Richland County Park District History
The Richland County Park District was founded under ORC 1545, which authorizes Ohio counties to operate their own parks which are overseen by three trustees who are appointed by the county’s Probate Judge. Ohio has about 61 county park districts, including the well known Cleveland Metroparks, Columbus & Franklin County Metro Parks, and Hamilton County Park District.

Our park district was started in 1965 by an act of Probate Judge Charles Freehafer.  Bob Schraedly served a the district’s first director. The district acquired its first park property in 1975 when, as the story is told, Mr. Schraedly convinced Jim Gorman and his sister, Jean Bate, to donate 20 acres of land on Lexington Ave. Over the next four years they donated about 64 more acres to bring the total to about 84 acres. (In the intervening years, three more parcels have been added with grant money to bring the total to almost 150 acres.)

A committee was formed to decide how to best use the new park land. They decided that Richland County was well supplied with various recreational parks, and that a “nature center” would best serve the county’s park needs thus the creation of Gorman Nature Center.  The Nature Center’s primary purpose has been to provide learning opportunities about our natural world to the citizens of Richland County. 

Steve McKee was hired as the district’s second director in 1978. Mr. McKee’s work at Gorman Nature Center, along with help from assistant director, Merrill Tawse, included installing a trail system; developing various prairie, wetland, and forest habitats; starting a nature education program; overseeing the construction of the center’s first visitor center and picnic facilities; and starting a non-profit “Friends of the Nature Center”. Since 1978 the Nature Center has conducted nature programs and school field trips for close to 500,000 people. Most of those programs, for over three decades, were conducted by Mr. McKee and Mr. Tawse, and were presented to school children, scouts and clubs. In addition, the Center has offered two programs for the general public almost every week since the early 1980’s.  Our public programs have been advertised in our quarterly “Friends of the Nature Center Newsletter” for the past 33 years.

In 1986 we received word that CSX Railroad was going to abandon its rail line in Richland County and that there was new federal legislation enabling the creation of recreational trails on such abandoned rail lines. The Richland County Park District successfully petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for the opportunity to pursue 18.4 miles of rail corridor that would connect Butler, Bellville, Lexington and Mansfield. With the help of the Richland Regional Planning Commission, we were able to secure a rare 100% federal grant that would pay for the acquisition, engineering and construction of the trail. The next nine years saw public hearings and debate, several legal delays, help from then assistant-prosecutor James DeWeese, an accidental bridge demolition by CSX Railroad, a long engineering design process, and finally trail construction. The Richland B&O Bike Trail opened in 1995 and has been very popular ever since.

In 1999 the District pursued the dream of building a state-of-the-art, earth friendly, energy efficient visitor center that could be part of our public education effort. Director McKee raised over $500,000 through the non-profit “Friends” group for the project. We hired architect Marion Zaugg to design the innovative new building, which opened in 2001. At its grand opening, Friends of the Nature Center gave the building to Richland County.