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Erik Burgess, Published October 12 2012

A park promise 53 years in making

MOORHEAD – Fifty-three years is a long time to keep a promise.

The letter is dated Jan. 5, 1958, and the black, typeset words fade in and out like the waning signal of an old radio.

In the letter, the mayor of Moorhead at the time thanks a citizen for donating riverside land to the city behind what is now the Hjemkomst Center. The mayor promises a park will be built there in honor of the donor’s grandfather, Nels Melvey, a mayor here in the early 1900s who helped build a City Hall that stood for five decades.

But Nels Melvey Park was never built. The letter was stored away and forgotten, the promise left incomplete – until now.

The City Council on Monday recognized Glenn Melvey, the man who donated that land 50-odd years ago, voting to fulfill – at least partially – what their predecessors had agreed to a generation ago.

Not that Melvey is bitter.

“It wasn’t any neglect,” the 88-year-old said this week. “I filed the letter away and forgot it. And they forgot it.”

The land had been in the family for generations. Melvey said his grandfather, who was in the construction business, used it as a lumber yard.

In the 1940s, his grandfather passed away, and his parents inherited the land. After his father died and his mother retired, the land ended up in his possession.

But Melvey couldn’t live along the banks of the Red River forever. He accepted a job in Fargo in 1950 and deeded the land to the city with the promise of a park.

Then-mayor I.T. Stenerson thanked Melvey for the donation in that letter, but the park agreement never amounted to anything.

“Sometimes things fall through the cracks, and I suspect that’s probably what happened here,” said Mark Peihl, Clay County’s historical archivist.

Peihl was brought in by the city to corroborate the transaction after Melvey presented that old letter in June and asked that the park be finally built.

After some digging, Peihl confirmed the letter and the promise were real. The only thing wrong was the date. The letter should’ve been dated 1959.

“Like lots of letters written in January, this one had the wrong year,” Peihl said.

But another larger problem remained – Melvey originally asked for a children’s park, but just feet from the river, the area is prone to flooding and a poor place for equipment.

“(Melvey) concurred that with the flooding back and forth that the original proposal would not be something that was possible and last more than a year,” said Holly Heitkamp, Moorhead’s recreation division supervisor.

So while the long-ago promised park is not possible, the city voted Monday to dedicate the bike path located in what is now called Viking Ship Park in honor of Nels.

“I was really glad that Glenn brought it to our attention because we were able to acknowledge the things that his grandfather did,” said Mark Voxland, the present-day mayor.

Melvey still remembers the days he spent working and playing with his grandfather, unloading lumber next to the river and enjoying Nels’ award winning backyard.

“He had fish ponds and little elves and windmills and watermills working and fishermen and frogs sitting on the banks of the fish pool spitting water,” he said. “It was a very charming yard.”

Nels Melvey served on City Council here from 1907 until 1917 and was the city’s mayor from 1917 until 1919.

He also helped build City Hall, which was south of Center Avenue on the corner of Fifth St from 1920 until it was demolished as part of the city’s downtown urban renewal in 1973.

“I had a lot of respect for my grandfather,” Melvey said. “He was a leader, I thought, in Moorhead for many things – being a mayor and building so many of the important buildings for Moorhead.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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