This February marks the beginning of the 40th year of Milford’s Parks and Recreation Department. Established in1975, Milford Parks and Recreation is responsible for both youth and adult recreation and has also been instrumental in the development of Milford’s Mispillion Riverwalk Park. With the recent addition of Goat Island, the “Riverwalk” is now the largest municipal park in the state.
To mark its 40th year, Parks and Recreation, with additional funding from the Emory Family and the Delaware Humanities Forum, commissioned 302 Stories to produce a video documentary recounting the history of the Department and the Riverwalk. The program is now complete and beginning to be shown locally and regionally.
Recently MilfordLIVE.com caught up with Michael Oates, the program’s producer/director, to learn more about the challenges of capturing 40 years of history in 21 minutes:
MLIVE: So Mike, what was it like trying to piece together a Milford story that began 40 years ago?
M Oates: Well, it took some digging. The biggest challenge was finding photos and video from those early years—mid 70’s through early 80’s—of what downtown Milford and the Mispillion looked like. Frankly, we learned that downtown was not the kind of place that deserved a photo back then. And the Mispillion was even worse—old shopping carts, tires, odors, muddy banks, the classic abused river. Fortunately we were able to find some 70’s aerial photos from the Delaware Public Archives as well as old video footage gathered by Gary Emory. The Milford Museum also helped by providing early historic photos, so we managed.
MLIVE: How about interviewees? Were they cooperative?
M Oates: Once again, it took a little while to locate folks who were involved back then, but once we connected with a few of them, they opened the door to others. It also helped that many of them are still living in Milford or nearby.
MLIVE: The program is titled, “Bridging the Past, Connecting the Future.” Where did that title come from?
M. Oates: I have to credit Gary Emory with that. As everyone knows, Gary’s been the “face” of Parks and Rec throughout most of this period, and was a key player in the creation of the Riverwalk. He felt the bridge between Bicentennial and Memorial Parks best represented Parks and Rec’s accomplishments over the years—bringing together the community, the Counties, and celebrating the river as a recreational resource. So he wanted the word “Bridge” in the title, and a photo of the bridge on the DVD cover.
MLIVE: I know you researched Milford’s history previously for the Museum’s documentary, “Wood Shavings to Metal Sparks, Milford’s Shipbuilding History.” In the course of producing this program, did you learn anything new about Milford and the community here?
M. Oates: I’m glad you asked me that. There are always unexpected insights that arise in the making of any documentary–themes which surface and ultimately shift the focus of the program’s narrative. In this case, it was our realization that, while the Riverwalk is a Parks and Rec accomplishment, it could never have happened without the vision and sustained support of Milfordians over the last 40 years. Gary had explained this to us, but it wasn’t until we interviewed a number of folks—Council members, Recreation Commissioners, business people, Library Board members—and heard their stories, that we realized how critical their sustained commitment was to making the Riverwalk happen.
MLIVE: Yes, I know the Riverwalk was developed in 23 phases—it clearly took a lot of negotiation and patience.
M. Oates: That’s true, but there’s more to the story than that. The transformation of a neglected river and a declining downtown to what Milford has today speaks to something much deeper—an underlying value set shared by the entire community. I don’t want to overstate this, but it became clear that those we interviewed all cared about and shared a sense of responsibility to Milford—and it wasn’t just their own self-interest. The Milfordians we met really love their town, and realize that working to create the Riverwalk—even if it took 40 years– would benefit not only them but everyone who lives in or visits Milford.
And they also realize that the work of Parks and Rec is not complete, even with Gary’s departure.
MLIVE: Speaking of that, how do you think the new Parks and Rec Director, Brad Dennehy, is going to do?
M. Oates: Brad’s aware that he’s got some big shoes to fill, but he’s also ready for the challenge. Gary’s been coaching him, and Brad’s already got some exciting events planned for this spring, which you’ll have to stay tuned for. I’ll think he’ll do well.
MLIVE: Final question…..where can we see this new documentary?
M. Oates: There are two public showings scheduled on February 19th—the first at 1pm at the Parks and Rec building, and the second at 6:30pm at the Mispillion Art League. The second showing is part of a presentation by naturalist Bill Pike, who’s going to talk about the significance of Goat Island, which is the most recent addition to the Riverwalk Park. There are also DVD copies of the show available now at the Parks and Rec building.
MLIVE: Anything else you want to add?
M. Oates: Not really, other than it’s been great telling another Milford story and meeting more Milfordians. Jeanne (my partner) and I are looking to move to southern Delaware, and it seems more and more likely we’ll end up in Milford—there’s something special about this place and telling this story confirmed that for both of us once more.