Neighbors come together, reinvent Southport Park

New vision for century-old oasis unveiled (with slideshow)

The reimagined and reinvented Southport Park was opened to the public on June 1, 2012. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photos)

A couple learns about the wildlife within Southport Park on signs near its entrance. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Two huge stones in the shape of waterfowl were donated to Southnport Park by Cyrus Sherwood Bradley to honor Native Americans of the Southport area. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Mark Finlay, the architect who designed Southport Park, stands in front of a lookout tower, based on those found in national parks. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Anthony Zemba, director of Conservation services  for Connecticut Audubon, discusses local flora with Southport resident Rochelle Almeida during a trail walk in Southport Park, unveiled to the public Saturday, June 1. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Marysol Castro and her children Mackenzie and Gavin navigate the stone steps in Southport Park. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

A young visitor has her face painted during the grand opening of Southport Park Saturday, June 1. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Magician Mister Jeffo entertains during the grand opening of Southport Park. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Marysol Castro and her children Mackenzie and Gavin on a scavenger hunt during the opening day of Southport Park. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Arthur and Augustin Zara are absorbed with counting the planks on the rope bridge to the tower- part of the scavenger hunt on opening day of Southport Park. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

Friends of Southport Park, who made the new oasis possible, include Frank Festini,  Alloe Stokes, Ellen Levinson, Don Burton and Dan Zelson. (Shawn O'Sullivan Photo)

In 1859 Henry David Thoreau, America’s first naturalist, wrote, “I think that each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of five hundred or a thousand acres, either in one body or several — where a stick should never be cut for fuel — nor for the navy, nor to make wagons, but stand and decay for higher uses — a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.”

Thoreau’s dream is alive and well, and celebrated last Saturday at the grand opening of Southport Park, a hidden gem on Old Post Road between the Metro-North tracks and Route 1.

Although not quite the expanse of acreage that Thoreau envisioned, the 11-acre tract is nonetheless an oasis of green in Southport Village, a place devoted to conservation and community and testament to the dedication of its neighbors.

The park’s transformation was a true collaborative effort among The Sasquanaug Association, which owns the land, Friends of Southport Park, The Southport Conservancy and Southport Area Association, as well as private donors and local volunteers.

“I can honestly say there have been thousands of hours of volunteer man hours put into this park,” said Frank Festini, Sasquanaug board member and president of Friends of Southport Park.

Southport Park actually had its beginning in neighborhood activism a century ago. One day in 1912, Southport residents woke to find the trees of their local woodland razed and sold off for lumber by its owner, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, which needed money for expansion.

Southport residents bemoaned the loss of the trees, and in 1912 one of them, Milton Lacey, purchased 12 acres of the clear-cut land for $2,000. He quickly began plans for restoring it and incorporated the Southport Park Association in 1914. Over the next few years, local businesses donated time and manpower; local philanthropists donated trees and architectural elements, such as the waterfowl shaped stones, which greet visitors at the park’s entrance.

Over the next few decades, trees grew and trails were cut; a park began to take shape.

In the 1950s, Lacey and his board wanted to ensure that the park would continue as a natural preserve. So the deed was passed to The Sasquanaug Association, with conditions that it would continue to be used as intended, including “protection for wild life, including birds, wild flowers and trees.”

The park did flourish for a time, but over the years became overgrown and uninviting. Festini noted that three years ago the Sasquanaug board came together to see if it might change the nature of the park, literally. A feasibility study was conducted, and Friends of Southport Park was launched.

Mark Finlay, whose office is next to the park, was chosen as architect.

“I knew the property because I came here with my dog,” he said.

Finlay created a master plan, designing the standing structures as well as stone pathways, bridges, picnic areas and gathering spaces.

“I really made sure I got this job,” Finlay, passionate about the project, said. “It’s such an important part of the piece to the whole complex of this side of the tracks in Southport.”

Rather than try to block out the railroad tracks, Finlay chose to incorporate them into his design. In keeping with the Southport Park’s history with the railroad, he included a perch where visitors can view trains passing, complete with a train schedule and benches to wait. Little ones will delight in this, and learn patience at the same time.

Finlay watched happily as kids clambered over a lookout tower much like those in national parks.

“We wanted to make it inviting as you came in, but not too much like a playground,” he notes. “We wanted to give kids places to remember and identify. It’s a good family place.”

Much of the materials used in the built structures come from recycled trees.

“A lot of the wood is from trees that fell during the storms,” Festini said. “We are trying to be green, trying to keep it very organic.”

Jay Petrow of PetrowGardens Landscape Design in Westport was in charge of plantings and removing invasives, collaborating with David Brant from the Aspetuck Land Trust, who manages the park for Sasquanaug, and Anthony Zemba, conservation director of Connecticut Audubon Society, who conducted a flora and fauna study used as a guide.

“What I found was this little island patch of undeveloped land that really had become overrun with invasive species, and very little diversity because there was little diversity in the fauna as well,” Zemba, who conducted a walking tour during the grand open celebration, recalled.

Collaborating with Petrow, “We came to a nice compromise of plants that were selected for aesthetic appeal, plants that will offer a food base,” Zemba said.

“We planted over 2,000 new plants,” Petrow said. “We put in some large cranberry, arrowwood, viburnum, chokeberry. They all will get full of berries in the fall for the birds.”

One Southport resident, Rochelle Almeida, used to be fearful of walking the trails deep into the park, but now looks forward to spending time under the canopy.

“I love this park and it is just a delight to see it being used this way,” she said. “I am hoping more people might come.”

Southport Park drew a crowd Saturday. Children raced through trails during a scavenger hunt. There was face painting and a magician. No doubt Sunday would be quieter, but people will still come.

“We’re really proud of it,” said Festini of the park built by a village.

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