Walk through a public park and you probably don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about its history. Once the park is established it’s as if it’s always been there, a nice bit of green space to bring a book or take a stroll. Peterborough’s Millennium Park would be a lovely choice for either of those options, but rewards a closer look with a wealth of local stories. Especially in the era of COVID-19, when people are looking for healthy outdoor activities closer to home, the park provides a safe but satisfying way to explore.
As astute readers might’ve guessed, Millennium Park was a project to commemorate the turn of the year 2000. In 1998, what is now a beautifully manicured stretch of downtown waterfront trail was a largely undeveloped plot of land owned by the Otonabee Region Conservation Authority. Brian Buchardt, an urban planner with the City of Peterborough, helped organize the team that would design and implement the project based on community input. Two key goals came out of those early meetings: people wanted a trail that would link up to the Great Trail (then the Trans Canada Trail), and an event space-slash-restaurant “cottage in the city.” Today those early goals have paid off handsomely, Many a bike expedition begins and ends at the Silver Bean Café, a cultural hub at the heart of Millennium Park.
These elements formed the core, but input from a diverse cast of contributors enriched the project. One access point brings the visitor past a water cascade, over a stone-tile representation of Indigenous peoples’ moons, and down a walkway that pays tribute to the region’s early history. Says Buchardt, “The entrance from King Street transforms people from the hustle and bustle of the city and, in logical sequence, through the interpretive display panels and the Indigenous people’s moons, the path intentionally brings you from the busy city to a place of contemplation.”
Stop to read those panels, and you’ll learn about the region beginning from its geological origins, through its Ojibway history as Nogojiwanong, to industrial development by European settlers. Landscape architect Brian Basterfield describes it as an “interpretive storyline throughout the park.” Though many of those stories are commemorated, some are hidden, such as the extensive work that went into reinforcing the ecological system to support turtles and bass spawning areas. Others are grace notes that appeal to the Ontario history buff: “There [are] some dark grey limestone pieces in the columns and stonework leading down the path from King and Water, and we know some of that stone came from Kingston Pen,” says Basterfield.
Indeed, there are more cultural touchstones than can be appreciated in a single visit. These include a memorial sculpture by the Peterborough Labour Council, the Steve Chiasson Memorial Pond, and the local landmark Esker, a playful statue of a mother wolf and cub. In keeping with the theme of the passage of time, however, Millennium Park has not remained a time capsule from the early oughts. New installations continue to expand the scope of the park. In 2017, the Quaker Oats Fire Memorial was added, a monument to those who lost their lives in the tragic fire of 1916. In 2019 the pebble mosaic Mookibii was unveiled, as a tribute to sexual assault survivors and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Each provides an opportunity to better understand the individuals and groups who make up the community.
The local figures who have contributed to the development of the park are also too many to mention, though the list includes former Peterborough mayor Sylvia Sutherland, fundraiser Jeannine Taylor, Brian Buchardt’s close collaborator Malcolm Hunt, Wild Rock Outfitters owners Kieran Andrews and Scott Murison, and original Silver Bean founder Andrea Vanderherberg. Suffice to say their sense of civic participation has made Millennium Park a very welcoming spot: the grounds have played host to special events from Pride in the Park to Ribfest to the Purple Onion Festival.
While large gatherings are on hold at the time of this writing, there’s still plenty of space to wander and appreciate how Peterborough has evolved in the past two decades. It can also help a visitor cast their mind further back and envision how it might have looked centuries ago. If that’s a tall order for a weekday stroll or a picnic with the kids, know the Silver Bean has put measures in place to continue serving up ice cream, coffee, and other delicacies. As trying as physical distancing measures may be, it’s reassuring to visit a place that’s a testament to the dedication and strength of the people who live there.
Thanks to Michael Vanderherberg, whose research formed the basis of this article.