The Family Park That Was the Family FarmJun 30, 2020 01:40PM ● By Janet McCue
Just south of Peach Orchard Point on Seneca Lake’s east side is a gem of a park. Smith Memorial Park, a ninety-two-acre paradise, offers camping, nature trails, a boat launch, and picnic facilities during its six-month May to October season. COVID-19 has curtailed swimming and tent camping for summer 2020, but in a normal year the seventy-eight wooded and lakefront sites—for tents and campers—are booked, while the swim beach and boat launch are bustling with activity.
This lakeside park was once the fruit farm of Leon R. Smith, who inherited the farm from his father, Franklin, who had farmed with his father, Edward, who had purchased the land in 1890. If the prediction of a summer crop of 5,000 bushels of apricots in the June 10, 1897 issue of Cultivator and Country Gentleman is any indication, the Smith Fruit Farm land was productive and the crop plentiful. The Progressive Eastern Fruitgrower (v.1#3) waxes eloquent in 1911 over the Smith Family Farm’s crop of apricots, peaches, pears, plums, apples, and grapes, praising it as the “most remarkable fruit in this country for beauty and flavor.”
Fast forward to 1964: with no heirs of his own, Leon Smith had a decision to make when he retired from farming. He could sell the land to the developer who had offered him a bundle, or he could protect the land from development and allow the community to enjoy this lakeside jewel. Dorothy (White) Morris, a member of the Hector Town Board for almost thirty years, remembered swimming and camping at Mr. Smith’s beach when she was a child. In her words, “He was a most generous man, and, though he had no children, never chased away the many children and adults who came to swim at his beach.” On April 23, 1964, Mr. Smith, in consultation with his siblings, transferred the property to the Town of Hector. The town bought the ninety-two acres for $40,000—a tiny fraction of the price offered by the developer—with three-quarters of the costs covered by the State of New York and the remainder by the town’s capital reserve fund, which had been earmarked for a much-needed park for Hector. Leon and his siblings “agreed that their parents would have been pleased with the idea of turning the farm into a park for many people to enjoy,” according to an interview with his wife, Mildred.
The drive to the park is seductive. As you leave the bustle of Route 414 traffic and wend your way down Bond-Smith Road, glimpses of the lake appear as the road descends steeply for 385 feet to the lakeshore. At the closet-sized park office you might meet Janine Bond, as good an example as any that the campground motto, “where everyone is family,” is literally true. For the past decade, Janine and her husband, Jason, have been co-managers of Smith Memorial Park; their children have worked summers doing everything from garbage detail to lifeguarding. But the Bond family link to Smith Park goes deeper than a road sign and deeper than park management. The couple met thirty-two years ago when Janine picnicked with a friend at the Park and a handsome lifeguard caught her eye. Ah—summer romance.
The Bond family, like the Smiths and the Voorheis (Janine’s maiden name) family, has made its mark on Hector. Jason’s grandparents ran the Bond Farm; his aunt and uncle ran the Bond Fruit Stand—now the site of the well-known Stonecat Café. At the park, Jason worked with a forester to open up the viewshed and landscape the property; Janine is familiar to many residents since she wears several hats, including responsibilities for human resources and bookkeeping for the town.
I claim my own slim family connection to Smith Memorial Park through my Aunt Flo. Each summer she would pack a passel of kids in the station wagon and tow the pop-up camper to Peach Orchard, where she settled into a seasonal spot at Smith Park Family Campground. Her kids took up residence at the beach; as they got older, they were still at the water, but as lifeguards, watching over the flocks of swimmers. Forty years later, these cousins of mine still marvel at their mother’s campfire skills: her black raspberry pie baked on the Coleman stove and the Sunday roast slow-cooked in Saturday night’s bonfire coals. As I walked around the park in 2020, I wondered whether the pies baked by any of today’s camp stove cooks would rival my aunt’s fruit-filled delectables.
Smith Park began with Leon’s vision to create a community park. When the town board accepted the land, Dorothy Morris said that their “overall aim was to keep Smith Park a rural, rustic spot for the enjoyment of nature and yet to provide revenue enough to continue its slow but steady development. A place for local people to enjoy, as well as visitors to our region.” Over the past few years that steady development has included a brand-new water system and modern bathroom facilities. On the horizon are exciting possibilities. The current Hector town board is working with the state on the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan and Smith Park’s 2,000 feet of lakefront is included in that effort. If the state approves the plan, much of the cost for improving lake access and enhancing the community park areas would be covered by New York.
Smith Memorial Park will remain true to Leon’s vision of a beautiful spot for the enjoyment of nature. It will always be free for swimming and parking, according to Alvin White, Hector Town Supervisor. Given that Alvin traces his Hector family roots back nine generations (and it was his Aunt Dorothy—Mrs. Morris—who served on the town board when the park lands were acquired), one suspects that Smith Memorial Park will always be a spot “where everyone is family.”