West Branch State Park, the recreational facility surrounding the Michael J. Kirwan Dam and Reservoir in eastern Portage County, has been a popular summertime destination for nearly a half-century, drawing boaters, campers and nature lovers to the 5,400-acre site.
But when talk of the state park began in earnest 50 years ago -- as part of a development in conjunction with the diversion of the West Branch of the Mahoning River and creation of the reservoir -- the idea was greeted with less than open arms by many likely to be affected by it.
Homeowners in the Charlestown, Edinburg and Wayland area, where the reservoir and state park were centered, were concerned about being forced to relocate if the recreational facility was built. They questioned whether the state would pay them enough for their properties. The exodus prompted by the creation of the Ravenna Arsenal by the federal government a generation earlier was remembered by many.
"Many area owners dealing with the federal government (on the reservoir project) are finding they cannot replace their homes with similar properties for the settlement given," the Record-Courier reported on Jan. 10, 1964.
County officials, including County Engineer Paul Shafer, were concerned about the seasonal traffic the state park would generate in the rural area. "There will be a big influx every weekend -- 10,000 cars with boats. What good does this do us?" he asked.
The Record-Courier, generally supportive of large-scale development in Portage County, admitted that while the park "could offer Portage County many benefits ... it must be conceded that it would not be an unmixed blessing."
Plans for the state park first surfaced in December 1963, when it was reported that a recreational facility ringing the reservoir was being planned. About $1.7 million was to be allocated for campsites, beaches, a marina and other recreational areas.
Fred Morr, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, came to Portage County in early 1964 to discuss the park proposal. He got an earful from the crowd that packed Cherry's Steak House in Ravenna.
Morr cautioned that the state park was not a "certainty," but was highly probable. And he pledged that if the state park materialized, it would be well planned and fully developed. "We aren't interested in less than that. A half-job becomes a honky-tonk," he said.
He attempted to quell the concerns of anxious property owners.
"We do not force people or structures to be moved until an amount is settled upon," he said. "If you are unable to reach an agreement ... you can stay on your property until an amount is settled upon."
Edinburg Township Trustee W.B. Shilliday noted that about one-fourth of his township would be dropped from the tax rolls if the state park was developed. The impact of that on the Southeast school district also was mentioned. "They can't get a bond issue passed now. With this gone, they're in real trouble," one resident remarked.
Morr responded that the short-term loss of tax revenue would be offset by spin-off development. The state also would encourage private construction of "rustic inns and lodges on a lease basis."
The meeting appeared to raise as many questions as Morr attempted to answer.
"Portage County might have one of the most attractive state parks in this part of the country," the R-C observed in an editorial following the meeting, "and again it might have no park at all."
"It could take several years" to obtain adequate state resources to develop the park, the editorial noted, "and the whole area would undergo a drastic change."
Funding for West Branch State Park moved forward, and the facility opened in 1966. The park includes land in Charlestown, Edinburg, Paris, Rootstown, Palmyra and Ravenna townships.
As West Branch approaches its 50th anniversary, it is not without its critics.
Scott Russell Sanders, an author who grew up on land in the Ravenna Arsenal and later moved to Esworthy Road in Charlestown, land that his family lost to West Branch, has written about being displaced from his home because of the reservoir project.
"A dam was built, the river died, and water backed up over most of the land I knew," he writes in "Earth Works: Selected Essays." "No city needed the water for drinking. The reservoir, named after a man who never lived in the valley, provided owners of loud boats with another playground for racing and waterskiing, and provided me with a lesson in loss."