(The following article was first published in AINews -- A publication of the Association of Interpretive Naturalists, Inc. VOLUME XXIII, No. 1, January/February 1984)

The Park Historical Society As an Interpretive Medium

By Richard V. Holt, Jr.

In June 1982 I began as a park ranger at John H. Downs Memorial Park in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. The Park is the First of several planned for the county. The 231 acre park is situated on Chesapeake Bay with 2000 feet of shoreline. The park is surrounded by wide open spaces and low density residential development. Approximately 100,000 visitors were served during the park's first year in operation.

Staffing the park are 3 park rangers, a park superintendent and numerous part-time workers. The full-time staff were all experienced personnel bringing with them knowledge of the Maryland State Park System, Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks, and Fairfax County Park Authority. We were given a free hand in operating the park during its first year in operation. With very little direction our mandate was simply "to operate the park in the way we thought best," and thus to "sink or swim" with the park during its first year in operation.

As staff member most experienced in park interpretation I led the staff in setting up our first "Calendar of Events." We didn't have the leisure to research and develop an interpretive master plan, since we opened in the middle of the busy summer season and were hired only several days before the park opened. In the first few months we concentrated on general nature themes concerning the eastern hardwood forests and wildlife. Interspersed with "nature events" were recreational hikes and activities, and concerts at the 1000 person capacity amphitheatre. At this time we had no knowledge of the park's history other than that a very large house once stood where the information center now stands and an overgrown flower garden was located next to the information center.

In an attempt to find out a little more about the park's past I scheduled on the calendar of events a "Local History Meeting" for a Friday evening. My hope was that local residents would come forward and assist in brainstorming names, events and information of historical significance. My approach was to concentrate on recent history since the "ancient history" wasn't going anywhere and would remain in the historical record for later research as time permitted. I was anxious to begin an oral history program and interview former residents of the property if they could be located. I advertised in the Maryland Gazette, a local newspaper:

"The first organizational meeting of the Downs Park Historical Society will be held Friday September 10, at 7 PM. This group will research and develop a history of Downs Park and the surrounding are of Bodkin Neck. All interested persons are invited to attend. parking fees will be waived for participants in this meeting."

To my surprise 18 persons showed up for the meeting. Many of them were actually former residents of the property. The atmosphere was electric. There were really excited that we were going to try to preserve their little piece of history. We had a very productive meeting. The brainstorming session was particularly fruitful. At the meeting I followed the following agenda:

Agenda for First Meeting

A. Introduction

  1. Introduce self and get others to introduce themselves.
  2. Get name address and phone number of all persons attending, also note historical knowledge

B. Describe the following objectives:

  1. Restore garden to its original beauty.
  2. Develop a written history of the park
  3. Develop a written history of the surrounding community
  4. Develop an inventory of photographs and artifacts
  5. Develop programs and displays based on the history.

C. Describe the following plan of action:

  1. Form the Downs Park Historical Society of staff and volunteers
  2. Form committees for various purposes
  3. Have regular meetings the 2nd Friday of each month
  4. Work toward achieving objectives

D. Describe possible oral history project in cooperation with the Maryland Historical Society

E. Ask for volunteer committee chairpersons and members

  1. Garden committee
  2. Oral History committee
  3. Artifacts committee

F. Brainstorming

  1. Persons, places and events of significance
  2. Sources of artifacts
  3. Open for discussion

At the time that I asked for volunteers for the committees I described each committee's objectives and a plan of action. A description of the committees follows:

Oral History Committee


Get enough information to write a brief history of the park and surrounding community. Gather enough information to develop programs to stimulate an appreciation for park and area cultural history.

Plan of Action:

  1. Identify local persons and families who lived on the property and have knowledge of it.
  2. Interview by tape or written transcript all persons identified.
  3. Obtain copies of photos and artifacts through donation or purchase.

Artifacts Committee


Obtain, record and prepare for display or storage of artifacts and photographs of park related events, persons, scenes and local (Bodkin Neck) events, persons and scenes.

Plan of Action:

  1. Identify sources for artifacts and photographs
  2. Develop procedures for handling donations, purchases of items and loans.
  3. Procure items through donation, purchase or loan.
  4. Develop themes and ideas for displaying items.

Garden Committee


Get enough information to provide restoration crew with guidance for restoration of Garden and for interpretation of history of garden.

Plan of Action:

  1. Gather information on whom to contact
  2. Contact persons for:
    - Interview
    -Walk over existing garden area
    - Draw up maps of garden
    - Information on garden background, development and persons involved in its development

Over the next year the Historical Society blossomed. The committees took on a life of their own. It was an exciting time and we took great steps forward in our knowledge of the recent history of the park. We interviewed persons who lived on the property as long ago as 1887. We collected over 100 photos of the property, several Indian arrowheads were found on the beach, and the restoration crew uncovered brick walkways under 3 inches of soil in the garden area. During this time I have developed a plan of action for the development of our historical interpretive effort. The plan is as follows:




  1. Audio visual
  2. Lecture
  3. Walking tour
  4. Develop Displays




We are at the point now where we have begun to put together some of the information we have gathered. We have developed a display concerning the recent history of the park, walking tours are occasionally conducted and we have begun writing papers on some of the themes we have identified. The garden committee has taken on such importance that a separate organization, the Downs Park Garden Club, has been formed. The garden is scheduled to open in June 1984 and the garden club will be responsible for the maintenance of the garden, relieving our small staff of the burden. A research committee was been formed and will soon begin some of the more academic research in the public record.

Forming a Historical Society is not the usual way to develop an historical interpretive program, but it has been quite successful for us at Downs Park. I offer this information because I am sure it could work in other park situations. In fact, for Downs Park, the Downs Park Historical Society has itself become an interpretive medium. The activities of the Downs Park Historical Society have kept the historical and cultural aspects of the park in the limelight. The garden being a "hands on" project has been a real focus for the group. I would encourage anyone forming a historical society to try to find a similar project to focus attention and bring history to life. The Downs Park Historical Society is bringing history to life in Bodkin Neck.

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