5 Star Stories: Shelby Farms Park, a 4,500-acre Mid-South crown jewel

5 Star Stories: The heart of Shelby Farms Park

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby Farms Park is one of the 20 largest urban parks in the U.S. and if you haven’t at least tried to explore any of its 4,500 acres – you’re missing out! And making it worthy of our 5 Star Story treatment.

It’s a vast oasis in East Memphis in the middle of Shelby County, more than five times the size of Central Park in New York City -- filled with lakes, forests and wetlands -- a natural and beautiful environment for the small creatures that live here and a quick escape from the bustle of the city.

But, it wasn’t always this lush parkland. In 1825, before the park was even an idea, Francis Wright -- a feminist and slavery opponent -- founded the Nashoba Commune on 670 acres of what’s now the park’s eastern tip. It was supposed to be a multi-racial collective where former slaves could prepare for their freedom.

More than one hundred years later, freedom was replaced by imprisonment when Shelby County took title of the land.

"The land that’s here today originally functioned as a working prison farm for the Shelby County Penitentiary,” said Rebecca Dailey with the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

When the Penal Farm shut down in 1964, there was talk of selling parcels of land for development. But, nothing ever materialized mainly due to strong grassroots opposition.

“The land became open for public use but it wasn’t protected in any way," said Dailey. "And it wasn’t until 2007 that Shelby Farms Park Conservancy was formed as a non-profit organization that could manage the property on behalf of the citizens of Shelby County. It’s incredibly special and a miracle that the land wasn’t sold off for profit during those decades where the land wasn’t protected.”

The 4,500 acres of land is now part of a conservation easement that legally protects it as parkland. And today, it’s filled with 20 bodies of water for fishing, paddle boating or boarding, and kayaking with 40 miles of trails and part of the Greenline that spans from Midtown Memphis to Cordova.

“Most trails within the park are shared use," said Dailey. “So you can ride your bike, you can hike, you can run and on some of the trails you can even bring a horse.”

The park has its own team of horses for rent — just be sure to call ahead — or you can bring your own.

And Dailey adds that there’s plenty of room for your smaller 4-legged companions to roam, too, with more than 100 acres dedicated to off-leash fun for dogs.

If tossing or kicking around a ball is more your speed or having a picnic there are lots of spots for that. There are even some quiet spots for studying, meditating or just taking a breather from city life.

But, like so many other places throughout the Mid-South and the rest of the country, the coronavirus pandemic temporarily changed the way the park does business.

Some of its favorite amenities are closed like the Woodlands Discovery playground which was designed by and for Memphis children because of the many shared surfaces.

But Dailey muses, that, “...while park life does look different and has looked different for the past few months, we’ve seen more visitors than ever for this time of year. The park is an incredible resource for community health and wellness. It’s a space for you to get moving, it’s a space for you to come and clear your mind. And it was important to our team to be able to keep this resource open for those in our community who need to access it.”

One thing COVID-19 hasn’t affected is the bison herd at Shelby Farms Park which has been there since the 1980s.

“Right now there are about 20 buffalo in our herd. We had five babies born this spring. And we are excited to welcome them. They are thriving and the herd roams around on an approximately 50-acre range where they have plenty of sun, plenty of shade and just lots of room to roam around.”

And, while you cannot “roam with the buffalo," you can check them out from behind their fence.

The treetop adventure course with zip lines reopened two Saturdays ago. But, because of the coronavirus, rentals of bikes, canoes, paddle boats and boards -- should be ready for business soon, if not already. And, two restaurants are open for a nice sit-down dinner and view of Hyde Lake, or a quick grab and go sandwich.

And, if you’d like to help Shelby Farms Park recoup some of its losses, you’re invited to send your donation to shelbyfarmspark.org/give-now.

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