The thirty-nine acres that is Dwight Lydell Park has been a focal point of downtown Comstock Park from the time of the first settlers to the area. The site has been home to mills, tanneries, and fish hatcheries that were once the hub of commerce in the community. Now with a playground, pavilion, ball field, fish ponds, and trails the Kent County park at 4040 Leland Avenue is a hub of recreation and entertainment in the community.
“Lydell is a busy, smaller park in the Kent County Park system,” said Roger Sabine, Kent County Parks Director. “Thousands of people use the park for a variety of reasons from traditional family picnics, graduation open houses, church outings, picnics before Whitecaps games.” Sabine added that many people get their exercise by jogging, walking, and biking the trails in the park, and people “are allowed to fish the ponds as long as they have a fishing license and follow DNR rules.”
Community groups have contributed to making the park an appealing, enjoyable spot over the years. Proceeds from the Comstock Park Rotary “World Famous” Chicken Barbeques held in the park each summer go toward the organization’s community projects, including the Memorial Mill Wheel, benches, and the flag pole and flag in the park. The Rotary also partnered with Kent County for the purchase and installation of playground equipment, bathrooms, the pavilion, and the fish ponds. The Louis Teistler American Legion Post No. 47 funded the Veterans’ Memorial at the south end of the park.
One of the first businesses in Comstock Park, was a sawmill built in 1839 where the Comstock Park Library now stands. The Memorial Mill Wheel situated in Mill Creek near West River Drive commemorates the sawmill as well as a grist mill built in the 1870’s on the other side of Mill Creek.
A flood in 1911 washed out the dam that served the mills which ceased operation. A portion of the dam remains near the Veterans’ Memorial.
The first railroads came to Comstock Park, then called Mill Creek, after the Civil War. The area was the junction of several railroads, and that attracted businesses to the area. The local economy prospered, and the population grew.
In 1897 two leather tanneries were constructed at the railroad spurs located on the west side of what is now the park. The spurs allowed the tanneries to have hides delivered and their finished products shipped to buyers. Some 500 men were employed at the tanneries. “Company houses” were built near the park for workers to rent. A couple of those houses displaying their “tannery row” architecture still stand on Leland Avenue. The tanneries became casualties of the Depression with the buildings as well as most of the row houses being demolished by the mid 1930’s.
Because of the rail facilities and the abundance of water, the State, in 1896 selected the park area as the site for a fish hatchery. The park’s namesake, Dwight Lydell was an expert in black bass propagation, and the State hired him to develop and manage the hatchery.
In 1896 and 1897 ponds and dams for the hatchery were built, and in 1904 a building to house a tank room, pump room, office, workroom and a couple bedrooms was constructed near the railroad tracks along the west side of the park. The Grand Rapids Model Railroad Historical Society now holds meetings in that building. Throughout the year the Society also hosts open houses and arranges for the Santa Train to stop at the park during the holidays. At its peak, the fish hatchery covered the entire park area and was a source of pride to the community. By 1946 the State decided to abandon the fish hatchery citing lack of demand for the local product and the disrepair of the facility and donated the 39 acres to Kent County to be used as a park.
As a County park, Dwight Lydell Park continued its role as a focal point of the community. It was the site of the former Mill Days celebration and canine Frisbee competitions. More recently the Comstock Park Celebration and Movie in the Park each summer draws crowds downtown as do the Rotary chicken barbeques. Dwight Lydell Park also continues to boost the local economy with park-users stopping in businesses across West River Drive for snacks and drinks to enjoy at the park.
SOURCES: Plainfield Charter Township History 1838-1988, contributions by Suzanne Carpenter; Comstock Park: Mill Town to Bedroom Suburb by David Wier; Interviews with local residents