Mar 02, 2012 Neil Benjamin Jr. Uncategorized
Think of the Erie Canal in the way we often think of Interstate-90. It stretches from one end of New York state to the other and allowed for, at the time, an easy transport of people and goods.
When it was first concocted back in the early part of the 19th century, it quickly became one of the most innovative things in the country. The then 363-mile long canal — now a 524-mile connection of waterways — was the first all-aquatic link between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean, chosen as a path of least resistance. Of the many stops along the way, one local spot has persevered and grown into a tourist and historian attraction.
“[The village of Camillus] was, at the time, a very industrious place,” park co-director Liz Beebe said. “We were known for our good wheat crops.”
This spring, the Camillus Erie Canal Park will be over the hill.
The park, which will turn 40 years old, will be holding a private ceremony on March 10 to show appreciation for the volunteers and members who help preserve the park.
Liz and Dave Beebe, a retired couple residing in central New York for the majority of their lives, have basically devoted everything to the Camillus Erie Canal Park for said 40 years. With no experience in the canal system, the two dove in head first, taking responsibility for the then 164-acre property upon approval from the town office. The couple said approximately 207,000 people visited the park in 2011.
“We accepted the responsibility,” Dave said with a sheepish grin. “After that, we just had to find out where the canal was!”
That sense of humor, along with unmatched devotion to the canal, has allowed the pair to oversee the park’s growth into a 400-acre parcel of water and beauty, burgeoning with scenic trails, camping and even guided water tours on boats built through raised funds.
Liz is a retired school teacher, while Dave used to have his own dental practice. Liz joked that Dave used to line up volunteers by not allowing patients out of the exam chair without considering helping out the canal in some way. Their inclination to the outdoors was perpetuated by years of spending time camping outdoors.
“When we did it, we’d just set up shop and camp,” Liz said. “Now I think it’s funny to see what people bring on camping trips. Thoughts about camping are much different now.”
When the Camillus Canal Society started in 1972, Liz said there were a “handful” of volunteers. Today, though, there are 166 people who devote their time to helping preserve what Liz says is one of the area’s most beautiful places. At 4:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Camillus Senior Citizen Center, those volunteers will be honored with a ceremony and a member appreciation dinner. A bluegrass band from Camillus, named Midnight Legion, will provide a bulk of the entertainment. There is also a slideshow the Beebe’s put together, one they describe as “zany,” that features many of the fun moments had over the last year.
Liz, though, has put much of the emphasis of the park on education. She said many students each year take a field trip to the park and explore history.
“Education has always been one of our missions, a big one,” she said. “We try to preserve canal artifacts and show the kids all about it.”
The pair often give talks and presentations on the entire canal system, which is a bit ironic seeing as how neither knew anything about the Erie Canal in 1972.
“We had to learn the entire picture if we were going to teach others about [the canal],” said Dave.
That passion for education has parlayed into the Sims’ Store Museum, located right on the canal. To go inside is to take a fast trip back in time; there are artifacts, displays, posters, pictures and paintings among a full array of the history of the canal itself, and the place Camillus holds in it. There’s a gift shop and a few exhibits, but you can also take a Narrated Boat Tour of the canal on one of the four boats that reside there. The boats were built by volunteers.
“It saved a lot of money doing it that way,” Dave said. “And it truly adds to the lure of this place. We really have fun doing the tours.”
Sitting down with the couple was just like taking a narrated trip down their own memory lane.
“When we started this, we barely had a five-year plan for what we were going to do,” Dave said. “We did studies, then we got a lot accomplished. To keep it going all these years, we’ve had to re-envision a lot of our goals. We love community input on where this will be in the future.”
Another lure of the park is the aqueduct, one of 32 original ones along the canal. It has since received a face lift, and Liz said the fact it’s the only one to be restored makes it “a big deal.” The aqueduct is connected to Nine-Mile Creek.
“There is so much variety here,” Liz added.
All the money used to fix up and improve the park comes from grants and donations. The pontoon boat used for tours was funded by a $25,000 grant from Senator John DeFrancisco, and a $6,000 donation for the boat’s engine.
And apparently the slow-moving economy hasn’t affected the park on one level, as the town still gives the park a small amount of money from its budget to help keep up with maintenance.
The Beebes put in this time and effort because the Camillus Erie Canal Park is somewhat of a child of theirs, and they certainly enjoy the responsibility that comes with it.
“It’s very gratifying to do this,” Liz said. “We love it.”
The couple said they have no intention right now of turning over any of the work to anyone, but acknowledge that one day someone will have to take the responsibility for it.
“We want it in good hands,” Dave said. “We have so many great volunteers that I know when that day comes, we will be comfortable with the decision.”
Neil Benjamin Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.