Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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Restoration of natural spring taps into park’s storied history

The restoration of old spring at Burlington’s Willowbrook Park has brought more than just fresh water bubbling up to the surface.

Over the past several months, this half-forgotten spring has become the centerpiece of an eye-catching historic tableau that offers the park’s patrons a tantalizing peek into Burlington’s bucolic past. Despite its proximity to the bustling lanes of South Church Street, this newly refurbished water source now serves as a tangible reminder of a time, many decades ago, when cow pastures and grain silos still dotted the landscape.

The spring’s dramatic makeover has, moreover, coincided with other, more forward-looking changes that continue to transform the face of Willowbrook Park.

Since the spring of 2015, the city of Burlington has collaborated with the New Leaf Society, a nonprofit devoted to the community’s beautification, to develop an arboretum on the grounds of this municipal facility.

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So far, this ongoing partnership has led to development of walking trails, a picnic shelter with restroom facilities, and even a veterans “overlook” on the former site of an American Legion post that the city relocated to make room for the arboretum’s entrance. More recently, this budding local attraction has also become home to two wetland gardens, a board walk that forms a “tree house” around a stately pin oak, and – of course – the arboretum’s newly-restored natural spring.

Jason Barnhill, a city employee who serves as the arboretum’s manager, concedes that this subterranean water source was never actually “lost,” although many park goers had no idea that it even existed.

Barnhill recalled that the park’s caretakers had always been well aware of the spring even if they didn’t necessarily give it much attention or care in the past. The arboretum’s manager added that, at one point, someone even threw a layer of Astroturf over the spring in an ill-conceived attempt to landscape the opening. Over time, the spring became a repository for rubble before some well meaning individual installed a metal grate to keep visitors from stumbling into the pit.

Barnhill noted that the spring remained in this state of not-so-benign neglect until an anonymous benefactor decided to bring it back into prominence.

“We had a private donor provide all of the money,” he recalled in an interview earlier this week. “This paid for rock work and the construction of a wall, and then we added an opening for the spring to flow through.”

Thanks to this unidentified donor, the New Leaf Society was able to hire architect David Smith of CHASE Builders to design a scenic new setting for the spring. The organization also commissioned local artisan James “Red” McAdams to provide decorative stonework. Meanwhile, Smith acquired various antiques, including a well-aged water pump, to add a period feel to the new panorama.

The crowning touch to this project came just a few weeks ago when a sign went up to commemorate an old dairy farm that had relied on the spring during the early 1900s.

Founded by William Thomas Ingle, who originally made a name for himself as Burlington’s first licensed undertaker, this dairy farm has left few visible marks on the landscape where it formerly operated. Fortunately, the city’s parks and recreation department has been able to elicit some telling details about this erstwhile business from Walter Boyd, a local historian who made an unsuccessful bid to become Burlington’s mayor a year ago.

[Story continues below photograph.]

Burlington arboretum manager Jason Barnhill pointing to the natural spring flowing from the new structure.

Last month, Boyd sent the city’s recreation director an email in which he recounted some of the highlights of the former Ingle Dairy Farm.

“After his partner [in the funeral trade], James Madison Jobe, died in 1897, Ingle went into the dairy business in what’s now Willowbrook Park,” Boyd explained in his narrative. “He built a large concrete silo (the first in the area), which generations of children used as a “castle” until the city ordered it demolished in 1954. All of that property in the area belonged to the Rich family (which is why Rich & Thompson is located there). “After Ingle’s death,” the missive continues, “his property was sold to W. W. Brown’s Central Loan & Trust Co….and my grandmother’s Alamance Insurance & Real Estate Co….for development. Both companies deeded the park area to the city because it couldn’t be developed.”

Boyd went on to recall some other historical curiosities about the park and its creek – which is popularly known as “Willowbrook” notwithstanding its formal moniker as “Brown’s Branch.”

Among other things, Boyd alluded to an armed skirmish that may have occurred along the creek during the Revolutionary War – ahead of a much better-known engagement that saw troops under Lt. Colonel Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee maul a group of Tory reinforcements led by the ill-fated John Pyle.

The chatter of park goers has long since replaced the explosion of musket balls – to say nothing of the lowing of William Ingle’s Holsteins, which trod the same turf more than a century later. Yet, the spring’s new backdrop has made these historical echoes a bit more immediate for park goers, as Barnhill confirmed based on his own interactions with Willowbrook’s visitors.

“A lot of people have noticed it,” the arboretum’s manager said, “and all the comments have been positive. We’ve taken an eyesore and turned it into a feature of the arboretum.”

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