Cold Spring Park
The history of Cold Spring Park begins with Robert Blain Sutton, who was quite a guy. Born in 1792, he fought in the War of 1812 and was shot in the stomach during the Battle of Lundy’s Lane at Niagara Falls. It could have been the end of him or at least the end of his robust good health, but R.B., as he was known, simply walked home and got on with the rest of his life.
As a young man he learned the cooper’s trade and was a boatman on the Mohawk River in New York State. His remarkable, muscular physique was matched by a strong intellect and the will to carry out his plans. Those plans went beyond working for someone else for a living wage. He purchased farm and timber land as his family grew to include several children. Much of the land was in New York State, where he lived, but a substantial amount in Illinois and Iowa came to him as the settlement of last resort for large loans that his creditors couldn’t repay.
Like many others who envisioned building personal wealth in the “west,” R.B. purchased large tracts of Michigan land from the federal government. Unlike most other land speculators, though, R.B. took a personal interest in his property. Still active and vigorous after his wife died in 1859 and with children who had all reached adulthood, at the age of 67 R.B. moved to Hillsdale County to begin the next chapter of his life.
Although he had accumulated substantial wealth, R.B. wasn’t into retirement. Within a year of moving to Hillsdale he married Anna Wragg, who was about 20 years old at the time. The Portrait and Biographical Album of Hillsdale Co., Mich., 1888 tactfully reported this fact without com-ment, but it’s a sure bet that plenty of opinions were voiced by the residents of the town. Anna and R.B. had a son, John Robert, no doubt another topic of either shock or admiration.
Whatever else might be said by the neighborhood gossips, R.B.’s commitment to his new town of Hillsdale was applauded. He greatly added to the downtown area, erecting the “Sutton Opera House Block,” which was three stories high and contained four stores and a large auditorium on the top floor. This was the first public hall in the town and was located on Howell Street between Bacon and Waldron streets, with his home located on the NE corner of Howell and Waldron. Some of R.B.’s property was rented to F.W. Stock as grazing land for his horses, and he sold to F.W. the property on which the Stock home was built. R.B. also purchased 78 acres west of West Street that included Cold Spring Park. It was from that area that he had pipe laid to pump fresh water to his residence to supply a fountain in the yard and from which clear, fresh water was bottled and sold.
Robert Blain Sutton died on March 18, 1876, after getting sick while repairing a pump at his Cold Spring property. He was interred in Oak Grove Cemetery, leaving a lasting legacy to the city with Cold Spring Park.
In August 1916, a long-standing wish of the City of Hillsdale to add Cold Spring Park to the recreational opportunities of the area came to fruition. The Adrian Daily Telegram reported that Its natural beauty and the small “lakes” within the boundaries inspired Hillsdale Mayor L.A. Goodrich to throw his support behind purchasing it at what was considered a “comparatively low price.” Goodrich envisioned pergolas, rustic seats and other features that would make the place “a haven of rest, refuge and pleasure, particularly during hot spells.” Members of the Hillsdale City Council agreed with him, and the park joined the city.
Cold Spring Park delivered on its promise as a lovely natural setting for people to enjoy. In the 1920s Dorothy Lugiai wrote that “A visit to Cold Spring was the highlight of a trip to Hillsdale. It was so pretty there and the only place one could get a cold drink of water.” A pipe with gushing water refreshed people, while horses quenched their thirst at a convenient trough.
As the years passed, however, the park also offered a place for not-so-wholesome activities. As too often happens, the shine of original beauty eventually wore off. In late 2010 a chain was placed across the parking lot entrance to curtail some undesirable “evening activities.” Finally, in early 2013 the Kiwanis Club proposed an organized, concerted effort that held the promise that the area would not only return to its original loveliness, but also be improved. The group sought and received permission from the Hillsdale City Council to develop and execute a five-year plan. It was not only for Cold Spring Park, but also an adjacent, 4.5 acres that had been the site of the Hillsdale Iron and Metal scrapyard. That area had been declared “contaminated,” but the area of concern was small, only about 10 feet by 10 feet that would be fenced in until it was dealt with. Finally, the plan called for a connection to the Simpson Nature Center that acted as an outdoor laboratory for the Hillsdale Community Schools. The planning went forward.
Then Frank Schaldach, a landscape artist, envisioned a rebirth of the area. Paul Nieratko, senior academic specialist of the Landscape Architecture Program at Michi-gan State University and a friend of Schaldach’s, committed to carrying on what Schaldach visualized before his death. Intrigued by the history of the park, in February 2013 MSU Adjunct Professor Sam Lovall brought his “Place Making Studio” class to Hillsdale to develop a site analysis and preliminary concept plans for the restoration project. Committed to incorporating the input of the city’s citizens as well as providing environmental education opportunities for the students who use the Simpson Nature Center, Lovall included all interested community members from the beginning stage. Don Scoville, chair of the Kiwanis park committee, created a consortium of groups to work together on the project: Lovall’s MSU students in the School for Planning, Design and Construction; the City Council; and the Hillsdale Community Schools. They proceeded to make a general plan that included reclaiming a water area that had been inundated with invasive wild species and algae, and also dealing with the “hot spot” created at the former dump site. On Sept. 4, 2013, a forum was held at the Hillsdale Community Library. Seven designs were presented by the MSU students so that residents could provide feedback. Of concern was that maintenance of the park would be accomplished without committing to labor-intensive measures.
By 2015, following input from stakeholders, the master plan for the renovation of Cold Spring Park was the subject of a planning meeting at City Hall. Chamber of Commerce Director Randy Yagiela held the key to getting the ball rolling. With the goal of funding the project through grants and volunteer hours, Yagiela wrote a grant (without charging the Kiwanis Club) that hired landscape architect Jonathan Faasse of Elements Studio in Lansing. At the January meeting Faasse outlined his preliminary ideas for uniting the original Cold Spring land, the Simpson Woodlot and the 4.5 acres purchased by the Kiwanis Club. The input from previous sessions established the goals: a park that would be a place for kids to play, families to interact in a natural setting, and residents to enjoy a spot removed from the hustle and bustle of life. Of utmost importance, Faasse indicated, was that decisions would be made in a manner so as not to disturb what had already been done or to interfere with other actions that would come in the future. The renovation was planned as a 10-year project.
Mary Wolfram, economic development director of Hillsdale, informed Kiwanis about state matching grants available from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. These were called “Public Spaces, Community Places.” Cold Spring Park fit perfectly into this category, where every dollar coming from donations is doubled.
After an intense planning effort, though, progress slowed to a crawl. An early volunteer effort came from students residing in the Hillsdale County Youth Home. In the summer of 2017, at the instigation of Ted Jansen, the students began cleaning out the creek bed. A partnership developed between the Hillsdale City Services Department and the Kiwanis Club in which Kiwanis supplied the funds as they became available and City Services supplied equipment and workers to support their efforts when possible. The old playground equipment was removed and refurbished and, in the summer of 2019, was slated to be reinstalled. The merry-go-round and train will be placed in regulation rubber mulch, with parking and paved walkways that are ADA (American Disability Act) approved. The fencing around the “hot spot” was removed and plans to eventually put some kind of barrier to block the lead contaminants, like a parking lot or basketball court, considered.
Still uncertain is when an effort to clean up the pond will be made. Gravel and other materials from never-paved Cold Spring Circle are joined by additional wash-out from storms that originate in the area above Cold Spring Circle. Street repairs in Hillsdale moving at a snail’s pace make for great uncertainty for when Westwood will be done, with curbing to funnel the gravel away from the Cold Spring pond.
Cold Spring Park doesn’t have the stunning beauty of Mrs. Stock’s Park or the recreational possibilities in Waterworks and Owen parks and Sandy Beach. But the plan in place, slowly and kind of steadily moving forward, represents an opportunity for it to be nurtured into the kind of place where families can gather, kids can play and visitors can slow down for a bit.
JoAnne P. Miller - 2019