News buildings that once housed The Guys Shop, could also be called Mini Park and has picnic tables and seating and great views of the Wisconsin River, dam, and portions of the River Bend Trail. Named Bankers Square because of two banks [Lincoln Community Bank (now known as mBank) and Merrill Community Bank (then known as Merrill Federal Savings and Loan)] Owning the two urban lots that make up the park today, and Bankers Square, which was only completed two years ago, also has a large lighted Christmas tree that broadcasts Christmas music to the Main Street business district during the holiday season [made possible by area merchants]. And the park is a place to relax and gather and for special events.
“Special Use” parks
Merrill refers to the term “Special Use Parks” for parks with specific “characteristics that distinguish them from the others” and includes Athletic, Gebert, Memorial Forest and Prairie Trails in this category. Athletic Park is a ball game field, and the other parks – Gebert, Memorial Forest, and Prairie Trails – offer hiking / recreational trails, game viewing, and / or access to fishing.
At the corner of Sixth Street and Logan Street, Athletic Park is a historic landmark that consists of a five-acre baseball field that hosted amateur and semi-professional baseball games in 1925 and continues to host games today. Did you know the legendary Henry “Hank” Aaron, Satchel Paige, and the Acme Packers all played there? It is surrounded by a two and a half meter high granite wall erected by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, includes a lighted baseball field with new LED lights, and has toilets. A project is currently underway called the Athletic Park Honor / Memorial Brick Project, where donors can purchase an Honor Brick to raise funds. [Details are available through the Smith Center or The Beacon Bar on Fairview Road.]Located on the corner of Bramble Way and Summit Avenue, Gebert Park is a 15 acre nature reserve and wildlife habitat with nature trails for hiking.
Located on Heineman Road on County Trunk Highway R, the Merrill Memorial Forest is a 920 acre wildlife habitat and public hunting reserve. There are hiking trails for those looking for peace and solitude. It includes an 80-acre wetland called the Don Manthei Recreational and Wetland Area, quiet walking trails, and new bike paths that run through the property. These trails were designed and built by a local resident and many volunteer hours with the help of a WDNR Stewardship Grant. These new bike lanes join Lincoln County’s Underdown Bike Trails, making it one of the longest continuous single-lane bike lanes in the state.
Prairie Trails Park was developed after the Mill Street Dam was destroyed and the lake created by that dam on the Prairie River disappeared. Much of the resulting property was then developed into Prairie Trails Park, which is located near the corner of the highway. G and County Road K, along the Prairie River. It has 99 acres of land with 4.1 km of pedestrian paths along the river [which is a class A trout stream] that makes a nice run. It also includes an outdoor educational pavilion, a scenic lookout point, a boardwalk bridge over the river, a handicapped fishing pier, and two canoe docks. Everything is ADA accessible and this park was also made possible by the WDNR Stewardship Fund.
A linear park
One of Merrill’s newest parks that is still under development in some areas, the River Bend Trail is considered a Linear Park. This park was made possible entirely through the initiative and efforts of dedicated community volunteers who started the River District Development Foundation (RDDF) and used the foundation to raise nearly $ 1 million to help people more than 1.25 miles old Railway Corridor from the Canadian National Railway. This corridor became the basis for this linear park, which eventually extends south from the Walmart / Pine Ridge shopping district on the east side of Merrill to the Wisconsin River, and then follows the river bank northwest to Council Grounds State Park. The paved area, which began in 2014, stretches for almost 11 km and has just been completed on the road [not yet open to the public] Part of the path that extends from West Main Street / Hwy. 64 to Council Grounds.
Funding is still needed to complete this section and add railings and lights all the way. The RDDF and Friends of the River Bend Trail continue to raise funds and donations can be made for the Merrill Chamber. Many local businesses, foundations, and individuals helped make this park a reality. The River Bend Trail includes paved trails for walking / biking / hiking / cross-country skiing, beautiful views, and access to the Wisconsin River “which has not been possible for over 100 years,” according to the city’s website, fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities, quaint rest areas with benches , educational storyboards that educate visitors about Merrill and the history of the city, a new handicapped-accessible fishing pier, and a renovated railroad bridge that crosses the Prairie River where it joins the Wisconsin River. When the restoration is complete, the dome of the old TB Scott Mansion will also be on the River Bend Trail.
The River Bend Trail is also home to Tyler’s Playground, a unique naturalized playground along the way created in 2020 and dedicated to the memory of Tyler Holbach, who died of suicide in 2017, and ending the stigma of mental health. Tyler’s Naturalized Playground is a concept that emerged in 2013 when the Chamber Foundation accepted a land donation on the former Anson-Gilkey property on the Wisconsin River. The Chamber Foundation donated 15 hectares to the city for development and kept about 2 hectares to develop the playground it is today. The playground includes many climbing and natural play areas made from rocks and stumps, wood and branches, and includes pods designed by Eagle Scouts and other volunteers. A wooden teepee, tree stump reading circle, memorial bridge, tree house, wooden bridge with a crawl tunnel, music area, step wood cuts and an outdoor play kitchen are just a few of the features of Tyler’s Playground, which is also still under development. Tyler’s mom, Tammy Duwe, is a huge supporter of the park and has been a supporter of the playground.
The Agra Pavilion, located across from the hospital on the River Bend Trail, can also be rented for family gatherings and special events.
Merrill loves its parks
One thing is certain. Although Merrill was known as the City of Parks more than 100 years ago, the citizens of the city still love and accept the designation, adding their volunteer time, money, and passion and creativity to create exciting new parks and parks Outdoor recreational opportunities for residents and Merrill visitors. And with committed employees from the city who make up the Parks and Rec Department, they are also committed to preserving these beautiful green spaces in the future. I dare say Merrill will find a way to create even more new parks for all as the city grows and evolves for future generations.