When he reminisces about growing up in Goodyear Heights in the 1960s, Akron native Todd S. Heil’s mind wanders back to a beloved park where he used to play baseball.
“We used to simply call it ‘The Orchard,’ ” he said.
Bounded by Goodyear Boulevard, Hillside Terrace, Tonawanda Avenue and Ottawa Avenue, the elevated, woodsy park was a recreational wonderland in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
“We held World Series amongst ourselves as we dreamt of the big leagues,” he recalled.
Heil, 57, who left Akron for college in 1980 and now lives in Grovetown, Georgia, said it’s remarkable the imprint that Goodyear Heights had on kids in the neighborhood, “sustaining them through a lifetime of travels.”
“That area was just such a gem,” he said.
An older couple whose backyard was on the third-base line kept a bag with baseball gear for children to borrow and they would “sometimes come out to watch, give us a Coke, Popsicle or let us drink water from their outdoor hose faucet,” Heil said.
“I always assumed the land belonged to them.”
Goodyear Boulevard residents George M. Long and his wife, Emma, were the 2.72-acre park’s biggest backers, although the city owned the land. Heil didn’t know it, but “The Orchard” was really George M. Long Park.
Long was a Goodyear worker who began improving the park about 1950 for neighbor kids. Although children had probably played on the site since Goodyear Heights welcomed its first residents in 1913, Long made it more accommodating for visitors.
He mowed the grass, pruned trees, pulled weeds, trimmed bushes, built benches and did general upkeep. When kids played ball, he cheered them on and sometimes served as an unofficial coach.
His neighbor Ralph Turner, president of Akron City Council, invited him to a council meeting one night in 1961, and Long was stunned to learn that the city had named the park in his honor, citing his “devotion and faithful service to the community.”
And the community showed its devotion, too.
The East Akron Board of Trade donated wire for a fence that city workers installed. The Akron Touchdown Club gave $50 for a backstop. Cavanaugh Garden Center donated 20 honey locusts and white birches.
City officials installed a boulder with a bronze marker bearing the inscription:
“GEORGE M. LONG PARK
"In recognition of his unusual contribution in helping to mold and strengthen the character of the young people of this community.”
Goodyear Heights resident Lisa Lambiotte, 55, said children called it “The Rock.”
“It was always a big deal to stand up on top of that rock when you were a little kid and you could look down and see stuff from far, far away,” she said. “It just seemed like it was the top of the world back then when you were a kid.”
The rock stood behind her first home on Goodyear Boulevard. Although her family moved to Sumatra Avenue, Lambiotte returned often to the residence because her mother Maureen Southwood still owned it and her grandmother Margaret Mulvey lived there.
Thinking about the park, she recalled tiny details. For example: the honey locust trees.
“They had these really long thorn bottoms, and somebody always inevitably got poked and injured by the thorns that were on these trees,” Lambiotte said.
She used to watch baseball at Long Park, but didn’t play it. Kickball was more her style. Kids also enjoyed tag, red rover and other games.
“We played hide and seek to no end because there were so many places to hide back there,” she said.
Neighborhood activist Sharon Connor, former president of Residents Improving Goodyear Heights Together (RIGHT) and the Democratic primary winner for Ward 10 council in May, called George M. Long Park “a hidden jewel.”
“Everybody who lived in the area knew it, but people outside the area really didn’t. Even now when you ask people about Long Park, they have no idea where it is,” she said.
Long died in 1986 at age 93 a year after his wife, Emma, died at 90.
When vandals stole the bronze plaque years ago, Connor’s group led a drive to restore the monument with black granite. Her group also replaced a plaque on Bingham Path.
“We try to restore them in a less profitable way for scrappers,” Connor said. “And black granite is a good way to do that.”
Marie Derr, who lives in the neighborhood, said “part of the beauty of the park is its obscurity and seclusion from the ‘outside world,’ ” and she hopes it stays that way. She likened her neighborhood to “a safe little island in a turbulent sea.”
“We love the park so much that in April, for Clean Up Akron Month, my boyfriend and I cleaned the entire park on our own, hauling out three huge bags of trash that were hiding there,” she said.
Three days later while walking her dog Sasha, Derr was distressed to find that some thoughtless person had left behind wrappers, containers and other trash from a fast-food picnic.
“It really irritated me that they would do this with zero regard for others that like to visit the park because of its beauty and tranquility,” she said.
Lambiotte also feels an ownership of the park, returning a few times a year to commune with nature and reflect on the past.
“It’s a very, very important place to a lot of people,” she said. “How many people do you know that can continue to go back somewhere from their childhood over and over and over again?”
Connor agreed “there’s a lot of memories of it.”
“People have a real historical love for that park,” she said.
When Heil thinks of it, he feels 13 again.
“Of course, my family grew up from the shadows of the Goodyear plants, we watched the blimps fly overhead and just loved Goodyear Metro Park, the Reservoir,” he said. [I] went to school mostly at Annunciation on Kent Street until we moved in ’76, just as I was coming of age, leaving behind friends and my first real school grade love.”
And in his memory, he will forever play ball at “The Orchard.”
“This is a place that I love,” he said.
Mark J. Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 330-996-3850.