The town of Fort Mill created and owns the S.C. Strawberry Festival. Now it owns the park where the main event of the annual festival is held.
Just in time for the April 29 start of the 2017 S.C. Strawberry Festival, the town accepted possession of Walter Elisha Park on North White Street in downtown Fort Mill. About 14 acres, the park, also known for years as “The Walking Park” for the track that circles the green space, will attract tens of thousands of visitors from across the Carolinas for the festival’s main event May 5-6.
A ceremony was held in the park Thursday to thank the Springs family, including matriarch Anne Springs Close, for giving it to the town. Once the site of a Springs textile facility, the property was eventually turned into park space after a fire wrecked the building on June 28, 1988. It is named after Walter Y. Elisha, who served as the CEO of Springs Industries from 1981 to 1997 and was chairman from 1983 to 1998, according to Ann Evans, archivist for the Springs family archives.
Elisha donated the trees and a playset for the park, which also features rolling hills and a series of interpretive statues sculpted by artist Bruno Lucchesi.
For nearly a decade, the town has had access to the park for the Strawberry Festival and other events in exchange for providing maintenance and police security. Other groups also hold events in the park, including the Fort Mill History Museum, which has hosted annual living history day exhibitions.
During Thursday’s ceremony, in a nod to Earth Day and Close’s well-known love of nature, boxes of butterflies were released. The Fort Mill Greenway named in her honor holds its annual Earth Day celebration Saturday.
“This is our little Central Park,” Mayor Guynn Savage said, half joking.
It is now the town’s largest park. Walter Elisha Park, however is dwarfed by the 2,100-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway, which is inside town limits, but not a town-owned park.
“We’re here to honor the Springs family for donating this beautiful park to the town,” Savage said after the butterfly release. “This family has been generous and loving to us.”
Savage said the transfer of the property followed “several months of talks” and now that it’s complete, the town plans to make several improvements, including an amphitheater, lighting, porch type swings and permanent restrooms.
“This park will remain in perpetuity as green space and a place for children to play and run and we’re thrilled,” she said.
“You can’t drive by (the park) without seeing the things that make life really important – the green space, the trees, the nature, the health benefits of having a park. We’re not going to add anything that detracts from that.”
The first improvement made will be the addition of rest rooms, Savage said.
“This is a great day for the public and community,” Town Manager Dennis Pieper said. “It’s a beautiful facility and draws people in from surrounding areas.”
Brown Simpson, the town’s parks and recreation director, said: “It’s a huge, huge addition to the town and the residents who use it on a daily basis. It’s a jewel and we’re very thankful to have this and to preserve it for a long, long time for generations to come.”
That the land will remain green space is one reason Close said she is happy to see the town take ownership.
“People ask me, do if I have a favorite spot on the Greenway and I say ‘my favorite thing is that it will be here forever, and I feel that way about this park, too,” she said.
That prime downtown property would become a public benefit seems to complete a loop started in the 19th century with the opening of the first Springs mill.
The Springs family “started up the company so the town would have income for its people,” Evans said.
“It changed Fort Mill’s economy from that agrarian economy to an industrial economy. Through Leroy Springs, Elliott White Springs and Bill Close, the company became one of the largest textile concerns in the world. The park is a wonderful place to memorialize the mill and the people who started the mill and the many, many thousands of people who worked in the mill and now this wonderful park is part of the town.”