When Ray Novotny was a little boy, he spent summer days walking from his grandmother's house to the Old Mill Museum in Mill Creek Park to look at its "millions of displays."
"I started hanging around the park because I met the naturalist, Bill Whitehouse," said Novotny, now a naturalist himself with the park. As a boy, he spent hours looking at the exhibits, examining the mounted mammals and birds, and listening to stories about Mill Creek's history.
Now, Novotny will be preserving those stories and the park's history as part of an Ohio Bicentennial project. The plan is to gather oral histories from previous park employees and visitors. With the help of Dr. Donna DeBlasio, a professor with Youngstown State University's Department of History, and student volunteers, the audiotaped reminiscences will be archived and made accessible through the Maag library.
The project is right up Novotny's alley. Since childhood, he has been enthralled by oral history. He has recorded relatives' reminiscences and even recorded histories concentrating on the Old Mill Museum for his master's thesis.
"The point of an oral history is to capture the history that escapes," Novotny said. "Day-to-day activities don't get recorded as much."
For example, Novotny noted that certain park names that vanished from use may not be recorded anywhere but in someone's memory. "The wall garden near Lake Glacier was called the Blue Cut because of the color of the clay there. Now, that's hidden by the flowers and no one uses that name," he said.
"And there was, in Lower Bears Den, a creek that you had to drive through. Because of that, it was called Wheel Wash Drive."
Even the trees, Novotny has found in gathering memories, had names: The King and Queen Hemlock were among the oldest and biggest.
One story Novotny particularly enjoyed, he heard from Albert E. Davies, then retired and 80 years old. Davies had been park superintendent from 1938 to 1967. Davies worked in the park as a boy as well.
In those days, Lake Glacier had beaches on either side of the lake. Sand was trucked in, according to Novotny. One day, Davies was working on one beach and his supervisor was on the other. An old man, wearing rumpled clothing and carrying an umbrella, approached Davies and requested that the boy row him across to the other side.
Davies wasn't sure about honoring the request so he shouted across to his supervisor for approval. Then he hopped into a boat and started rowing.
"Well," said Novotny, "it turned out the guy was Volney Rogers, the park's founder."
Such stories put a broad smile on Novotny's face, and the thought of losing them is not entertainable.
"I have a target list of people who worked at the park. Some of the people I'd like to talk to go way back. About 12 to 15 are high priority," he said.
If things go well, the list will be expanded. One hope is that several opportunities to give histories will be made open to the public during the summer.
And Novotny is also hopeful that individuals will call him at the Ford Nature Museum if they have reminiscences to be recorded.
While Ohio is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, Mill Creek is no newcomer either. On April 6, it will be 112, the first and oldest park district in the state, according to Novotny.
"You can work so many places as a naturalist," Novotny said, "but Mill Creek Park is just so special. I've done so much traveling, but I wanted to work in my home park."
For information on how you might contribute to the Mill Creek Park oral history project, call Novotny at (330) 740-7107.