Dean Perry was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and moved to northeastern Ohio as a child. Perry began working as a seasonal motor vehicle operator in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in the early 1980s and eventually worked his way up to supervisor of grounds and trails. Perry discusses the remedial work required restore the Canal Visitor Center and the Towpath Trail from their state of abandonment, as well as the restorations of Gleason Farm and Everett Village. He also describes the impacts of a major flood in 2003 and the work done to repair damage in the park.
Transcription sponsored by Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Tony Nigro [00:00:12] We'll let Kelly get set up here.
Dean Perry [00:00:19] Hopefully, I'm speaking loud enough because my voice does not carry well.
Kelly Goodpasture [00:00:24] Those pick up everything.
Dean Perry [00:00:26] Okay.
Kelly Goodpasture [00:00:26] I can hear you over that thing.
Dean Perry [00:00:26] Good, very good.
Tony Nigro [00:00:29] I was writing something yesterday with the headphones on while she's giving an interview and I can hear my pen going across the paper. It was so amazing.
Dean Perry [00:00:36] Very good. Well, that's what you need for myself. I've always had this problem as such.
Tony Nigro [00:00:46] Are you ready? I'm Tony Nigro interviewing Dean Perry for the River[s], Roads, and Rails Summer Institute, 2008. It is Tuesday, June 24, 2008. When were you born?
Dean Perry [00:01:07] December [...], 1941.
Tony Nigro [00:01:11] Where were you born?
Dean Perry [00:01:13] Birmingham, Alabama.
Tony Nigro [00:01:15] How long have you lived here in Ohio?
Dean Perry [00:01:17] The majority of my life as such. I was in the second grade when we moved to Akron, Ohio, as such.
Tony Nigro [00:01:28] And why did your family move here?
Dean Perry [00:01:30] Part of, I guess you would say, the Great Migration, dealing with jobs, opportunity and so forth, and those in the South were minimal at that time. That was also before the great Civil Rights movement. And so we had a lot of adverse situations which my family wanted to get behind them as such and give myself and my siblings and such the opportunity for advancement in life.
Tony Nigro [00:02:06] Was this a childhood dream to work for the National Parks?
Dean Perry [00:02:10] Not necessarily so. I did not become aware of the Parks as a possible job opportunity until later. But I have always had a profound interest in the outdoors, nature and so forth. Family background... My grandfather was a gentleman farmer as such with extensive holdings and I was not aware of them as much being so young, but my mother and aunts spoke of them, you know, quite a bit thereafter. And so that fueled my interest in a lot of things.
Tony Nigro [00:02:50] Okay. When did you go to work for the Park Service?
Dean Perry [00:02:55] I went to work for the Park Service, if I can remember that far back, roughly about, almost 25 years ago. I started as a seasonal, seasonal position. Motor Vehicle Operator 5.
Tony Nigro [00:03:15] Okay, what other positions have you held with the Park Service?
Dean Perry [00:03:21] Well, after that initial position, got in and started to try to better myself and work my way up through the great ranks as such. I went on to become MVO 6, which was driving heavier equipment, you know, dump trucks and trailers and so forth. And then the other opportunity came later to move up to MVO 7 and work my way up through the ranks as far as picking up knowledge, trying to find out as much as I could about the park, different types of maintenance ways to do the job better and such and giving, you know, as much input as I could, as well as picking up other aspects or knowledge from other individuals and just work my way up through the ranks. And from there, MVO 7, I became a work leader and then thereafter, sometime later, supervisor.
Tony Nigro [00:04:25] In your last position, you were the supervisor of the trails?
Dean Perry [00:04:30] Grounds and trails.
Tony Nigro [00:04:31] Grounds and trails? Okay.
Dean Perry [00:04:32] I initially started out as supervisor for just grounds and then thereafter it was enlarged to grounds and trails.
Tony Nigro [00:04:41] What are some of the things you were responsible for in that position?
Dean Perry [00:04:46] A little bit of everything that would cover those features. The park itself, as you know, covers 33,000 acres and roughly 120, maybe 127 miles of trails. And so that would therefore encompass all of the features to include the bridges on the trails, tread surfacing [and] so forth, waysides, places people could stop and rest, the grounds, mowed areas as such to include all buildings, meaning farmsteads, park buildings and other features. So it's very extensive. And we had a number of people, you know, that took care of these things.
Tony Nigro [00:05:33] Okay. And how many people did you supervise during this position?
Dean Perry [00:05:38] Well, I had two very good work leaders, if I may call them by name, David Spiring, who was in charge of trails, and Carl Franks, who was my grounds work leader, quite capable as such and know both aspects.
Tony Nigro [00:05:57] Okay. And how many years did you serve as the supervisor of this department?
Dean Perry [00:06:02] Oh, I would say approximately five years. Now during this time period to, we had, I had roughly maybe 27 workers involved to include seasonals, as well as subject to furlough individuals, and permanent staff. So and needless to say, though, even with that amount of individuals, there would be times we'd be stressed, and a little thin.
Tony Nigro [00:06:36] What has been your high point throughout your career in the Park Service?
Dean Perry [00:06:41] The high point? Seeing the park develop from what it was into what it is today. When I first arrived, it was quite rudimentary as far as features as such we had taken over the Virginia Kendall area, which is part of the Metro Parks previously, and that became our major picnic area. And then we had other areas as such. My own maintenance facility was located in the old Virginia Kendall maintenance yard, and that consisted of... We had two dump trucks, two pickup trucks. That was the extent of our fleet. And one backhoe. Other than that [it] was all wheelbarrows, hand tools, and chainsaws. And from those items, that's what we started to build the park.
Tony Nigro [00:07:36] Can you tell me a little bit about the Towpath Trail?
Dean Perry [00:07:39] The Towpath Trail was more or less a thought as such, something that had been there previously but was immensely overgrown and trees there being over 100 years old that had grown up even inside some of the locks. The trail itself, in areas, was nonexistent where it had been completely washed away. Then other areas through modernization or development, it had been taken out. And so it had to be completely reorganized, redone, redirected. Some areas, as I mentioned, was non-existent. Other areas may be two feet wide, just a little ridge running along that was very much overgrown, weeds themselves being five, six feet high. And I recall as a worker, when we first started to clear it before we could do anything going out with a weed eater, they'd send you out with a weed eater, a five-gallon can of gasoline and your lunch and tell you to go at it and just go as far as you can and try to keep in track where the old remnant of the Towpath was. That was the initial clearing processes.
Tony Nigro [00:09:01] And what steps were taken until we get to the final project?
Dean Perry [00:09:05] First of all, defining where the Towpath was and clearing this area so they could come in and be measured and such and then see what is needed. Features to include drainage areas, bridges to be built later, of course, the tread or surface to be widened to facilitate any type of activity, because before it wasn't more than just a footpath. That's what it had come to over the years.
Tony Nigro [00:09:40] What about the Canal Visitors Center? What was done over that during your career in the Parks?
Dean Perry [00:09:48] Canal Visitors Center was an old, decrepit building as such, very much run down. There had been rumors of it being part of a wayside, maybe one time brothel/general store, what have you, next to the old canal itself. And it was completely from the ground up restored as well as the adjacent lock system there, which is also completely renovated. A lot of the areas, meaning the locks, gates themselves, were just bare pieces, a few little remnants. So they had to be redone. So there's a lot of credit to be given to our historians, our researchers, architects, engineers. It was a joint process of getting all this done and then, of course, funding that we had and then most importantly, direction. During my tenure at the time there the greatest movement as such as far as the Towpath came with the arrival of a Mr. John Debo, and he was the real fire that lit the torch to start moving forward.
Tony Nigro [00:11:12] Where did the funding come from for the restoration of the Towpath and the Canal Visitors Center?
Dean Perry [00:11:19] Well, through the efforts of Mr. Ralph Regula, of course, Mr. John Seiberling had a lot of input and Mr. Debo himself went out and scrounged up, so to say, contributors and funding and access. He played them in Washington everywhere to get what was needed to get our park going as well as our railroad.
Tony Nigro [00:11:44] How long did it take from when they took over the trails and disrepair to get them to where they are today? I know it's a neverending process because there is always planning new trails, but how long for that initial?
Dean Perry [00:11:58] For the initial? Well, that's really hard to say because as you mentioned, they're always planning new trails. The Towpath itself, I would say, it took approximately, oh, five, eight years easily to get it through. It was only done in segments because you could only do so much at a time being in such a state of disrepair. To say nothing of all the trees, hundreds of trees that had to be cleared that had grown up alongside on the Towpath itself. Inside the locks, there were trees that were as large as four feet in diameter. It was just really quite an undertaking as such. And then removing these things and trying to minimally impact the surrounding environment as well. Because that's of importantance you don't just go in and tear up things. You try to do them with as least impact as possible, because after all, it is a national park and you have to take care of Mother Nature and the surroundings.
Tony Nigro [00:13:13] Since it is a national park were there any special steps taken to do things as opposed to like when they come in to do development, just strip everything down?
Dean Perry [00:13:23] First of all, there would be immense planning and a number of meetings, many meetings as such, to determine exactly what we're going to do and then what was wanted. And then therefore in the maintenance area, how we were going to go about doing them, because the Towpath, to the greatest extent, it was all more or less done in-house. Now our own people went through their cutting, cut it through as such, graded the areas as such, laid the basis for it once the earthworks were determined, building bridges along the way. And this is a year-round undertaking as such. I recall even some of the connector bridges one in specifically the South Carriage Trail bridge on the Towpath that's north of Red Lock. We put that bridge in in the middle of winter. It was 21 below zero, I recall very well. And we were out there, had to... Most of the equipment, in fact, materials had to be more or less hauled in by hand. Or else maybe one small ATV, because, as I mentioned, there was no other roadways or anything there. And so access was limited and you didn't want to adversely impact the surrounding areas.
Tony Nigro [00:14:56] What are some of the features on the trail as you travel along? Like points of interest?
Dean Perry [00:15:03] Points of interest. Numerous as such, starting with Columbia Run. That's a good one. I don't know. It's really difficult to say. Well, quite naturally, Canal Visitors Center itself up north. That's a major feature as well as Lock 29. That's in the town of Peninsula. That's definitely one to see. You can either go either north or south on that. And a number of things to see. If you go north, there's what we call a boardwalk that was built across a swamp as such, as I mentioned, again, to try to not adversely impact the environment. So when they put these things through the bridges and trails itself, all of that was, you know, thought of beforehand. So it's it's really something to see.
Tony Nigro [00:16:03] What about the Gleason farm?
Dean Perry [00:16:06] The Gleason farm as such started out with an old barn that we used to have for storage that we utilize for some storage. I think it was an old mule barn many years ago and not really definite on the complete history of it. And the farm itself was in very much disrepair and had been unoccupied for some years. And just like the Towpath, essentially you go in first, you clear the areas around these places starting by cutting down all your weeds and undergrowth as such to get an idea of where you going to go next, what's needed, buildings as such, foundations that need work or shoring or need to be redone, then the structure itself and of course, thereafter the surrounding grounds.
Tony Nigro [00:17:01] Are there any other places in the park that maybe are under consideration for restoration like the Gleason House and Virginia Kendall farm?
Dean Perry [00:17:12] Oh, there's so many you can't hardly name them. Everett village itself, now, the entire village was restored as such, all of the buildings there, they were restored back to more or less their original being. But there was just a bunch of old rundown houses, roofs caved in. Just unbelievable as such. Even our library, the Hawkins library there. I believe that used to be like at one time, even the general store/gas station, you know, over the years and what have you. But we take things back to the way that they were originally as such.
Tony Nigro [00:18:03] Okay. Oh, what aspects does flooding have on the park?
Dean Perry [00:18:09] Flooding? Well, that's gotten to be an unfortunately somewhat of a regular thing. A lot of the park features are located within the flood plain. The great flood of '03 had a really adverse impact upon the park. I recall in some of your side trails we had flooding because, you know, they had ravines, as such, you know, streams going through them. But with water coming down from other areas, it crested to the point of it overflowed the banks of some of these streams and went as high as eight feet up on the surrounding trees. We had one circumstance, as I recall, of a bridge on the Valley Trail that was north of Route 303. This is a forty-foot bridge. And after the flood, the bridge was completely gone. Nothing. And so all this had to be rebuilt or restructured. These were solidly built bridges with concrete footings and so forth, six by six pilings, lots of good, strong features. They're made to accommodate not just hikers as such, but you could get like a small ATV across them and in some cases even a pickup truck. But we lost a lot of bridges as well as trail surfaces, completely washed away. It was really tremendously impacted. Even the Virginia Kendall Lake area, I recall. That completely flooded the dock or pier itself was completely underwater. The shelter building itself flooded. We had water inside the building in the restrooms, I would say about good two feet high. We had a similar circumstance of the Canal Visitors Center that's been flooded more than once and took extensive damage. There are very high water. So flooding can play quite a part, a negative part in things. And that's a setback you have. And it makes a little difficult to move forward on other projects when you have which have to restore what you've already built.
Tony Nigro [00:20:45] Are there any steps that can be done to control the flooding or is it just a natural?
Dean Perry [00:20:53] To some extent, it's a natural way of happening, but we've done other things, too, to tender the landscape, swails or sets o help divert water flow, especially like around Canal Visitors Center, then also the installation of pumps to keep the building pumped out and the area within that, these swails or bunkers like a small dike or what have you. We've recently installed a new restroom creature comfort facility and we raised it up. It's higher than the surrounding ground in order to combat any possible future. No flooding a sense, things like that, rerouting of trails in some areas take them up into areas where they wouldn't be impacted as such. The towpath, for the most part, is rock bass and gravel and finds feature some areas. We went ahead and paved them, you know, did them in asphalt assets because they would be under water at different times during floods, even minor floods. But they wouldn't wash away. And I would guess that just some of the things.
Tony Nigro [00:22:23] Where was your favorite part of the park just to go and enjoy?
Dean Perry [00:22:28] Favorite part of the park. That's a good one because there's a lot of places there to enjoy. I know one I would recommend for families is the horseshoe pond area. It's got good handicap access, parking. It's quite scenic. It's a very nice little pond or Horseshoe Lake there with a pavilion. It has a couple of spots for fishing, you know, raised platforms, a deck or boardwalk leading around to it, to the pavilion, which is in the center of the pond feature. So to say, it's quite scenic. So that's that's a good one to. I would highly recommend. And it's just I don't know there are so many different features. How can you pick a particular? Everyone has their own favorites.
Tony Nigro [00:23:24] What advice would you give to children that wanted to eventually have a career in the Park Service?
Dean Perry [00:23:31] Persuade your parents to become volunteers and let them also volunteer. Because in today's times, our volunteers are very crucial, very important to the park, it being as large as it is and so much to cover. We need all the help that we can get as far as manpower as well as, you know, dollars.
Tony Nigro [00:24:01] What would you need to do to volunteer?
Dean Perry [00:24:08] I would first go to the Visitor's Center, either Happy Days Visitor Center or Canal Visitor Center there, and interpretation could tell you who to get in contact with. There's numerous programs where they want to work on the trails. We have our adaptive trail programs working in concurrence also with the Great Trail Council, the horseman's, you know, I think it's Ohio Horseman... OHC. Ohio Horseman's Company or Consideration, a number of things, you know, you could do to volunteer that would help.
Tony Nigro [00:24:54] Kelly, do you have any questions you'd like add?
Kelly Goodpasture [00:25:00] You mentioned John Debo. Who exactly is he?
Dean Perry [00:25:04] John Debo as our superintendent, as such.
Tony Nigro [00:25:09] How many years has he been superintendent of the park?
Dean Perry [00:25:12] That's a good question. I really couldn't tell you off hand, but he's been there long enough to make a major difference in things not taking away from those who had preceded him as such. I remember we had a Mr. Lou Albert was the superintendent when I first arrived there, and he initiated a number of things, programs especially involving the railroad. But Mr. Debo came on board. After Mr. Albert left, things went. He took things more than just a step forward to include the railroad as well as the Towpath and really, really got things going and got Cuyahoga Valley on the map. Because when I first arrived, it was a National Recreation Area, so to say, and thereafter it became a National Park. And also it was in the top 10 parks in the nation here, I would say possibly at least the past three to five years. We got as high as number three in the nation. And that's saying quite a bit when you take into consideration parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and so forth.
Tony Nigro [00:26:33] So are you pleased with the amount of people that come and enjoy the park?
Dean Perry [00:26:37] Yes, I am quite pleased, but there could be even more visitation as such because it's still amazing. The number of people who are not aware that we have a national park here in the area. A lot of people think maybe there's just metro parks, which is really just the perimeter. They need to get into the park proper, which is Cuyahoga Valley. Needless to say, too, there has been programs involving metro parks where they have scent trails that tie into our Towpath now. So it's really benefiting the public as a whole number of major things that they can do.
Tony Nigro [00:27:20] What areas of the park do you think are underutilized or like a real gem that not many people know about?
Dean Perry [00:27:28] Hmm. I'd have to think hard and also test my memory as such. Canal Visitor Center is one that could stand even more usage as such. Jaite, Red Lock, that's one of our trailheads, the best way to do is go to the visitors center, get a map, and they would give you all the information that you would need as far as what the different features are, where they're located, how to get to them and what all it entails. Just about all of them now have comfort facilities, which at one time we did not. And it has really developed into quite a bit. It's a fine park and getting even better.
Tony Nigro [00:28:25] Is there anything you'd like to add we've not touch on?
Dean Perry [00:28:29] Well, nothing more than to say I hope that folks will keep the ball rolling and get out there and enjoy some of all that goodness because it's there waiting for you. It really is.
Tony Nigro [00:28:42] And that feels good that you have a lasting legacy, knowing that you've been in charge of creating the grounds and helping the trails along during your service.
Dean Perry [00:28:52] Well, I just been a part of things as such because there's been numerous other individuals there and people didn't, so to say work for me, they work with me. And then that included those that were in higher positions as well. You know, we all worked together because we had one major goal trying to make the park better and make it more or less what it is today and hopefully even better yet, one day.
Tony Nigro [00:29:25] Thank you.
Dean Perry [00:29:27] A string of guys walking behind the pickup truck, picking up the rocks, the big rocks by hand. And the same thing with a lot of our bridges that we put in. You didn't drive to the site. You took the nearest roadway to an area which might be a mile away. Then you would pack the stuff in by hand. I remember carrying an eight by eight, ten-foot beam on my back by myself, and the other guys are doing the same. All the materials to build a bridge, whether it be the timbers, the nails, the bags of concrete and what we may have used one ATV because we had to go cross country as such and we did not want to impact the surrounding area and to give any trace that there's been any access to these areas whatsoever. So we go in, bring in all the materials and so forth, little by little. Until we got it all there then commenced to do the site whether it be digging it out by hand because there was no equipment available at that time to do so. And these are some really nice bridges too. But guys, they did they did a lot. They really did gave it their all there. Unfortnately now things have gotten a lot better. Now we have Bobcat excavators and front loaders and different things that make it a lot easier to do. But getting the same results. [recording ends]
Interviews in this series, covering topics relating to the preservation of the West Creek and Cuyahoga River watershed (Cleveland, Ohio), were collected by participating teachers in the Rivers Roads and Rails grant, a Teaching American History (TAH) grant, sponsored by the US Dept of Education.