October 20, 2021

A dream for Dwyer

After decades of decline, will it prosper again?

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Cortland County Legislator Linda Jones (U-Homer) and Preble Town Historian Jay Currie examine a recently renovated fireplace at Dwyer Memorial Park. The park has 22 stone fireplaces dating to 1951; 12 have been renovated.

Walking along Little York Lake, it may be hard to imagine a gazebo once sat right on the water, where you’d be greeted by the sounds of families picnicking, children playing and music flowing from a bandstand.

Images provided by Linda Jones

A full pier once adorned the shore by the pavilion at Dwyer Memorial Park in Preble. Post cards with images like these from the first couple decades of the 20th Century were sold at a gift shop in the pavilion. At right, a gazebo once punctuated the pier.

Up the hill, the Little York Pavilion once featured a restaurant with a concession stand. In nearby fields, children rode a carousel and swing set, or admired animals at the petting zoo. Where the parking lot is now, kids once stood in line for hours to ride the Tiny Mite train that chugged its way through the park.

After decades of neglect, many of the Dwyer Memorial Park’s attractions fell into disrepair. Now, the remaining history includes the pavilion, the recently renovated circus wagons and pieces of the original children’s playground.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Cortland County Legislator Linda Jones checks the fading paint of a teeter-totter at Dwyer Memorial Park in Preble. Generations of children have played on the see-saw, which a volunteer will repaint in the coming months.

Linda Jones grew up here. She remembers waiting her turn for the train ride, her sisters and cousins piling into the train cars around her.

Now she’s a county legislator. And she has a vision for future generations who will visit the park.

“We could have it again,” said Jones (U-Homer). “It would be a total dream — to have this back — the idea that we could have more opportunities to get people out here and out on the water.”

A CENTURY OF RECREATION

Nearly 6,000 people were in the crowd on opening day, Memorial Day 1906. Now, families visit the park on the weekend, or a quick trip to the creek to splash away the summer heat.

“I remember coming here as a kid,” said Preble Town Historian Jay Currie. He held a photo album filled with early 1900s photos and postcards from the original park’s gift shop. The cards painted a scene of what the park once was — featuring women in their long skirts and men in their tall hats, families picnicking along the lakefront.

As buses and automobiles slowly replaced the trolley industry, the Cortland Traction Co., which built and owned the park, sold out and discontinued its track to Preble and Little York Park in 1928, Currie said, and fewer people visited.

Photo provided by Linda Jones

A children’s train ride was installed at Dwyer Memorial Park in Preble in 1955.

“The park was totally abandoned from 1932 to 1951,” Jones said, but it was not for lack of interest.

The Little York Garden Club competed with the county to buy the park, Currie said. At the time, the park cost $7,500 and the decision went to county voters. “At the end of 1938, the club goes up for a vote against the county board of supervisors and passes by seven votes. The county only won by seven votes.”

More than a decade later, Highway Supervisor William Dwyer proposed renovating the park with post-war funding.

“He came in and did a lot of fixing up stuff without raising county taxes,” Currie said. “The park reopens, along with the carousel, the petting zoo, the kiddie pool, and they even had a restaurant.”

DECADES OF DECLINE

The park was dedicated in Dwyer’s name after he died in 1958, but park preservation declined.

“One of the main problems with the park is lack of maintenance, which comes down to lack of funding,” Jones said.

When she was elected to the Cortland County Legislature in 2016, Jones knew she wanted to do something for the park she was so fond of as a little girl.

“My Friends of Dwyer volunteers and I, we go around and do things that we can do — like the circus wagons we painted three years ago, we check on them and see if any spots need to be repainted,” Jones said.

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Cortland County Legislator Linda Jones (U-Homer) and Preble Town Historian Jay Currie check out a circus car that volunteers repainted at Dwyer Memorial Park.

Since 2016, several repairs and renovations have been done across the park:

  • The county Highway Department has repaired the benches and steps around Little York Pavilion and repaired some of the original pieces of the children’s playground, dating back to the 1950s.
  • The roofs of a few of the park pavilions were repaired, and county crews have built several dozen picnic tables.
  • A water infiltration system was installed at the park, at the direction of the County Health Department. A new well pump and water-holding tank were installed, and repairs were made to the wading pool filtration system.
  • The Town and County Garden Club has restored the Colonial Herb Garden, maintaining a garden first cultivated by the Little York Garden Club in 1932.

The biggest project has been repairing the 22 stone fireplaces built in 1951, Jones said. For some of them, masons donated their work and others were adopted by families to fund repairs.

“A lot of people don’t understand why it’s so expensive, but it’s because they have to be torn down — you don’t just patch them,” Jones said. So far, 12 fireplaces have been taken apart stone by stone and rebuilt with new flues and inserts for grilling.

A VISION FOR THE FUTURE

If Jones had the funding, she would want Dwyer Park to be Cortland County’s biggest attraction, whether it’s the countywide Fourth of July celebration, bringing back carnival rides, or starting a Halloween hayride through the forest.

“This could be something that every income level can do and have a wonderful time,” Jones said. “I’d like to see them bring the farmers market up here once a month. I’d like to have local people with food trucks set up here, so if you come to the park you can head over and grab a hot dog or ice cream. Kids would flock to an ice cream stand.”

Jones said there needs to be a budget specific to the park before the Highway Department can do any more major repairs, or the county would need to find grant funding.

The park doesn’t have a dedicated budget, she said, and $85,000 of the $100,000 allocated for the park this year was spent to repair the parking lot.

“The rest of the park is managed by the highway department, but we regularly get together and talk about things — it’s really all one park, and we’re all committed to making sure that our park stays a nice asset for the community,” said Beau Harbin (D-Cortland), chairman of the Legislature’s Building and Grounds Committee, which oversees the pavilion’s repairs. “There’s a lot more that we could probably do with the park, and I would like to see what ideas people have.”

Harbin’s dream for the park is to have more outdoor recreation and possibly create rail trails connecting Dwyer Memorial Park with other parts of Cortland County.

But for now, his committee’s focus is on the park’s pavilion. So far, the county has put around $100,000 toward improving it, Harbin said, including the steps, electrical repairs and renovations to the bathrooms and kitchen.

Any organization or group that has a plan for how Dwyer Memorial County Park could be used or renovated can submit a proposal to the County Legislature for American Rescue Plan funding, Harbin said.

“There’s a lot more that we could do, and I’m keen to hear other’s ideas,” he said. “We’re looking for organizations that have gotten themselves together and are looking for funding to support an existing idea — whatever that may be — that would pay dividends for the community as a whole.”

Because Dwyer Park is a nationally registered historical park — its pavilion is on the National Register of Historic Places grants are available, but grants aren’t easy to come by, Jones said. The county would need a specific plan and someone would need to write a grant proposal. Otherwise, every project will need to be funded by the county.

“Budget season is coming up, and I hope we can get budgeting to this park,” Jones said. “This is a really wonderful place that not everybody knows about. It’s free for anybody no matter what your income is, and that’s where I got my love for this park.”