Back in 1946, a survey was done to determine the best plan of action to beautify the Fox River and give veterans of World War II a source of income. Sixty years ago, the Fox River was a dumping ground for many of the manufacturing plants that operated in Aurora. Veterans were employed to help clean up the river.
But keeping the river clean so it could be a source of recreation for Fox Valley residents was a goal that could best be accomplished by the formation of a park district.
In the mid-1940s, the city of Aurora owned seven parks, but no specific taxing entity existed for the improvement and expansion of recreational opportunities. Aurora was the only Illinois city with a population of more than 40,000 that had not established a park district.
In 1947, political and civic leaders threw their support behind a proposed Fox River Valley Pleasure Driveway and Park District. Leaflets were distributed, local businesses and organizations gave their support, and ads were put into newspapers.
On April 1, 1947, voters approved the proposal by a 3-to-1 margin. The Fox River Valley Pleasure Driveway and Park District was born. Although the top priority of the park district in 1947 was the dredging of the Fox River, acquiring new lands also was a priority, as was obtaining land for use as a nature trail.
The resolve of the seven-member board of trustees to acquire and develop land was evident during the early years. The first land acquisition was 60 acres that stretched from Terry Avenue in Aurora to Route 47. Not long after, the board of trustees acquired North Aurora Island.
The year 1950 was a year of park development. Montgomery Park and the nature trail both were under construction. The North Aurora dam site had a new wooden bridge over the river. In 1952, the police force of the Fox River Valley Pleasure Driveway and Park District was created. Three full-time officers were hired and a squad car was purchased.
By 1955, after only nine years of existence, the Fox River Valley Pleasure Driveway and Park District owned 180 acres of land on which eight new parks, two dams and a recreation center had been built.
By the end of 1962, the district owned 460 acres of land and had constructed four park-schools, four ice skating rinks and one tot lot. By 1969, the district owned almost 800 acres of land and had built Pioneer Park, now known as Blackberry Farm.
In the 1970s, the park district annexed thousands of acres of the Fox Valley Villages in DuPage County. One of the most important activities on the agenda of the 1974 board of trustees was to purchase the Marmion Military Academy site on the corner of Lake Street and Illinois Avenue. The site and facilities were dedicated in 1976 and named the W.L. “Les” McCullough Park for one of the first park district trustees. The community center that stands there now was named for Guy V. Prisco, longtime president of the board of trustees.
In 1976, the Fox Valley Special Recreation Association was established to manage a joint recreation program for physically and mentally handicapped area residents.
In 1977, 22 acres of property and a resident home on Route 25 near Batavia were converted into Red Oak Nature Center.
Early in 1980, the board of trustees, in conjunction with the Oswegoland Park District, purchased Fox Bend Golf Course. The park districts operated the course jointly for 26 years before it was sold back to Oswegoland Park District in late 2006.
In 1980, the Virgil L. Gilman Nature Trail was dedicated. The seven-mile trail linked east and west Aurora.In 1981, the Fox Valley Park District Foundation was created to serve as a trust fund for private donations.
Soon after, Jericho Lake Park was finished complete with a sports complex. The complex was named for John A. Lippold, a retired superintendent of recreation who served the park district for 18 years.
By the mid-1980s, the board of trustees found it necessary to build a new multipurpose center at McCullough Park. The center was designed with 110,000 square feet of space and would be opened within a year.
In 1991, the new Phillips Park Aquatic Center, built in conjunction with the city of Aurora, opened.One accomplishment in 1992 was the dedication of the Veterans Memorial on Veterans Memorial Island.
In 1993, the Eola Community Center—a cooperative effort of the Fox Valley Park District and the Aurora Public Library District—opened on a 17-acre site. Orchard Valley Golf Course also opened in 1993. Several years later, Splash Country aquatic center opened on Barnes Road directly across the street from Blackberry Farm.
It was fall 2005 that saw the opening of the 225,000-square-foot Vaughan Athletic Center at 2121 W. Indian Trail. The center was named in honor of former park district executive Robert Vaughan. The Fox Valley Special Recreation Association moved its administrative offices to the new center, which has an indoor aquatic center with three pools.
In February 2008, voters approved a $44.8 million bond issue referendum. The money will be used to acquire and protect land for nature areas, open space and for park and recreation purposes, including along the Fox River; improve and develop trails and fishing access; improve and renovate neighborhood and community parks and playgrounds, sports fields and facilities, and Blackberry Farm.
Also in 2008, the district was recognized as an Illinois Association of Park Districts (IAPD) and Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA) Distinguished Agency, the highest award an agency can receive from either association. The award is given to park districts that provide superior park and recreation opportunities to the communities they serve. Only 10 percent of Illinois Park Districts have achieved Distinguished Agency status.
On Oct. 14, 2009, the Fox Valley Park District was awarded the country’s most prestigious honor in the parks and recreation profession, winning the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management as presented by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA) and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).
Currently, Fox Valley Park District is the largest park district in Illinois outside of Chicago and serves a population of more than 233,000 people. The district owns and maintains 2,500 acres of open space, 22 miles of river shoreline, 164 parks, 58 baseball fields, 84 soccer fields and 44 miles of trails. Other park amenities include 93 playgrounds, 26 basketball courts and 27 outdoor tennis courts. There is a combined 500,000 square feet of indoor recreation space at the district’s three main facilities (Eola and Prisco community centers and the Vaughan Athletic Center).