It was love at first sight when I visited Mill Creek Park for the first time. An active lifestyle led my husband and me to the park. We used the roads and trails as training for running and cycling. Then we realized there was far more to the park and began exploring more with our children.
Many children in the area, mine included, experienced Ford Nature Center on an educational field trip. My kids loved the nature center so much, we continued to visit as a family.
At the beginning of 2020, Ford Nature Center closed for renovations that would take many years and a large budget to complete. After a three-year and $4 million renovation project was completed, the Ford Nature Center reopened to the public on Earth Day, April 22.
The project had several goals, including preserving the historic and physical attributes of the manor house built in 1913. I have always admired the architecture of Youngstown. However, I didn’t realize the artistic vision featured in most of the buildings came from the same family.
A father and son duo, Charles Henry Owsley and Charles Frederick Owsley were the masterminds behind many of the stately architectural masterpieces in Youngstown. Charles H. Owsley designed the Strouss-Hirshberg building on West Federal Street and the Dollar Bank Building on the central square, along with many other buildings in Youngstown and Warren built in the late 1800s and into the turn of the century.
His son, Charles F. Owsley, followed in his footsteps becoming an architect after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1903 where he studied architecture in their prestigious program. The Owsley architecture firm left its biggest imprint on the city of Youngstown with the design of the Mahoning County Courthouse.
At the time, Youngstown was one of the leading steel-producing centers in the country. The large tax base provided for a new and modern courthouse. The building was dedicated in 1907.
A few years later, Charles F. Owsley was commissioned for another project. He was to build a residence for C.S. Robinson, an executive at Youngstown Sheet & Tube. It was quite a shift from institutional buildings, but a challenge as well.
The first-class manor house was to be built on land that backed up to Mill Creek Park. The design of the house must allow it to blend into the natural setting. The natural beauty of the park and the building itself were to be cohesive and balanced, accentuating each other.
The pristine park setting combined with the gorgeous manor house were the perfect home environment for the Robinson family. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson lived in their home for about 40 years until they passed.
Gifted to park
The home was then purchased by Judge John W. Ford who did his part to cherish and care for the home and the grounds. Upon his passing in 1968, the home and property were donated by his children to Mill Creek Park.
The Park commissioners transitioned the house into a nature museum, a place for young and old to learn and grow in knowledge about the natural elements of the park. Children were also able to learn about the creatures who called Mill Creek Park home. The nature center quickly became a gathering space for nature enthusiasts and bird watchers.
Another goal of recent renovations was to enable further educational opportunities at the location. Expansion and reconfiguration of the interior spaces created space for educational opportunities and interactive exhibits. Improvements to the interior space also made it accessible for all people. Outside learning spaces were added where students can be immersed in nature.
When my son and I visited the Ford Nature Center for the first time after renovations, we did spend some time inside exploring the displays and bird-watching in the bird observation room. However, we spent most of our time outside.
Walking up the steps from the parking lot, we noticed the rooftop garden. Looking at the native species in the lush garden, we could also see the native wildflower meadow stretching out below us on the property. Sedges, alliums and bulbs in the rooftop garden will attract pollinators while simultaneously absorbing rainwater and reducing stormwater runoff. We sat for a few minutes in the rocking chairs, enjoying the soft breeze and listening to the birds at the birdfeeders.
We started exploring the grounds by taking the Axtman Trail for All People. The 0.1-mile paved trail weaves through the wooded habitat surrounding the nature center. We passed by Virginia bluebells as we enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine filtering through the freshly opened leaf canopy above us. I can’t emphasize it enough — the property is stunning.
Halfway along the trail, we meandered off the paved trail further into the woods. Ramps and garlic mustard were growing among fallen branches and leaf debris. Like most kids when they reach wide-open spaces, my son was off balancing on rocks, tree stumps and decomposing trees.
As I stood in the middle of the forest with the stately Ford Nature Center behind me, I couldn’t help but think, “I can’t believe this is Youngstown.”
With a soft breeze blowing through the valley and a bluejay darting from tree to tree, I realized nature and nature education is the heart of Youngstown, where the past is preserved, the present is enjoyed and the future is bright.
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