Back in August, while people everywhere eagerly awaited the solar eclipse, Bill Fasano and Claire Mickletz were hoping for a little bad weather. A few clouds—maybe a sprinkle—would have been nice.
Fasano and Mickletz are no spoilsports. They root for pristine weather throughout the year, the better for the myriad events they help stage at Bellevue State Park. On that August Monday, however, they preferred things a little less than perfect—they worried that there would be too little parking for those who wanted to view the eclipse at nearby Alapocas State Park.
The two parks were working together on the event, so a crowd of excited viewers could have created a traffic snarl that would have forced Bellevue to turn away some visitors. That’s something Fasano, park superintendent, and Mickletz never want to do, especially with Bellevue celebrating its 40th anniversary. Their goal has always been to draw as many people as possible to the park’s attractions and events, whether through the summer concert series, the Vendemmia da Vinci Italian Wine and Food Festival in October, annual high school cross country meets or any pleasant day that might invite a stroll on the park’s miles of paths and trails. In heavily developed North Wilmington, Bellevue is an oasis.
“I think this is a great community,” says Mickletz, Bellevue’s manager of interpretive programs. “We see a lot of people here, sometimes two times a day. They come from all of the neighborhoods and really love it.”
Delaware bought the 225-acre property, once owned by Delaware Trust Company founder and CEO William du Pont Jr., in 1976. On July 2, 1977, Bellevue opened as part of the state park system. Since then it has offered a rich mixture of history, culture, nature, special programs and events. Visitors can take part in concerts, historic tours and autumn hayrides. They can work a community garden or send their children to day camp. It’s a perfect hybrid of past and present.
“We want to preserve the historic context of the park and provide an educational environment to promote Bellevue as a part of a healthy lifestyle, as well as a source of enjoyment of nature,” says Wilma Yu, president of the Friends of Bellevue. “We want to make as many amenities available as possible.”
In addition to trails for hikers and cyclists, there is a fishing pond (folks still try to catch that 35-pound albino catfish that is said to be lurking at the bottom), but the park is designed to serve visitors in many ways.
Bellevue’s 50 acres of woods and meadows, which hearken back to the original du Pont estate, include a variety of wildlife. A big reason for preserving the meadow is to protect monarch butterflies and honeybees.
“There has been a concern about natural meadow loss due to increasing suburbanization,” Fasano says. “That reduces available food for the pollinators. The selfish interest for us is that pollinators help provide the food we eat. Honeybees will pollinate corn and soybeans that feed livestock and also help the growth of fruit and vegetables.”
The pollinators are also favorites of those who work community garden plots, which have been part of the Bellevue landscape for almost 30 years. There are 180 1,200-square-foot plots that are so popular, the wait is two years. Individuals, families and community groups all tend plots. “People come out on weekends, work the gardens, and have barbecues and parties,” Fasano says.
Perhaps the park’s biggest feature is Bellevue Hall. Du Pont had the main mansion built in the Gothic style in 1855, but when his son inherited the estate in the 1920s, he wanted it redesigned to resemble his childhood home, Montpelier, in Virginia, a former residence of James Madison. Though the exterior of the manor does not reflect the Gothic roots, the old outside walls and turrets can be seen from places inside the building. Tours of the mansion take place regularly, and it hosts 15 or so weddings a year. Business meetings are also held there.
There is considerable sporting history at Bellevue, beginning with thoroughbred racing. William du Pont Jr. was a breeder and “a horse racing fanatic,” Fasano says. Bellevue Hall had a nine-furlong track of pressed clay. (Today it is used mostly by walkers and runners.) Folks can board their horses at the stables, and private riding lessons, dressage competitions and steeplechases take place there. The Figure-8 Barn, once an indoor riding school, is available for events.
Because du Pont was married to Margaret Osborne, the winningest female tennis player in U.S. Open history (25 titles), Bellevue maintains a tennis center that is home to some of the finest clay courts in the area. It’s a private concern now, but in the 1930s and ’40s, the courts hosted many tournaments. Today, any competitions are under the auspices of the United States Tennis Association. The park resurfaces and rolls the courts every spring.
Restoration of the Mt. Pleasant School shows how the park works with the Friends of Bellevue to protect and preserve the property. When the du Ponts bought the estate in the 1850s, the schoolhouse was one of the few active one-room schools in the area. The du Ponts later converted it into a residence for the head groundskeeper. Plans have been made to transform it into offices and an interpretive exhibit, though some of the Friends wanted to restore it to its original state. Yu, a professional meeting facilitator, was able to get the two sides to agree on its future.
Another good example of how the park and the Friends work together is preservation of the parsonage on Philadelphia Pike. Originally a Methodist church, the structure has a graveyard with headstones that are 200 years old. The Friends engaged an expert in historic paints who unearthed pieces of wood with the original colors so the building’s original appearance could be re-created perfectly. The state allocated $40,000 for repairs, and the Friends secured grants of more than $60,000 to finish the job.
As the park moves forward, Yu wants to increase its presence as a place of recreation and cultural significance. That means building more Friends, a larger board and greater visitation.
“I love the park,” she says. “I think that’s the sentiment of every one of us on the board.”