Until he produced a rod and reel.
“I thought, `This guy’s wacko!’ when he was asking me about fishing,” said Roe, a park patrol volunteer at Minto-Brown Island Park for the past eight years. “But no, he was in his suit, and his dress shoes, and he went right down there and started fishing.
“I never figured out if he was just on his lunch hour, or if that was his regular fishing outfit.”
It’s this blend of the urban and the pastoral that captures the unique essence of Minto-Brown Island Park, a bucolic farmland and natural habitat nestled within the limits of the state capital.
For Tibby Larson, volunteer coordinator with the city of Salem Parks Operations Division, the park is a rare treasure for Salem residents, an opportunity to enjoy the solitude and joy of nature right outside their doorstep.
“It’s amazing we have such a large area for citizens to use,” she said.
To some degree, the park has defied the odds. Unlike the rest of the Salem area, what was once known as Minto and Brown Islands managed to escape much of the land development that accompanied the rush of American westward expansion in the mid-1800s.
According to Marion County Historical Society archives, prior to settlers, Kalapuya natives lived on the land, roaming the Willamette Valley to hunt, fish and gather camas bulbs. By 1855, decimated by diseases such as smallpox, influenza and measles, the Kalapuya were relocated by the U.S. government to the Grande Ronde Reservation.
Recurring Willamette River floods helped preserve most of the area as green space, rendering the land unsuitable for building. In 1861, a particularly massive flood redirected the river to its present course, in the process connecting both islands to each other and to shore, leaving them islands in name only.
Two settlers eventually staked their claims on the drenched land. In 1857, according to park visitor information, Isaac “Whiskey” Brown traveled from Astoria along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers to establish his home there. Described as an “untidy” farmer, he raised livestock, produce and tobacco.
Ten years later, John Minto, a Salem pioneer who served four terms in the Oregon Legislature and organized the first Oregon State Fair, bought 247 acres from D. W. Craig, who had lost money in a failed newspaper enterprise, according to documents from the Marion County Historical Society. Minto cleared the brush and flood debris to raise hops, hay, and roughly 100 head of sheep. In 1910, Minto sold his ranch to his sons. Ten years later, son Douglas C. consolidated ownership, buying out brothers John W. and Harry. Around that time a six-acre filbert orchard was added. During World War II, the farm grew green beans, sweet corn and tomatoes.
In 1970, the city along with Marion County utilized government grants and private funds in order to purchase 308 acres of the land. More land was acquired in the following years, bringing the park to nearly 900 acres today, managed jointly by the city and county.
Farming remains a large part of Minto-Brown Island Park. Currently the city has a land-use permit with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which contracts with private farmers to plant crops like corn, beans, potatoes, and wheat and seed crops.
In addition, according to Larson, the park routinely hosts educational tours with schools, as well as Cub and Eagle Scouts. Also, visitors can come to the park to bicycle, rollerblade, canoe, jog or hike, she said.
“But the rest of it is all natural,” she said.
The City Parks and Recreation 2008 Comprehensive Master Plan is currently being developed for presentation to city council. According to community input solicited so far, city residents have expressed a huge interest in maintaining green space, said Sally McIntyre of the Eugene office of Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc., the consulting firm hired to assist with public input and preparation of the plan. With a park like Minto-Brown, Salem is ahead of the trend, she said.
“More and more cities are acquiring natural areas,” she said. “Salem is extremely fortunate.”
Early in the park’s history, planners recognized the value to the city of the park’s solitary, natural experience. In a 1973 development plan, drafted by the Robert Perron Partnership, landscape architects and planners, for Robert Maxey, then director of the Regulatory Parks and Recreation Agency of the Mid-Willamette Valley, planners state that “such a feeling is extremely difficult to acquire” for a city like Salem. “This `open’ space should be preserved for the enjoyment of future generations,” they said. “We strongly urge that new activities … not be allowed to spread into areas identified for nature study.”
However, as more people come to the park, that quiet natural experience is being threatened, according to Gene Larson, South Parks and Wetlands Supervisor for the Parks Operation Division. “The number of people has really grown,” he said.
Visitor numbers hold steady throughout the week, year-round, he said. Also, in recent years, many more visitors have been coming with their dogs for the off-leash dog run, he said.
“The dog concept has taken off,” said Larson, who urges visitors to keep their dogs leashed outside of the designated area.
Unscrupulous owners are letting their dogs into areas preserved for wildlife habitat, disturbing sanctuaries for coyote and deer, Tibby Larson said.
But despite the heightened popularity of the park, Larson says you can still find some solitude.
It’s that solitude that brings Floyd Roe back to the park seven days a week, for over 800 volunteer hours last year.
“A lot of people don’t realize what a jewel of a park this is,” Roe said. “I kind of use it for my sanctuary, I guess.”