HOLYOKE – A leisurely walk to Scott Tower doesn’t last long for Robert Gubala, who stops 50 feet up his first trail to pick up a thick piece of broken glass. He turns it over and notes it’s a 1970s era Budweiser bottle, easily spotted from the raised logo on the amber glass.
A few yards later he pauses to made sure the small dirt berm he and his father built several years ago to prevent trail washouts is still working. And then there was the large limb that fell across the trail.
“There is another tree I have to take care of,” Gubala said, moving it out of the way until he can return with his bow saw to cut it into smaller pieces.
Gubala was still in middle school when he became the self-appointed weed-wacker, trash-cleaner and all-around trail maintenance guru of Anniversary Hill, keeping a once-thriving recreation area complete with picnic tables, parking lots and a pool still usable.
The park on the hill was conceived in 1923 and depression-era Works Project Administration crews built stone bridges and the now-dilapidated Scott Tower observation station in the 1930s. It once had a picnic grove, manicured trails wide enough for baby strollers, a paved road that led to the tower and was considered the crown jewel of the city’s parks.
But in the 1960s, Interstate 91 was constructed and cut off access to the western part of the park. It slowly fell into decline and the pool, which was one of the biggest draws, was removed around the early 1990s, said Yoni Glogower, director of conservation and sustainability in Holyoke.
“It is not actively maintained as a city park,” Glogower said.
That does not mean Anniversary Hill is no longer used – remnants of a pavilion and the metal bases of picnic tables remain although the wooden seats have long since eroded and hikers and dog walkers are welcome as long as they are respectful. Community Field, which has a large playground, spray park, dog park and other amenities, is just below it and many walk past the field to explore the wooded trails, he said.
There are now plans to restore the park to some of its former glory, especially with the city’s recent purchase of 14.1 acres of open space that connects to Anniversary Hill. The city officially closed on the purchase of the property on Oct. 7 and about a week later it received a state Land and Water Grant for $520,000 to help improve the park, Glogower said.
But for now, without Gubala the trails would quickly become overgrown and the large volume of trash the volunteers collect would litter the trails and tower.
“It is a passion. Some people like to go to the gym, I like doing this,” he said.
It all started when Gubala was in middle school and his grandparents lived close by so he would explore the multiple trails in the park.
“One day someone vandalized a bunch of trees with a hatchet and they would fall on the trail. I got some tiny garden shears and I started cleaning them up,” Gubala said. “I would never have gotten into it if it wasn’t for that.”
As he got older, Gubala graduated to larger tools and learned more about maintaining the park. He continued while in high school and working part-time at JP’s Restaurant, after graduation when the part-time job became a full-time one. He now works at the Holyoke Water Works and continues in his spare time.
As he uncovered bridges and other remnants of the park’s glory days, Gubala also visited the Holyoke Public Library’s history room to view old pictures and learn more about the park.
There are actually four people that he knows of who work to keep the area clear, including his father. Two other men he runs to from time from time mostly work independently on maintaining the area. All of them do the work behind the scenes.
Gubala isn’t entirely a lone wolf. He has the blessing of the Parks and Recreation Department, which allows him to toss the trash he collects into the dumpster at Community Field and will occasionally unlock the gate so he can drive up the road with equipment like a weed-wacker and easily haul out large bags of trash.
In fact, for his next project, Gubala is seeking permission to place trash cans at the tower, which he has volunteered to empty regularly. The area around Scott Tower, which is covered with decades worth of graffiti, is usually littered with bottles, cans and other trash.
Everyone so often he and a few friends go up to the tower and clean out the litter when it gets excessive. Sometimes one of them – not Gubala who admits to a fear of heights – will even walk up to the top of the tower despite some missing stairs and overall spookiness and use a leaf blower to clear out the litter.
“It is a party spot for local kids. I just wish they wouldn’t break the bottles,” he said. “For one thing a lot of people walk their dogs up here and the glass gets into their paws.”
It isn’t just dogs either, there are plenty of wild animals – from squirrels and deer to coyotes and bears – which are spotted on Anniversary Field and can be badly injured if they step on broken glass, he said.
Gubala said he used to ride his bike up to the tower but stopped because there was just so much glass.
Problems with dumping at Anniversary Field are legendary. Before the gate was installed around 2000 people drove up the road and dumped furniture and appliances and even abandoned cars. And it wasn’t all random vandals: In 2000 city officials learned the then Parks and Recreation Director Phillip A. Chesky had been using the area to dump huge tree trunks, old park benches and other trash. Chesky was ordered to clean it up and a phalanx of volunteers from AmeriCorps also cleared out couches, tires, fast food wrappers and so much more.
Gubala still finds and clears out debris left from that time. He points to a hunk of twisted metal – part of an old swing set – on a slope that leads to a grown-in ski trail people would hike to and ski to a spot near the former Lynch School.
But it isn’t just about cleaning up litter. He points to a little-used trail his father, who walks the area daily, has started clearing that leads to one of four stone bridges made by the WPA. Only one is used now and even that one was vandalized at one time by people who removed some of the stones – likely for a campfire.
A cornerstone that is still hidden by overgrowth has a date of 1940, showing when masons likely completed work on the bridge.
Pointing to a culvert that runs under the road, Gubala said keeping it clear and maintained is one of the most important things he and his father do because the steep road would otherwise flood and freeze over in the winter.
Down the hill a bit is a wide crack in the pavement. Gubala identified it as another old culvert and yet another project. He said he needs to find out where it starts, where it ends and to clean it out again to stop the road from flooding.
He also points to a hidden stone set of stairs in the woods near the tower that now lead to nothing and a stone honoring Col. Walter Scott that was mostly invisible because of the brush covering it. Recently he took a weed-wacker up to clear it so walkers can now read it if they take a few steps off the beaten path.
The stone reads: “Given by Holyoke’s adopted citizen Colonel Walter Scott of New York City September 4, 1923 on the occasion of the city’s fiftieth anniversary. This site from Easthampton Road to Cherry Street forms the Connecting link between Craft’s property and Anniversary Hill.”
The city is now starting the process of trying to restore some of the property, but the plans call for the area to remain forested instead of trying to restore old picnic groves and other amenities that are located just below at Community Field.
Some of the idea to restore the area was jump-started when a 2019 proposal to build 200 condominiums on 14 acres that connects to Anniversary Field fell through and the developer put the land up for sale. The city decided to try to purchase the land to preserve it as open space, Glogower said.
The city applied for a federal Land and Water grant and Community Preservation Act money to pay the about $300,000, but officials were concerned about the time it takes to secure the funding, he said.
The Kestrel Land Trust, a non-profit land conservation organization, stepped in and purchased the property, located off Overlook Drive, to protect it until the city could secure the grant funding it needed, he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the work even more but the grants were eventually awarded, half of which was from Community Preservation funds and the other from the federal grant, the city was able to purchase the land that the Kestrel Foundation was holding, Glogower said.
In mid-October the city received a second Land and Water grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior for $520,000 and will use that money to begin the process to preserve the tower and make Anniversary Hill more accessible to the public, he said.
A year ago city officials joined with the Kestrel Foundation to hold an event at Community Field to ask the public for ideas on how to “reimagine” Anniversary Hill. The city also received about $25,000 in Community Preservation Act money last year to do a design assessment, Glogower said.
“The goal is to find out what we can do as a community to increase accessibility to the area,” he said. “We now need to do a full engineering and design concept.”
Part of that plan will be to find a way to preserve Scott Tower so that piece of history is not lost to vandalism and weather damage. Another thought is to add a kiosk at the gated entrance of the trails to give people more information about the history of the area and the walking trails that wind through the property, he said.
It also received an additional $100,000 state MassTrails grant to create a handicap accessible trail to Scott Tower, a new park entrance and full geolocation of existing trails and a geological survey of the property.
Part of the effort will be done through volunteer efforts and Glogower recently already met with Gubala who brought him on an extensive tour of Anniversary Field, showing spots like a now mostly dry water hole that children once swam in, as well as the blocked culverts and damaged bridges.
Gubala said he was thrilled about the work done to save the 14 acres from development and the plans to improve Scott Tower. But it doesn’t mean he will quit picking up litter and clearing the trails he has been working on for nearly 20 years.
“I think it’s great that they are preserving the land,” he said, estimating he has spent about 40 hours this summer maintaining the property.
This isn’t Gubala’s only restoration project either. He is also currently the president of the Patriot’s All Terrain Club of Western and Central Massachusetts which helps to preserve property ATV riders use. Most of the club’s work is in the Berkshires – riding is not allowed at Anniversary Field, he said.