Have you ever heard of Forwood Preserve Park?
Throughout New Castle County, there are 246 park sites. Most are easy to find and use, with amenities for residents to enjoy.
But there are a few properties that are unused and even unnoticed.
Contributor Larry Nagengast looks at one of those properties in Brandywine Hundred - Forwood Preserve Park - and efforts to give it some purpose.
When she was 6 or 7 years old, Lisa Townsend Raber recalls, she would walk behind her house, out the back yard and onto the adjoining estate, where she would admire two ponds – one stocked with goldfish, the other with frogs and salamanders – and what she describes as “an English garden,” and would occasionally try to prime the water pump nearby.
“And we always got kicked out,” she says.
Raber’s childhood Eden was a 16-acre estate wedged into an area bordered roughly by Marsh, Veale and Silverside roads in Brandywine Hundred. Known to many as the Allen Tract, after Dr. John W. Allen, the physician who lived there from 1937 until 1967 with his wife Mildred, the property had been owned in the second half of the 18th century by Joseph Grubb and his heirs, some of the earliest settlers in the area, before being purchased in 1797 by Jehu Forwood, whose family and descendants lived there until selling to the Allens, according to James R. Hanby Sr., a Forwood descendant and Brandywine Hundred historian.
In 1964 Allen announced that he planned to close his medical practice and move to Florida. He arranged to sell the property to a Pennsylvania developer, Donald Gaster, on the condition that the old house be preserved. Gaster planned to build 300 medium-rise garden apartments there, according to an account written by Gene Castellano, an archivist and business historian who formerly lived near the site. Neighbors rallied in opposition, said they wanted a park instead, found a powerful Wilmington attorney to argue for them at no cost, and managed to stop the project in 1968.
For the next six years, Castellano wrote, Gaster and the county engaged in a tug of war over the property. In that time, teenagers set bonfires and vandalized the site, which became a haven for drug dealers. The county had the house demolished, claiming it was a public safety hazard, then used its power of eminent domain in 1976 to take over the property, with the promise to turn it into a park. (A court order subsequently required the county to pay Gaster $30,000 per acre for the tract.)
And there it sat.
Over the past 40-plus years, the property has become overgrown with vegetation. Some of the foundation and “a significant stone wall” from the Forwood house and its outbuildings remain but are almost impossible to locate on a site now overrun by bamboo and other invasive trees and weeds.
A small band of neighbors are trying to restore the site, but it’s an uphill battle.
“In the old days it was a disaster. Now it’s a slightly upgraded disaster,” says Fred Hartman, a board member of Friends of Forwood Preserve, the group dedicated to improving the property, which was given a new name to better recognize its history through a resolution sponsored by County Councilman John Cartier two years ago.
The restoration task is daunting. Raber says a county official once told her, “For volunteers to do it, it would be like trying to weed a forest.”
Raber, now the president of the Friends group and living in the house where she grew up, says the group’s plans are modest, but will nonetheless be difficult to accomplish.
They would like to see the bamboo and other invasive plants removed and a trail carved out, enough to give nearby residents a serene place to walk, relax and reflect. Signage detailing the Forwood family’s history on the site would provide a greater appreciation of Brandywine Hundred’s heritage, they add.
That might eventually happen, but it’s not now on the horizon.
“We prioritize the highest quality habitats, where the least effort delivers the biggest impact,” explains Kendall Sommers, parks division manager for the county.
There’s no money in the county’s budget for a project at Forwood Preserve, Sommers says, and regular maintenance there and at similar sites doesn’t amount to much more than clearing downed trees and removing excessive trash.
However, she adds, having an active Friends group as a partner is a positive and the county would like to develop “mutually agreed upon management perspectives” with the Friends. Including its six board members, the group has about 25 volunteers willing to help improve the site, as long as they don’t become overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need, Hartman says.
“There is an opportunity here, if the relationship grows,” Sommers says.
Reaching a mutual agreement, however, isn’t as simple as shaking hands or – in 2021 – bumping elbows, the Friends say.
"In the old days it was a disaster. Now it's a slightly upgraded disaster." says Friends of Forwood Preserve Park's Fred Hartman
While it’s alright for them to clean out debris, there are rules about volunteers not being able to use power tools on county land, and there are also questions about liability insurance, they say.
And when the county has tried bringing heavy equipment onto the site, it has encountered problems of its own, according to Friends board member Marianne Cinaglia. The tract sits downhill from the heavily developed area near Marsh and Silverside roads and becomes soggy after heavy storms. On one occasion, she recalls, the county brought in a tractor-like vehicle to help remove underbrush and fallen trees only to have it get stuck in the mud.
Besides the stormwater issue, there are other practical obstacles to making Forwood Preserve a more accessible piece of parkland, Cartier notes.
Although it is bounded by three busy roads, none of them have sidewalks and there isn’t sufficient pavement on the shoulders to permit cars to park. Adding a parking area would not only require cutting down some of the trees that create the park’s appeal but would also create a new impervious surface that could heighten the area’s drainage problems. “Placing a parking area would be difficult,” Sommers says.
Those limitations would suggest that Forwood Preserve’s most likely use would be for passive recreation, but with the primary access through the Stony Run subdivision where Raber lives – giving it appeal to nearby residents but limiting the awareness of others to the venue.
That prospect is something the Friends could accept, but Raber notes that it can cut two ways. “The fewer people that are likely to use it,” she says, “the less likely we are to get support” through county funding to make improvements.
When dealing with invasive species, especially the tree of heaven and bamboo that permeate the Forwood site, the challenge can seem never-ending, Sommers says. “It’s a job-security thing when you get into invasive species management,” she jokes.
While the neighbors are politely making some noise about Forwood Preserve, the situation is hardly unique.
With 246 park sites in the county, Cartier says, “there have to be other oddball parcels that are not very accessible to the public.”
One is in his own district – the Prior Tract Park – north of Silverside Road along Prior Road, a street traveled by few others than residents of the Top of the Hill Apartments and visitors to the Capuchin Friars Friary. The park’s distinguishing feature, a large open field, makes it an ideal place for dogs to romp, Cartier says. But the north and south sides of the field are bordered by woods and inside those woods, Sommers says, is lots of bamboo.
Sommers says the county has also accumulated a significant expanse of undeveloped open space on the west bank of the Christina River, stretching from the Wilmington Riverfront to near Newport. The county does little with this acreage, letting it sit relatively undisturbed as a buffer between the river and adjacent residential and business development. There has been some recent discussion, she says, of using this ribbon for a bike path between Wilmington and Newport, similar to the Markell Trail between the riverfront and New Castle.
James Hanby, the Forwood heir, laments the fate that has befallen Forwood Preserve over the years. When it was known as the Allen Tract, it never became part of the county’s master plan and its size became a detriment – too large to serve as a neighborhood park and too small to satisfy the 25-acre minimum for a district park.
Before the county recently installed an identifying sign along Marsh Road, “It was like no one wanted to know there was a county park back there,” he says.
And while Hanby hopes that eventual improvements to the wooded area – removing the invasive species, creating a walking path and perhaps adding some signage describing the site’s history – Cinaglia, the Friends’ board member notes how recent developments at two connected sites have put some tarnish on the Forwood legacy.
About a half-mile northwest of where Jehu Forwood built his home, along Silverside just to the west of Marsh Road, in 1799 Jehu and his brother Robert built a one-room school that was expanded in 1845 and continued in operation as a public school until 1939. Forwood descendants, who owned the building, allowed it to deteriorate and builder Joseph Setting Jr. acquired the site, announced plans for a mixed-use development on the site and had the old school torn down nearly two years ago.
Setting plans to use the original stones from the old school to build a replica on the site, using it as a rental office during the first phase of construction and then perhaps making into a sort of a community museum.
But the irony in Setting’s plan, Cinaglia notes, is that stormwater from Setting’s proposed development, like the stormwater from the nearby Shoppes of Graylyn and Branmar Plaza retail centers will quite naturally flow downhill, from one historic Forwood property to another.