From mink farm to city park

Published 9:11 am Saturday, October 18, 2008

It’s a long, long distance between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Albert Lea, yet the two localities once had one thing in common. Both had a place called Coney Island.

The still active and famous New York location was originally an island, later connected to the mainland, which became a popular destination because of its historic Boardwalk and amusement park. It reportedly acquired its name in the early 1600s because of an abundance of rabbits on the island. And, according to several research sources, the Dutch who originally pioneered in the New York City area used the word in their language for rabbit as a name for this locality.

Just how an island that evolved at the north end of newly created Fountain Lake in the early 1860s acquired its Coney name is a detail now lost in the haze of history. Maybe the place had an abundance of rabbits and maybe it was something else.

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By 1950, the somewhat isolated woodsy island at the very west end of Hammer Road was a place with several residences and buildings which were part of the Nelson Mink Farm.

The owner of this fur producing operation, Leonard Nelson, died on Feb. 11, 1950, while hunting fox from the air and his aircraft crashed near Geneva. His widow, Mabel Nelson, continued to operate the mink farm.

About 1970, the city started to negotiate with Mrs. Nelson to purchase the 33-acre Coney Island property. In December 1972, the Albert Lea City Council approved an agreement to purchase the land for possible use as a park and nature preserve. However, one council member, Bob Quackenbush of the First Ward, wanted the site developed into residential use. Yet, he made the motion to purchase Coney Island for conversion into a park, contingent on getting state and federal funds to help with the proposed purchase price.

It took two more years to get the needed funds and to finalize the purchase agreement with Mrs. Nelson for the former mink farm property. Thus, in the spring of 1974 a cleanup project to covert the island into a park started. A group of 10 young people, working for the city under the Summer Youth Employment Program, carried out a good part of this two-year undertaking. All the buildings and structures, except three, were either torn down or moved away. This crew also cleared away brush, removed trash and old mink pens, and eliminated poison ivy.

Finally, in early 1976, this new addition to the city’s park system was opened for public use. Also, about this time the Coney Island name was phased out and replaced with Bancroft Bay City Park.

One of the buildings of the former mink farm was a brick structure. It was used by the city for storage of maintenance equipment for a few years, then torn down. Another structure, described as both a wooden shed and small barn, was intended to be used as a “orientation center.” This project never became reality and the shed was later demolished. The third structure was a small silo which was eventually demolished. Today, there are no reminders of the mink farm.

During the three decades this area has been a city park there have been several major improvements. The wire fences were replaced with split rail wood fences. Two parking lots are available for visitors. There are two picnic shelters, numerous wooden tables, restroom facilities, canoe landing and launching sites, a lookout platform facing the lake or bay, and two new Frisbee disc golf courses. One has 18 targets and the second has nine targets. (For a Frisbee disc golf course the above ground target designation replaces the use of the word hole.)

There were two other features proposed for this park that never came about: an amphitheater and the orientation center.

A visit to this park now confirms this city’s original intention to restore a good portion of the island to its natural prairie-like status.

In the early 1990s an adjoining mostly wooded area between the island and the city’s airport property was added to the park. This expanded the park’s size to the present 81 acres. Thus, Bancroft Bay is now the city’s largest park.

There may no real comparisons which can be made for Albert Lea’s Coney Island and New York’s more famous version. However, there are several obvious comparisons that can be made between Bancroft Bay City Park and what’s now Myre-Big Island State Park.

Both parks are accessed by a roadway over a somewhat narrow isthmus. The original portions of these parks are actually large peninsulas surrounded on three sides by water. And both parks have a connection with the annual Big Island Rendezvous.

The Big Island Rendezvous started in 1987 at what was then Helmer Myre State Park and moved its early October festivities to Bancroft Bay Park in 1992.