Stark Parks officially turns 50 years old on Friday.

It all started with two parks totaling 31.55 acres of land and has grown to cover more than 8,000 acres with 14 parks, four lakes, and more 100 miles of trails. In celebration of this milestone, park staff have a planned year-long celebration.

Formerly called Stark County Metropolitan Park District, the area began its history before the first Earth Day in 1970 and before the establishment of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"To have an environmental awareness and a vision to preserve open areas and green space areas for future recreation was really important to start," said Jared Shive, the marketing specialist at Stark Parks.

Established in 1967 by Probate Judge Reuben Wise Jr., the park struggled to stay open for the first few years. It relied on donations, volunteers, grants, and even recycling scrap metal for money.

Their first big break came in 1977 when the park received the Federal Community Development Block Grant for $300,000. With the money, the first director Richard Fry was able to purchase Sippo Lake in Perry Township and its 100 surrounding acres. Included in the deal was the Clubhouse, which serves as the main offices today.

The 1980s saw more additions to park land, the start of educational tours and visits, the creation of the Sanders Wildlife Center for rehabilitation of animals, and the passing of the first park levy in 20 years which generated $707,000 per year.

"That was the first time (in 1988) that Stark Parks could really look at projects," Shive said. "They could sustain and find the resources to commit to them. (The levy) gave Stark Parks leadership the message that their county citizens and residents really wanted a park system and they were willing to fund it."

In the early 90s, Stark Parks needed to dredge Sippo Lake so that boats could be safely taken out onto the water again. It received a grant from the EPA and sought out the most environmentally sustainable process, which used hydrocarbons as a coagulant. This process earned them the Innovation in Lake Management award from the Ohio Lake Management Association in 2010.

Expansion of the parks continued throughout the 90s as did countywide development. In 1999, the Stark County Trail and Greenway Plan was adopted to better connect community with historic areas, tourist attractions, and parks through trails. Stark Parks joined this county effort and the plan continues to drive green space and trail development in Stark Parks today.

(Fun fact: The 90s was also the decade Stark Parks adopted FeLeap, a hiking frog, as its mascot)

By the 2000s, Stark Parks educational programs had taken off and it was in need of a new education center. That’s when Stark County District Library stepped in. The library had wanted a permanent branch in Perry Township near Sippo Lake Park. The public agencies partnered up and Exploration Gateway opened at the north edge of the park in 2007. Distance Learning was also introduced using a mobile cart to educate students about the outdoors.

A walking club was created in 2012 to inspire people to explore county trails. Members made a club goal to hike 10,000 miles of Stark Parks trails and surpassed that by the end of June. For their devotion to health and fitness, the Hike-A-Hundred club received the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association 2nd place award. Since then, more trails have been added especially with the latest addition of Quail Hollow in January 2016. As one of the largest parks in the county, management of Quail Hollow has added 701 acres to the park and more than 13 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trails.

Today, Stark Parks is now balancing the physical growth of their parks with community programming like wildlife demonstrations, archery and boating courses, and hiking groups.

"We’ve created the areas, now it’s about really giving the opportunity to people and helping them make memories and experiences," said Shive.