They play. That’s what children do.
And soon after the creation of the Wheeling Park Commission the commissioners recognized that not all families could afford the charges and fees levied on patrons to ensure the park system was, for the most part, a self-sustaining operation.
So they decided to give it away for free during the past 65 years.
“The Oglebay Activities Committee was created in 1927, and the gist of it was to get as many citizens of Wheeling up here to enjoy the grounds,” explained John Hargleroad, the operations manager for the Wheeling Park Commission. “And then it was in 1950 when the Oglebay Children’s Association was created with a concentration on the county’s children.
“It was once a separate 501-c-3 organization initially, but then 10 years ago it was all transferred to the Oglebay Foundation,” he continued. “At that time the trolley was purchased, and that’s when it started traveling to several different neighborhoods in Wheeling to pick up any and all children who wanted to come to the park and enjoy everything for free. Before the trolley, we used as many school buses as we needed.”
Boating, fishing, swimming, visiting the Good Zoo to take advantage of everything it has to offer, and tennis and golf are all activities that are offered free of charge to children and non-profit organizations that do not possess the means to afford the park visits. Both Oglebay and Wheeling Park are visited daily based on a schedule set forth by Hargleroad.
The first visits began soon after Ohio County Schools closed their classrooms for summer vacation in early June, and the trolley retrieves the children from Wheeling Island, East Wheeling, Clator, Woodsdale, Greggsville, Mozart, South Wheeling, Warwood, Center Wheeling, Dimmeydale, Elm Grove, and Clator. After completing a short application, parents only need to provide their child’s lunch, tennis shoes and recreational attire, and swimming suits and towels.
Hargleroad has worked with Ohio County School officials as well as state Department of Health and Human Resources employees to extend the park system’s reach to as many families as possible. For this summer’s access program, Hargleroad and his staff mailed nearly 3,000 applications to local parents.
“We understand that approximately 40 percent of the kids in Ohio County can qualify for this program, so we want to reach as many of them as we possibly can,” Hargleroad said. “That percentage fluctuates in some sections more than others, and anyone who gets missed should not be afraid to contact us because that’s why the program exists.
“There are a lot of people in the middle financially, and we understand that, too, and if that’s their situation, all they have to do is tell us,” he said. “And we also allow the parent or the guardian to come in for free with every park access participant. The program offers different activities depending on the time of year.”
The offer, Hargleroad explained, has always included non-profit groups that work directly with the county’s youth, including the Augusta Levy Learning Center, Young Life, Youth Services System, the House of Carpenter, and Florence Crittenton Services, among many others.
“For many years we have received letters from various groups in the community concerning access, and if those organizations were not able to pay for the activities, then those activities were made available for free,” Hargleroad confirmed. “Even to this day if they ask even though they cannot pay for it, then it’s free.
“There are limits, of course, but for the most part the park and everything in it are handed over to those organizations,” he said. “The goal is to make sure as many people as possible can have access to Oglebay. That’s always been the case, and it always will be.”
The access program has become very popular with those in Ohio County, too, with some parents transporting their children outside of their neighborhoods so their kids can enjoy the park system more than one or two days per week.
“On paper we are visiting different areas of Wheeling each day, but in reality some parents take their children to other areas so that they can come to the park more than just one day per week,” Hargleroad said. “And that’s OK. Not too many people do that, and the kids have a great time here at the park.
“We try to give them a little taste of Oglebay each day and their chance to enjoy a lot of activities that otherwise they wouldn’t get to experience,” he said. “There are some days when we only have 10-12 kids, but on other days there have been as many as 30-40. It does depend on the weather, and it depends on what else is going on.”
The number of participating children has decreased over the years, Hargleroad said, but that was an expected result of the region’s population decline since the 1940s.
“The youth population of Wheeling was a far greater number at the time we started this program than what it is today,” Hargleroad said. “From the time the Good Zoo opened in 1977 to the time when the decision was made to close the day camp in 1991, the student population was cut in half by the city’s population decline.
“Since 1991 to today, that population has decreased even more so we have seen those numbers decrease, but that hasn’t stopped the park’s efforts to make the facilities and activities as accessible as possible to all of the area’s children,” he continued. “The city provides the counselors for the park access program, and the park commission provides the trolley operators and all other expenses incurred by the program.”
No matter if the enrollment decreases, the access program remains a priority to the current members of the Wheeling Park Commission and to Hargleroad. The commissioners today are chairman Wilbur Jones, vice chair Sue Seibert Farnsworth, secretary-treasurer G. Ogden Nutting, Dr. Donald Hofreuter, Joan C. Stamp, and Oglebay President/CEO J.C. Douglas Dalby.
“From the very origin of Wheeling Park in 1925, we have had fees and charges because it was a priority for the park to be self-sustaining, but it was also very important from the beginning that the parks were as accessible to as many as possible,” Hargleroad explained. “They knew then that there were kids who would not have had access to the park because of those fees and charges, and they wanted to make sure that access was there for them, too.
“In 1999, we piloted a program called, ‘Access to the Parks,’ and thanks to the generosity of individuals we now receive contributions from trusts that supply funds to us so the access program can continue to operate,” he said. “The Vaden Trust was set up many years ago, and we are still able to use those funds. We are also able to make available job opportunities via that trust, as well.”
The access program also involves instruction thanks to generosity, too, and that allows many children to learn how to skate or ski or to play hockey.
“I have never heard of another park system that has anything close to this program,” Hargleroad said. “We make it as affordable as we can and provide our facilities at very reasonable rates to make sure we remain self-sustaining. But without the support that we do receive from our patrons and benefactors we wouldn’t have the world’s best park system.
“We may look like a million bucks to people who visit the parks, but trust me, it’s a scramble every day,” he said. “But we make it work for the people of the community and for the people from outside this area that come visit us throughout the year.”
In the beginning of the park system, the mission to operate as a self-sustaining entity was most unique across the country, Hargleroad explained, and while it has become more popular through the years, the priority has remained in place during his 40-year career with Oglebay Park. Hargleroad added that he believes most local citizens are unaware of the amount of subsidies received from city government.
“We have to earn the money that we spend because of the way the park system has been set up,” he said. “The city of Wheeling gives us $350,000 per year, but we have a $32 million operating budget, so that translates to about a 1 percent contribution to the operation of the Wheeling Park Commission and two parks.
“What most people do not know is that we have about 30 parks or areas to maintain through the Wheeling Park Commission and those include areas like Market Plaza in downtown Wheeling, the landscaped areas near Bob Evans and Perkins, and several others,” he said. “And we also pay the hotel/motel taxes and all of the other bills that we incur, so we pay back to the city at least twice in terms of what they contribute.”
It’s about the kids, Hargleroad insisted, and it’s about the park system operating as a community asset to which all local residents should have access.
“Through the years we have had day camps and sports camps, and now we have camps for kids who want to concentrate on things like tennis and horseback riding or what takes place inside the Good Zoo,” he said. “And this park access program is just as important as anything else we do to make sure every single child in Ohio County has a chance to visit the parks.
“You can ask anyone who was raised in Wheeling or Ohio County, and they are going to have some great memories of some of the things they did while visiting these two parks, and we want that to continue,” Hargleroad added. “And we realize we still may not be reaching everyone so if there are parents out there who would like to take part in our access program, all they have to do is call us.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)