Celebrating Nottingham

It All Began at Nottingham
By Elaine Pennell

As a child in the early 1950’s, I remember sitting on our front lawn and looking across Ridge Road at this strange collection of twisty pine trees and dense, thorny under-brush, which my botanist father identified as a species of Smilax. In actuality, it was a devilish monster ready to attack and ensnare unheeding children. You would call it greenbrier. My siblings and I were not eager to get caught. A few plants grew in the woods on our farm, and we had small run-ins there, resulting in torn clothes, bloody scratches and tearful howls.

Then there were the fires. The sights and sounds of the Barrens on fire are unforgettable. If we children saw a column of smoke in the Barrens, we were taught to run to mother immediately so she could phone Union Fire Company in Oxford. During the 1930’s, my grandfather and other men from the neighborhood courageously fought fires there on foot with nothing but wet burlap sacks. The dense undergrowth made falling into one of the many quarries a real danger. Fires would burn for days; equipment could not penetrate much beyond the perimeter. Despite closed windows, soot sifted into the house, and the sky glowed red all night.
Later, as I discovered the novels of Zane Gray, the Barrens assumed an exotic beauty. On summer evenings, I would curl up in a tree with one of his books and look up at the sunset, translucent behind black silhouettes of lacy pines. Immediately, I was transported into the world of the Old West - the grassy savannahs and stands of pines on rough, rocky terrain were just a few steps away. How I grew to love the strangeness of the scenery that was a constant in my life.

Then my family began to hear rumors of land sales. The Barrens was going to be changed, and probably not for the better. My parents were very concerned. My father knew locations where rare wildflowers grew. Geology students were referred to him because he knew where to find geodes and could identify various rock specimens unique to the Barrens. It would be a tragedy if all the delicate flowers and wildlife would disappear beneath powerful bulldozers and be replaced with asphalt.

The most persistent rumor was that a huge trailer park would be created. We would no longer hear the chorus of whippoorwills during sultry summer nights. There would be no deer grazing at twilight in the alfalfa field. We wouldn’t be able to watch shooting stars because of the glare of lights across the road. The nature of our rural existence was being threatened, as well as the ecological balance.

During the early 1960’s, we heard that Chester County was purchasing tracts in the Barrens to create a park. What a relief this was for my family! The beauty surrounding our home was being preserved so others could learn to appreciate its treasures. Land that most people regarded as worthless was about to prove its worth.

September of 1963 was an exciting time. I was a senior at Oxford High School and played clarinet in the band. A Horse Shoe Pits student from Ankara, Turkey arrived in August for a year’s stay and we were learning how to communicate. The new County Park at Nottingham was about to be dedicated. Life was full of promise.
My memories of dedication day are not crystal clear. What stands out is that I became a participant in an event, which a few years earlier seemed impossible. Mr. Degler, the band director, announced that our band would provide two selections - the National Anthem and a Sousa March - for the dedication, which was held near the site of the original park office, where the basketball court stands today. The day was perfect, sunny and warm with a playful breeze that riffled the music and muffled the speeches.

My whole family attended, even Yildiz, my new Turkish sister. Now, after 50 years, my heart still sings when I think of the countless hours of pleasure Nottingham County Park has provided for the thousands of people who enter each year. The park stands as the original witness to the foresight of the Commissioners and others, who had a vision of a county-wide park system, and dedicated themselves to bringing the vision to reality. Their efforts have enriched the quality of life in Chester County.