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Discovering Eagle Park

By Karen Flaten

John Peck in front of sign “Eagles are Back,” at Eagle Park in Rockville. Photo by Karen Flaten

When my friends Nikki Rajala and Bill Vossler asked if I wanted to go check out Eagle Park in Rockville, I was excited to find out about a new park in the area. “It has a well-marked trail,” said Nikki. It was an inside joke. The last park we had visited had not had well-marked trails, and we had gotten a little lost, although eventually we had found our way out.

Nikki and Bill had been to Eagle Park before, and pointed out some of the interesting aspects of the park – such as the Demonstration Garden, where several native prairie species had been planted; boulders that local children had named for their shapes; interpretive signs explaining the geology of the area; as well as a handmade bridge over a small stream that drained to the Sauk River. Although there were no eagles there that day, they pointed out the massive eagles’ nest in a tree close to the center of the park.

As we walked along the path, we could see that a portion of the park had recently been burned in order to rejuvenate the prairie grasses and wildflowers. The areas of scorched vegetation contrasted with the huge granite boulders and not-yet-leafed-out oak and hackberry trees, giving the park a surreal, ancient quality, as though we were seeing the earth the way it was before humans walked upon it. And yet…people had added to the landscape, shaped the pathway, and interpreted the geology, adding to our ability to appreciate the beauty of this small park.

I was overwhelmed by the stark beauty of this landscape, and wanted to know more about it. The City of Rockville directed me to John and Linda Peck for answers to my questions. The Pecks are well-known in Rockville for their emphasis on ecology and wildlife, as well as their focus on preserving the land. They had also donated almost 200 acres of their own land for another park, the Rockville County Park, which is located across County Road 139 from Eagle Park.

Both John and Linda met me at the park to show me around, filling me in on the process, the planning and the hard work that went into creating this jewel of a park. And both John and Linda emphasized repeatedly that Eagle Park was created by volunteers, and is being cared for by volunteers.

Donations were also very important in the creation of this small city park in Rockville. “The purple martin house,” said Linda, “was a donation – of $600!” The granite chips for the path were a donation, as well. A bike rack sits near the beginning of the path – that was a donation also. There are several benches made of large “corestones,” which have had a wedge cut out so that their open edge is a seating area. Those were donated as well. Often the name of the group or person who donated the bench is chiseled into it; sometimes it is donated “in memory of” a person. These granite benches, situated along the trail, provide a welcome spot to sit as we walked the path, and are so similar to the boulders in the park that they might have been there for centuries as well.

John and Linda pointed out the beautiful sign that illustrated the plants in the Demonstration Garden, as well as one interpreting the geological formation of the area, created by the St. Cloud State Geology Department. They pointed out that the eagles’ nest could be seen from anywhere on the trail. This was on purpose, said Linda. “We want people to see the nest, but be far enough away that they don’t disturb the bald eagles.”

The Eagle Park sign, made in granite, was donated by Daryl & Rosie Steil. Photo by Karen Flaten

“Look how the path curves,” continued Linda. “We had a trail expert come in. They told us your paths shouldn’t be in straight lines. You want them to curve, you want there to be a surprise when you get to the curve - about where the path will take you next,” said Linda. “See how it goes between the boulders?” she asked. “That’s to pique people’s interest.” I looked ahead and the path did exactly what she said – it made me wonder where it went next, made me want to find out what was up ahead.

Linda and John continued, pointing out interesting plants and birds – “That’s a warbler,” said Linda, “see that?” And, “They must be nesting in these thickets, there’s so many of them!” she exclaimed. We stopped occasionally as John or Linda pulled a dandelion from the path, or made a note of something they wanted to remember to do: “We have to get the signs out by the Demonstration Garden!” said John. Every year, the perennial plants come up in a slightly different spot. John and Linda have signs denoting which plant is which, and they try to put them out when the plant is blooming so visitors will be able to identify the plants.

The area that eventually became Eagle Park started out as farmland when Europeans settled the area. It was used to graze cattle and sheep for many years. In the mid-1980s, when the City of Rockville was looking for a place for a wastewater treatment plant, it purchased the 60 acres along the Sauk River, expecting to utilize it for a new sewage system. While they waited for the plans to take shape, the city continued to rent it out for pasture.

But the Army Corps of Engineers concluded that the acreage bordering the Sauk River was not a good location for a wastewater treatment plant, due to it being in a floodplain. The area was also of significant geological and ecological importance. The city had to look for another site to use for their sewage system, leaving the land near the river to be used for other things. And so the land was kept in pasture while the city considered its options.

In 1996, Ryan Steil, looking for a project to use as his Eagle Scout project, proposed building a fishing pier on the Sauk River. The project was approved, and Ryan did all the fundraising and planning for the pier, achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. (The Eagle Scout project focused on planning and fundraising; the actual work of building the pier was done by a local group called the Telephone Pioneers.) Several other Boy Scouts found ways to utilize the area by the Sauk River for their Eagle Scout projects, but it was Ryan Steil who came up with the name “Eagle Park,” which credited the many Eagle Scouts in the area and the projects they had completed in or near the park. Recently, River Bellmont also earned the rank of Eagle Scout by planning and installing bat houses in the park.

In an interesting coincidence, not too long after the Fishing Pier was finished, and the Eagle Park name became attached to the acreage by the river, a pair of bald eagles built their nest in the middle of the boulder-strewn grazing land. “It was a case of ‘you build it and they’ll come!’” said Daryl Steil, whose son Ryan gets the credit for naming the park. The eagles chose a tall hackberry tree, and constructed their huge nest of sticks quite near the top. As the park was planned, the path was designed to create a wide arc around the hackberry tree so that the nest could be seen from most locations on the trail, but visitors would be far enough away to not disturb the eagles.

Around that time in Rockville, the Parks and Recreation Department added a Nature Park and Trails Advisory Group, made up of several Rockville area residents who wanted to be involved in planning the city’s parks. The group discussed their vision for the future of the Rockville area, and made recommendations to the Parks and Recreation Department. John and Linda Peck, Daryl and Rosie Steil, Mary Ann “Tudie” Hermanutz, Michele Monson, Tim Gross, Paul Wirth, Lori Andersen and others were part of this group.

This bald eagle nest is located in the center of Eagle Park. Photo by Karen Flaten

By 2005, a field inventory had been done, documenting the existing plants in the site. Soon there was a Management Plan for the parcel of land. The city decided to move ahead with the plan to create a park on the site. The Nature Park and Trails Advisory Group began to seek involvement from other community groups, such as the Lions Club, the Sportsman’s Club and other neighbors and friends.

Duane Willenbring, the current mayor of Rockville - and one of two charter members of the Rockville Lions Club - remembers that John Peck approached the Lions Club to see if they would be able to help out. According to Duane, Vince Schaefer, the mayor of Rockville at the time, had a daughter who worked at Bauerly Brothers, and was able to negotiate “a heckuva deal” on granite chips to use for the path in the park. Duane, being the owner of Willenbring Construction (currently retired), offered the use of his skid steer loaders and other equipment to help spread the granite chips. Duane recalls walking through the park with John and Linda Peck, putting out markers to show where the path would go. Then Duane and other volunteers spent a couple weekends working on laying the path. He remembers that they used a Harley Rake to stir up the dirt and get rid of the vegetation and a plate tamper to tamp down the trail. Then they put down landscape fabric, which keeps the weeds down but allows rain water to flow through it; then five and a half inches of chipped granite. They also brought a generator and built a small bridge over the boggy area on site. Duane recalled that Joe Molitor, who pastures cattle in the back portion of the park (beyond the fence), created the Crazy Gate, a gate designed to allow people to enter, but to keep cattle out.

All that work a few years back has paid off, as Duane points out. The park now is “virtually maintenance free.” Well – it still needs mowing alongside the path, and thistles still need to be sprayed every year, but it was done so well to start out that these are not gigantic tasks, just ongoing or occasional maintenance. Duane would like to give accolades to the people who have done so much to keep the park going, such as Tim Gross, who does the mowing, and Don Eikmeier, who sprays for thistles – not to mention John and Linda Peck. “I’d like to give out plaques,” said Duane, “maybe they would be for Random Acts of Kindness.”

Duane mused that the amazing outpouring of help from volunteers in and around Rockville to create this beautiful park has shown “how unique it can be if you’re all pulling in the same direction.”

But many of the people who have done the most work on the park seem to want to deflect the accolades that Duane would send their way.

“I only have one little niche in that place,” said Don Eikmeier. “I spend the summer taking care of that niche!” Don is the one who sprays for thistles, walking through the park with a backpack sprayer, trying to spray only the thistles and not damage any other vegetation. “But I’m not the only one who kills thistles,” he said modestly. “Daryl and Rosie Steil pull thistles also.”

Tim Gross acknowledges that he and others have done a lot of work to bring the park up to where it is now, but he said, “The Pecks were really the ones behind it – they got the prairie flowers and grasses and coordinated the (yearly) burns.” As Daryl Steil put it, “We helped with it, but they (John and Linda Peck) were the brains of it.”

Don Eikmeier remembers the early days of the park, when he worked with others to take out fences and do other miscellaneous chores. “I was down there with my hay mower, mowing – to get a handle on it – because it was pretty wild. Then we could actually see what we’ve got,” said Don. “Then we could get the good grasses going and get rid of the weeds,” he added. “All that was done under John and Linda’s direction,” said Don. But John Peck deferred to his wife when talking about the beginnings of the park. “It was really Linda’s brainchild,” he said.

Sharing stories about some interesting things he has seen while working in the park, Don Eikmeier recalled, “One time when I was spraying thistles, I looked up. One of the bald eagles was staring down at me… the hair stood up on my neck! I was in his territory!” Another time when Don was spraying, “I was just two feet away from a wild turkey that jumped up in front of me. She was incubating her eggs, so she was remaining very motionless.” That time, local historian and author of Rockville, Minnesota: Do you remember?, Mary Ann “Tudie” Hermanutz, was in the park with some children she was taking care of, so Don showed Tudie and the kids. “Then we all decided to stay away from them,” said Don. “Although – well, I expect the kids may have gone back a few times,” he added.

Tudie Hermanutz remembered the excitement of that day as well. She said she often brings out of town visitors to Eagle Park, but there was a time when she was there quite often with children. “My neighbor used to have a daycare, and I used to help out, taking the kids to the park,” recalled Tudie Hermanutz. “One time there was this 5-year old child who kept asking, ‘Where’s the park?’ ‘Where’s the park?’ Even when we got there, he asked, ‘Where’s the park?’ I suppose he thought it would have a playground and swings and so on,” said Tudie. But mostly, she said, kids loved going to the park because there were huge rocks to climb on. “The Dinosaur Rock was one of them… And one looks like it is a whale,” said Tudie.

Don Eikmeier, who grew up close to what is now Eagle Park, said he used to go down and play there as a kid. “I was friends with the Nieters boy, and we used to play there together. We played ‘rock tag’ there as kids!”

John and Linda Peck sit on the granite bench, “Remembering Don Merten” at Eagle Park on Rockville. Photo by Karen Flaten

Tim Gross, whose land adjoins Eagle Park, runs the granite quarries in Rockville. He remembers participating in the Nature Park and Trails Advisory Group along with the Pecks, the Steils, Tudie Hermanutz and others. As he thought about how he could contribute, Tim came up with an idea for creating granite benches for the park. He asked his boss how to go about it, and found that he was able to get the large granite stones for cost – as long as he had them cut on his own and paid for transporting them. So Tim figured out how to have them cut so that a wedge was cut out of the rock, making a bench with a back. He had the cut portions polished and worked out the transportation as well (the trucking company donated the cost when they found out it was for a city park), Donations paid for each rock to be cut and engraved. Tim was able to use the quarry’s forklift to deliver each finished rock bench to its place along the trail. Those gorgeous rocks are now used for seating all along the trail. Their design blends in with the park’s boulders, so they look as though they were always part of the landscape. One of the first of the benches to be brought to the park was dedicated to Don Merten, who had been part of the Rockville Parks and Recreation Department, and had been quite supportive of the development of Eagle Park.

When Tim heard someone say, “It’s not a park without a picnic table,” he made the granite picnic table and bench located near the parking lot and donated it to the park on behalf of his family. Located near flowering fruit trees, the picnic table is a beautiful addition to the grassy area.

Although the City of Rockville currently manages the dock at the Sauk River, takes care of trash removal and pays for the porta-potty located near the parking lot, much of the maintenance at Eagle Park is still done by volunteers. John Peck mentioned a few more names: Andy Driver, a retired dentist, sprays weeds in the path and Gary Gillitzer does weedwacking as needed. He pointed to the wide trail leading to the fishing pier. “That handicapped-accessible trail was also a Lions Club project,” said John. Another granite bench, this time of the more garden-variety polished granite style, is located near the accessible trail; another donation. John gave me a hand-written list of volunteer activities and donations, as well as a brochure (compiled by Tudie Hermanutz and Michele Monson) that sketches out some of the historical background of the park. On the back is a photo of perhaps a dozen volunteers working to create this beautiful park. “Eagle Park – What can I do?” is the heading. Anyone interested in volunteering for future projects is asked to call the Rockville City Hall at 320-251-5836. But visitors are also encouraged to “Walk the trail, enjoy the rocks, take some pictures…” Perhaps you will also find yourself overwhelmed by the unique beauty of this landscape.

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