WESTERLY — The jewel of downtown Westerly is sparkling anew. Wilcox Park, the 15-acre Victorian strolling park with a bounty of champion trees, is being spruced up by volunteers from the University of Rhode Island’s Master Gardener Program, and is being highlighted by an award- winning landscape historian.
“We’re upping our game,” said Daniel Snydacker, who is serving as the library’s interim director during Executive Director Brigitte Hopkins’ maternity leave. Snydacker explained that a renewed effort is underway to remind the public that the Westerly Library is connected with Wilcox Park.
Wilcox Park, which is owned and maintained by the Memorial and Library Association of Westerly, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973 and was cited as a Medallion Park by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The land was donated by Harriet Wilcox in memory of her husband, Stephen Wilcox, who was the moving force behind the building of the library, in 1898.
“So many people think the park is a town park or a public park, but the library and the park are one and the same,” Snydacker said.
“We’re reinvigorating our programs and services so we continue to serve the community in the best ways we can,” he continued. The library will host a program at 7:30 p.m. Friday with landscape historian and architect Martha Lyon for a presentation on Warren Manning, the landscape architect who created the original design for Wilcox Park.
Snydacker said that Manning, who worked briefly with Frederick Law Olmsted, “is one of America’s most important landscape architects.”
In addition to Wilcox Park, he said, Manning designed at least seven other projects in Westerly and Watch Hill.
On Saturday, at 10:30 a.m., Lyon and Park Superintendent Alan Peck will lead a guided tour through the park highlighting the design and assortment of trees that make Wilcox park “one of the finest urban parks in New England.”
The master gardeners’ presence in the park is part of a larger three-part project, according to Peck, who called working with the gardeners “a win-win situation.”
Master gardener Corliss Merkel of Westerly, who worked with Peck on developing the project, said part of the first phase involves the placement of an information kiosk in the park. Gardeners with questions about their soil, plants and trees will now be able to ask questions of a master gardener beginning this Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon, and continuing on several Saturdays through the fall.
“The master gardeners already have kiosks in other parts of the state so we’re very excited to have a presence in the Westerly area,” said Merkel, calling the park “the jewel of Westerly.”
Peck said that soon the master gardeners will begin docent-led tours as part of the joint project, which also includes the renovation and maintenance of the park’s four native plant demonstration gardens and the renovation, expansion and maintenance of the rain garden.
Peck said the tours will include stops at all the gardens in the park as well as to the park’s monuments, memorials, eight champion trees and seven runner-up champion trees.
“Wilcox Park has a bounty of trees and an awful lot of diversity,” said John Campanini, the technical adviser for the Rhode Island Tree Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the state’s tree resources. “Some are quite spectacular.”
Campanini, who said that a champion tree is defined as the biggest tree of its kind in the state, called the park’s 98-foot sycamore maple “really quite exceptional.”
Peck said, “For 15 acres, we have an incredible collection of trees. Eight champions and a half a dozen runners-up.”
In Manning’s original design, an open meadow was to be at the center, with “a few fine trees, each situated as to be absolutely unrestricted in their growth and thus becoming the dominant feature in the landscape.”
Peck said that Wilcox Park was Manning’s first work in his solo career.
Vanessa Venturini, state coordinator for URI’s master gardener program, said the partnership with Peck and Wilcox Park was an exciting opportunity to educate the public and to offer area master gardeners — who come from the greater Westerly area and nearby Connecticut towns — the chance to volunteer for credit, one of the requirements of membership. The joint effort is the first time the master gardeners will have a presence in the Westerly area.
Peck said that volunteerism in the park has always been strong, and that the URI master gardeners will work alongside the existing volunteer staff, including volunteers from Save the Bay, who were instrumental in planting the rain garden last year.
Merkel said the information kiosk will be in Wilcox Park on the second Saturday of each month (July 12, Aug. 9, Sept. 13 and Oct. 11) and travel to the Westerly Farmers Market on the third Thursday of the month (July 17, Aug. 21, Sept.18 and Oct. 16), from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and to the Weekapaug Farmers Market on July 25 and Aug. 22 from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Peck, who said that new park signage is also in the works, praised the Town of Westerly for its ongoing collaboration with the park.
“I’ve had expert assistance from Town Planner Marilyn Sheldon,” he said. “In return I keep my eyes on the trees around town.”
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