Almost a century ago, Shelby County Government started buying up land “out in the country” for the working prison farm envisioned by Memphis political boss, E.H. Crump. That began a journey in 1918 that against all odds culminated in the opening of Shelby Farms Park.
Ultimately, Boss Crump’s idea became a self-contained, self-sufficient prison, nationally known for its rehabilitation, job training, and sustainable agriculture, but even more, for the prize-winning cattle and hogs and the hundreds of acres of crops that fed the inmates and put a profit in county government’s coffers.
All that had changed by 1960 when county officials — encouraged by the business community and a need for more money for schools — decided that the land should be sold. For 10 years, they chased almost every imaginable civic idea: a pyramid, community college, arena, airfield, and a relocated Memphis Zoo, not to mention an “atomic smasher.” But when the idea of developing the land as a planned community for 65,000 people was endorsed, the public outcry was instantaneous and vehement.
With energy from youthful, on-the-ground activists like John Vergos and Charles Newman, and money from a group of progressive businessmen led by Lucius Burch, the campaign against Penal Farm residential development became a victory for grassroots activism, and the land was protected once and for all. The only thing that remained from the development was its name, Shelby Farms.
The victors got a plan from noted landscape architect Garrett Eckbo for a park and “compatible facilities” but little else. County government didn’t have the money to implement the recommendations, so legendary philanthropist Abe Plough donated enough for a 333-acre park named for him between Walnut Grove Road and Mullins Station Road. It was a modest island of activity in a sea of 4,500 acres of open space.
It seemed that it would remain that way until 15 years ago, when former First Tennessee CEO Ron Terry, one of the most influential corporate leaders in Memphis’ modern history, laid out a proposal for a conservancy to develop and manage a major new park at Shelby Farms. He promised to raise $20 million to pay for a park with national ambitions and to recruit a blue-ribbon board to lead its development.
All it would take to make this happen was for Shelby County Government to agree. That seemed simple; the county was only spending $500,000 a year at Shelby Farms. But in 2004, the board of commissioners voted for the conservancy’s management agreement before voting against it in a dispute about the agreement’s length.
Many thought the idea of a great park in the center of Shelby County was dead. And yet, three years later, another vote was scheduled by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton after the methodical political approach he put in place resulted in broader support. Finally, in 2007, a conservancy to run Shelby Farms Park was put in place; for the first time, county government was willing to add that important word “park” to Shelby Farms’ name.
Terry made several key decisions in those years, but none proved more crucial than his pick of strong allies. Among the primary ones were Barbara Hyde and Laura Wolff Morris; in recent years, none have had greater influence or impact on the direction. Morris turned Friends of Shelby Farms Park from an anti-road group into a constituency pushing for a great park, and this grassroots organization evolved to become the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.
Hyde, along with her husband Pitt, made large donations to what would become a $70 million budget, but she also was first chair of the Conservancy, where she firmly rejected “It’s good enough for Memphis” thinking. “Our job,” she said at the time, “is to unlock the incredible potential of Shelby Farms Park, and to demonstrate that the park can inspire a great city.”
Hyde and Morris were the indomitable forces a great park concept needed; they assembled a talented staff, insisting that Shelby Farms Park could become “America’s great twenty-first century urban park.” They plugged into an international network of park experts and reached out unabashedly for their best (and free) advice about how to build a bonafide masterpiece in what is now the center of the county.
This fall, the result of their efforts is visible for all to see; the official opening on September 1st of the “Heart of the Park” introduced Memphians to a whole new urban landscape, one that already seems a “natural” for our community. The culmination of an improbable journey, the new Shelby Farms Park is a reminder that nothing happens without the visionaries who can distinguish the shape of the future.