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What is Greenfield Lake?

Ben Steelman
Greenfield Lake

Visitors enjoy the scenery at Greenfield Lake in Wilmington. (StarNews file photo)

One of Wilmington’s oldest parks, Greenfield Lake has problems, but it remains one of the city’s prettiest locations.

A five-mile walkway takes pedestrians around gorgeous stands of azaleas in the spring. Official lore has it that, in the 1930s, Dr. W. Houston Moore, a local physician and civic leader, was admiring the blooms while circling the lake in his car, when he got the idea for an Azalea Festival in Wilmington. (It was Moore, in 1947, who called deputies from all the civic clubs together to get the ball rolling.) Large stands of Spanish moss hang from tall, knobby-rooted cypress trees. Dozens of species of waterfowl make their homes around the lake at different times of the year, along with a population of Canada geese who seem to like the place so much, they’ve decided to settle.

The park nestles in the curve where Third Street intersects with Burnett Boulevard and turns into Carolina Beach Road. It’s encircled by the east and west branches of Lake Shore Drive. The main entrance is by way of South Fifth Avenue; the park office is at 302 Willard St., Wilmington [Map this].

The “lake” was originally a network of creeks at Greenfields, a rice plantation developed by Dr. Samuel Green, beginning around 1730. Green developed them into a millpond and a spillway to run the mill, parts of which are still visible from Carolina Beach Road at the Burnett Boulevard intersection. (According to local historian Jack Fryar, a mill building still stood at the lake as late as 1912.) Today, the lake averages 4-5 feet in depth, although some parts might be as deep as 7 feet.

In 1912, the Tidewater Power Company extended its trolley lines to Greenfield Lake, and the property started to draw visitors. As vintage photos attest, many local youngsters used it as a swimming hole as late as the 1920s. (That’s not advisable today. The lake supports a fairly large population of alligators.) In 1918, the partners in the Bijou Theatre downtown opened an amusement park on the grounds that ran for a season or two, complete with a roller coaster, a hippodrome and a petting zoo. None of these lasted except the petting zoo, which was in place, intermittently, until the 1980s.

In 1924, the city operated a lakeside campsite by the park, but the big push came from City Commissioner J.E.L. “Hi Buddy” Wade — the same fellow who gave us the World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree — who took title to the lake property in 1925 for $25,000. During the Great Depression, WPA workers cleared underbrush, landscaped the grounds and built elaborate terraces.

Today, Greenfield Park consists of 250 acres, with tennis courts, children’s playgrounds, picnic tables and grills, a concession stand, a “fragrance garden” of aromatic flowering plants and a network of hiking trails. Facilities are free; paddleboats and canoes are available to rent in season. There’s a skateboard park. (Sorry, dude: Skateboards aren’t allowed elsewhere around the lake.)

An open-air amphitheater was built in 1962 on the south side of the lake, at 1941 Amphitheater Drive, Wilmington [Map this]. Originally it was equipped with wooden benches left over from the 1938 premiere of “The Lost Colony.” A $1.2 million renovation in 2008 upgraded the amphitheater (including more comfortable seats), which now plays host to outdoor concerts and the annual free productions of Shakespeare on the Green, held on summer weekends.

An unusual landmark near the amphitheater is the World’s Largest Rotary Wheel, a brickwork with garden space built by local Rotary clubs. Local Lions, not to be outdone, built a wooden “Lions’ Bridge” over one of the fingers of the lake.

Greenfield Lake tends to evoke nostalgia. Folks will remember the carousel that used to be there from the early ’50s until 1979, or the petting zoo. (In 2008, local artist Michael Van Hout installed a 13-foot metal sculpture of a giraffe at the former zoo site.) They might even claim to remember when the lake was actually clean.

Stormwater runoff washes pounds of fertilizer from nearby suburban lawns into the lake, promoting the growth of green slime (what city officials politely call “nuisance plants”), leaving the water a sickly color. City officials have tried everything short of confronting well-to-do homeowners, and a number of remedies have been tried over the years. Currently, Wilmington uses a three-pronged strategy: (1. deploying sterile grass carp to eat the water plants (they’re sterile, so they can’t outbreed native species), (2. applying an “environmental herbicide” called Sonar and (3. putting out “Solar Bee aerators,” floating devices that look sort of like the rotating cages from a lottery, which run on solar power and churn oxygen from the surface into bottom water, thus increasing the lake’s oxygen levels. This is good for the fish and wildlife, not-so-good for the green slime.

So far, the strategy seems to be doing some good, and oldtimers will say Greenfield Lake looks the best it has in years — a good thing, since it’s a little embarrassing to have one of your parks on the state’s list of “impaired water bodies.”

Like other Wilmington city parks, Greenfield Park and Lake are open to the public from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. All facilities are free, except the paddleboats and canoes. Picnic shelters can be rented for events on a sliding scale: $20 for 4 hours for non-profit groups, $30 for 4 hours for a fundraiser, $40 for 4 hours for a for-profit event. For complete rules and other details, call 341-7852.

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One Response to “ What is Greenfield Lake?”

  1. On June 28, 2009 at 8:43 am Pat (Badon) Burton wrote:

    Born in 1941, I was raised in Sunset Park. Greenfield lake was like part of my yard. I recall us kids swimming there in the late 40’s and 50’s. The water must have been fairly clean (none of us died from it) but the tannic acid from the cypress trees stuck to every tiny hair on your body so you looked really strange when you got out of the water. We loved swimming there but were cautioned to never go near the spillway. I have, in my younger years, walked, biked, paddled, & swam many miles in that lake. It is still mysterious, inviting, and beautiful. I ride over there every time I come “home” to Wilmington. Hope someone will keep the park in the good shape it deserves.

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