One of the great assets that made Mill Creek Park such a treasure throughout much of its history was a succession of great naturalists, who knew about anything that lived in the park and loved sharing that knowledge with the public, especially school children, enhancing everyone’s love of the park. It began in 1929 when Ernest Vickers became the first naturalist. His son Lindley joined him in 1930, as assistant naturalist, and became naturalist in 1947 when Ernest retired at age 76. Many of us remember going on field trips and being led on nature walks with Mr. Vickers, who also had a regular column in the Vindicator of his nature observations in the park. The Vickers also established the nature museum at the Old Mill that many of you may remember visiting when you were young, before the Mill was renovated.
In 1952, Lindley Vickers observed a young man who was a regular at the museum from boyhood and offered him a job as attendant. That young man was Bill Whitehouse. At the time, he had been working up at Idora Park for $.75 an hour and the park was offering $1.00 an hour. That led to a thirty-three year career at the park and a volunteer association with Mill Creek for many years after that. In 1954, he became assistant naturalist, and soon began leading some of the nature walks. College followed at Youngstown College (later University) where he completed in 1966 a major in mathematics and a minor in biology, including a forestry class from Dike Beede! All this while continuing his full-time duties at the park, part of the time as naturalist, part of the time on a park work crew.
Between 1954 and 1966, due to lack of public interest, there were no public nature hikes, only school programs. Then in September of 1966, they proposed the idea of Sunday afternoon nature walk was proposed, accepted and publicized. Over 200 turned up to the first and they became quite popular, and an ongoing part of the park programs. In this YouTube video, from a walk he led in 2016, he tells the story of these nature walks.
When Lindley Vickers finally retired in 1970, Bill Whitehouse took over as the park’s third naturalist. One of his first projects was the opening of the Ford Nature Center. In 1968, the children of the late Judge John W. Ford donated the stone mansion the Fords has occupied to the Park. Working with assistant naturalist Tony Belfast, they created the exhibits that would go into the Nature Center. He was constantly on the go presenting nature programs at schools and with many community groups, as well as leading the nature walks and field trips from schools. Following in the footsteps of Lindley Vickers, he also wrote a regular column, Mill Creek Park Bulletin, that was also distributed to the YSU Biology Department and the public and parochial schools. He also consulted with Youngstown State’s teacher training course in “Elementary Science Field Experiences.”
For many of us, The Green Cathedral by Dr. John Melnick is our Mill Creek Park Bible. Bill Whitehouse played an important role as a consultant in the writing of the book, which was published in 1976, during the time that Whitehouse was naturalist. He also became a mentor to Ray Novotny, who first met Whitehouse at age 12. Novotny told Whitehouse that he wanted his job. Seventeen years later, he succeeded him as naturalist, after Whitehouse’s retirement in 1985. In 1988, Novotny interviewed Bill Whitehouse on Mill Creek Park History as part of Youngstown State University’s Oral History Program, an interview that is the source for much of the material in this article. The men remain close friends until this day.
Following retirement, Bill Whitehouse continued to serve as a volunteer naturalist, helping with nature education programs until as recent as 2016. He was part of a line of four generations of naturalists extending from 1929 through 2016. Bill Whitehouse alone, worked for and volunteered with the park between 1952 and 2016, 64 years or nearly half of the park’s history. He and the others represented the “soul of Mill Creek Park”–its connection with the vision of Volney Rogers. It is to be hoped that the new generation of nature educators at the MetroParks will be keepers of that vision and that ways will be found to remember the legacy of Bill Whitehouse and the other great naturalists who taught us to love Mill Creek Park.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!