Many cities have a patch of green that cuts through them, softening up the hardscape and giving residents a place to play.
In Lancaster, that’s Central Park, a space that helps connect city residents with the subdivisions and farmland just to the south.
Lancaster County Central Park totals 544 acres and boasts nine hiking trails, ranging in length from one-half to four miles. There also are baseball and soccer fields, tennis courts and even a skate park. The busiest offerings, said Environmental Program Manager Tammy Agesen, are the educational programs.
“We provide kids what they can’t get in the classroom because we’ve got the green space, the habitat and the skilled staff,” she said.
Agesen has a staff of three full-time and 10 part-time naturalists and environmental educators. Their skills range from biology to botany and geology to environmental education. Many have degrees in education, including early childhood and elementary education, so the staff manages different age groups and supports home school, scouting and public school programs.
The Environmental Center, where the staff holds most of its classes, is housed in a 19th-century bank barn. Next door is the Shuts Environmental Library, which holds more than 4,500 books about nature, wildlife, gardening and other topics for children and adults.
The library building dates back to 1769. For years, it held reference material for the environmental staff. Now, it partners with the Lancaster Library System so people can order books online from the main library and pick them up at the Shuts Library.
“One of our most popular programs is edible wild plants and insects, given by Lisa Sanchez,” Agesen said. “Sanchez teaches students how to hunt for the plant or insect, what’s safe to eat and what’s not, how to gather, and, finally, how to cook the plant or insect.”
Day-camp programs are especially popular in the summer, Agesen said. Camps are divided by age groups, ranging from ages 3 to 13. The camps for 3 and 4 year olds are designed for those who aren’t quite ready for an extended amount of time away from their parents.
The park’s Conestoga area is the site of year-round recreational activities. A swimming pool complex, located next to the park office, attracts nearly 30,000 visitors each year. There are three pavilions with views of the Conestoga River, and these areas are equipped with restrooms, play areas and volleyball courts, making them ideal for family picnics. The Conestoga Trail traces a route across the park on its way from northern Lancaster County to the Mason-Dixon trail in York County.
The Garden of Five Senses combines paved walkways with raised herb and flower gardens, scent boxes, reflecting pools and signage to lead visitors through a natural experience.
Agesen said that she especially enjoys teaching a program devoted to natural cleaners and beauty products.
“Students learn how to make natural lip balm, insect repellent and sun screens,” she said. “We put so many chemicals on our face and body that I believe natural products are particularly important.”
Nestled within the park is the Rock Ford Plantation, the 33-acre, 18th-century home of Edward Hand, George Washington’s adjutant general.
Hand was born in Ireland before immigrating to this country, where he became a physician and fought in the Revolutionary War. Following his death in 1802, various absentee landlords rented the land to tenant farmers, and the property gradually fell into disrepair. In the mid-1950s, Rock Ford was identified as a site for a new trash incinerator/landfill and was almost lost. But historical preservationists, led by the Junior League of Lancaster, stepped in to save it at the last minute.
Rock Ford Plantation is considered one of the best examples of Georgian-style architecture in Pennsylvania. The mansion is furnished with period pieces dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including many items that belonged to Hand and his family. The plantation home opened to the public in 1960 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Each year, Rock Ford hosts a number of educational programs for children and adults. For the past three years, it has sponsored a “Sleepy Hollow” play, which complements the time period when the Hands owned the mansion.
Each year, the premier event is a Yuletide program held just after Christmas, said Sam Slaymaker, executive director of the Rock Ford Foundation, the nonprofit that maintains the site.
“Modeled on the Old English 12 days of Christmas, our open house features live music, period dancing, evening candlelight tours and open hearth cooking demonstrations,” he said. “Visitors are given a brochure showing what life would have been like for the Hands during the holidays.”
Lancaster County Central Park is located at 1050 Rockford Rd., Lancaster. For more information, visit www.lancastercountyparks.org or call 717-299-8215.
The Rock Ford Plantation is located at 881 Rockford Rd., Lancaster. For more information, visit www.rockfordplantation.org or call 717-392-7223.