Twenty years ago, county park system took root at Garlo farm
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
The Margaret Mead quote and the beginning words of the Beatles song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” come to Dolly Garlo’s mind when she thinks back to the time 20 years ago when she and her sister, Alma, donated their family farm property south of Bloomville to become the first park of the Seneca County Park District.
“It was 20 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile …”
And later …
“It’s wonderful to be here
It’s certainly a thrill …”
“Instead of a band, in this case what we created is a mighty band of volunteers who, for 20 years have been committed to this idea of building a park system,” Dolly said. “They got involved to help acquire property, starting with ours, and turn them into parks.”
Dolly reminisced about growing up with her family on the farm with her parents, Olgierd and Maria Garlo, physicians in Tiffin.
“Our farm was the place where we lived,” she said. “For our family, it was a refuge. We called it a nature preserve, but it was a place for people to come and take comfort in nature.”
Dolly said the property represented to her father more than a farm and nature preserve.
“He came from a part of Poland and Lithuania after they had been taken over by communism and fascism and all the other political things that were going on prior to World War II,” she said.
He and his wife escaped the unsettled area in 1948 and emigrated to the United States.
“For him, knowing he was able to own property and to know he would have a safe place for his family was all-important,” Dolly said. “Protecting the family was always in the back of his mind.”
The Olgierds began to buy property in 1961, and added parcels as they could buy them.
“It was a place of peace and safety,” Dolly said. “Where wildlife prospered as well as people.”
When Olgierd and Maria were nearing the end of their lives, Dolly Garlo and her sister, Alma, started thinking about what they were going to do with the property after they died. Both sisters had prospering careers — Dolly as a practicing lawyer in Texas at the time and Alma as a physician in the Toledo area.
The sisters had decided they didn’t have the time or inclination to care for the property themselves. But they wanted it to continue as a nature preserve and farm.
Enter bald eagles.
It was during this time that bald eagles were being reintroduced to northwest Ohio and there was an active eagle-watching program through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
An eagle watcher frequently was tracking the progress of a pair of nesting eagles on the Garlo property.
“I remember that specifically because that was the last time we brought my dad out to the farm,” Dolly said. “Mom had passed away and he was living in Toledo (in a care center).”
Olgierd was able to visit the farm and watch as ODNR banded baby bald eagles.
Dolly said an ODNR worker climbed the tree using spikes and straps.
“What they wanted to do was see what was in the nest,” she said. “There was a baby eagle. They put it in a bag and lowered it down.”
At the time, baby eagles were being banded so biologists could track their movements as they matured and began nesting in new areas. The process involved placing a metal band on one leg. Biologists also took a blood sample, measured wing span and checked to make sure its beak was growing normally. Malformed beaks, thought to be caused by the pesticide DDT, was causing eagles to not be able to feed themselves properly.
“Dad got to see this,” Dolly said. “We got dad out there on a rowboat. He really wasn’t moving all that well.
“We got to hold a baby eagle — a 6-week-old bird,” she said. “It took every bit of two arms to hold onto this thing.”
The young eagle then was placed back in the nest to be cared for by its parents.
The eagle watcher volunteer during the time was the late Mike Wheatley.
“Mike sat near the house with his scope,” said his wife, Rose, who continues to be a park volunteer. “He watched the eagles come and go and reported the activity.”
During his hours watching the eagle nest, Rose said, he got to know the Garlo family.
“I think Mike was out there and when Dolly and Alma were there, and they were saying they didn’t know what they were going to do with the land,” she said. “Mike suggested it would make a beautiful park.”
The Garlo sisters showed interest in the idea and Mike Wheatley contacted Tom Bartlett, one of the original park board members.
“Some of this was serendipity, I think,” Dolly said. “My sister and I took a look at if they would be able to maintain the property.”
After discussions with the new park district and the volunteers getting it started, they decided to donate 256 acres.
“Of course, we had no idea at the time what it would turn into,” Dolly said. “That has been a complete surprise and delight.
“For us, the idea was something that we’d never really conceived of because we didn’t know how that could happen,” Dolly said. “But that’s the power of an idea. Once you have an idea, you start looking into how it could come about.
“We found a way to make the donation in a way that was a win-win for our family and for the county,” she said.
“It really was a win-win because we knew there were other people who appreciated the property the way we did and wanted to see it preserved,” she said.
“What it turned into is really something beyond our wildest dreams,” she said. “This mighty band of volunteers came together and for the next 20 years. Literally, what happened was built by hands of volunteers, by people showing up and asking how they could help.”
After two years of working out details and undergoing the first steps to making it a public property, Garlo Heritage Nature Preserve opened to the public in 1999.
Dolly said she was thrilled to learn other people who owned property they wanted to preserve were following suit several years later and donating land for more parks.
During a visit to Garlo preserve during this year’s Oktoberfest, Garlo said she toured the rest of the county parks with park personnel.
“There are trees, wildflowers, tallgrass prairies, wildlife,” she said. “One thing led to another, and 20 years later what resulted from all this effort is just astounding.”
Dolly said she visited this year because the 20th anniversary of the family’s donation was significant to her.
“I’m glad that in the 20th year, voters decided to commit some public money to support the parks,” she said. “I hope the people in the area will continue to be involved as volunteers and in having a say on what develops and what’s needed. Volunteers are the grassroots people who know what’s needed and how to do it.”
To this end, Dolly began a few years ago to offer a Volunteer of the Year Award, which is given out by the Friends of Seneca County Park District organization.
She said she decided to give the award after learning about the many volunteers and the varied work they’ve done.
“It includes everybody,” she said. “From the park district commissioners to the Scout groups and community groups, to the people who mow the grass and clear the trails.
“It includes people who donated other features that were on their property like the cabins, and the volunteers who reconstructed them.”
Dolly said she’s also excited the park district has chosen office space and is hiring employees who will take the district to another level.
“It’s been more than we envisioned and better than we envisioned,” she said. “The original agreement to preserve and protect the property and the way the property was to be used was honored and developed from there into more than we could have envisioned.”
Today, Garlo preserve has 292 acres, including a 37-acre shallow lake, three ponds, 4.7 miles of equestrian/hiking trails and 2.7 miles of additional hiking trails through fields, woods and wetlands. A boardwalk and other amenities allow park access for people in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments.
Several observation decks on the lakes and ponds provide scenic views and fishing spots.
The nature center is home to Out & About Preschool
The park also has a picnic shelter, a restored blacksmith shop and two log cabins as well as a purple martin nesting colony, bluebird boxes and other wildlife enhancements.
The park is home to the annual Oktoberfest community celebration.
Dolly said she thinks her father would be happy with the results.
“He valued it as a farm,” she said. “I think he would appreciate that the farming is still going on as a way to help sustain the property.
“He envisioned it as a place where people could come and visit,” she said. “I hope he would be pleased. The legacy carried forward.”