The Town of New Castle dedicated its first new park in nearly 20 years on Sunday, honoring a beloved late town resident and treasure to generations of children.
On Sunday, the town officially added Jean Craighead George Park to its inventory of parkland, a roughly half-acre triangle of land bordered by Dunbow Drive, Douglas Road and Park Drive in Chappaqua, the neighborhood where she lived for many years.
The dedication recognized the renown children’s author, environmentalist and nature lover who wrote more than 100 books for children and young adults before her death in 2012 at 92 years old. Many of her books centered around wildlife themes.
“She captured the magic of this place in her life and her work, whether it was the tarantula in her purse or the crow that walked the George children down Begg Drive to the bus stop on the corner or the story of the other 172 wild pets that spent time in the George house,” said Jennifer Bounds, one of George’s neighbors who is leading the effort to transform the area covered with invasive vines into a park and memorial. “Jean taught generations of children to value and conserve the wild spaces that are entrusted to us.”
An hour-long ceremony on Sunday was held at the site, with her three children, daughter Twig and sons Craig and Luke, on hand. Her children, neighbors and fellow town residents shared stories, read selected passages of her work and reminisced about her impact on her readers and everyone else who came to know her.
Her son, Craig George, called her “the most interesting mom in America.” Her children said she gave each one of them their love of nature and the outdoors and she never worried when they returned with muddy clothes playing near the pond or in the woods.
“The impacts she had on so many lives was just incredible, and what she wanted to do with her writing was instill a love of literature, a love of nature and art and, of course, creating with people and that sort of thing,” Craig George said. “This park is a great tribute and I can’t thank you enough, all the people who put it together. I hope it’s a lasting honor.”
Two of George’s best-known works was “My Side of the Mountain,” which was published in 1959, and “Julie of the Wolves,” released in 1972. “My Side of the Mountain” was a Newbery Medal runner-up, while “Julie of the Wolves,” which took her to Barrow, Alaska one summer to research the animals, captured that coveted prize.
In 2016, George was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame.
With all of the accomplishments in her life, however, George could be seen shopping downtown and was a frequent visitor at local schools to speak to children.
“Jean George is not only a Chappaqua treasure but she is a treasure in the world of children’s books,” said Ronni Diamondstein, the president of the Chappaqua Library Board of Trustees. “I can’t think of a better way to honor her than to celebrate her in this neighborhood park.”
Town Historian Gray Williams, who grew up in the neighborhood and in the new park, is hopeful that the local volunteers can make it a healthy and thriving habitat.
“I do hope the park can be restored to the way it was when I was growing up – open and accessible in many seasons of the year,” Williams said.
Last spring, Bounds wrote to the town’s Recreation & Parks Commission to pitch the suggestion. Volunteers have been doing the work of clearing the invasive vines while the town’s Recreation & Parks Department has been assisting. Donations will help pay for benches, plaques and other costs, Bounds said.
The idea is to keep the area a bit wild to attract various species but to supplement with plantings, she said.
This fall George’s 106th book is being released, “Crowbar: The Smartest Bird in the World.” It is illustrated by Wendell Minor who collaborated with George on 22 books starting in the early 1990s.
Minor said he approached George around 1990 asking if he could work with her. Their first book was about the Florida Everglades, which turned out well, before she told him that the next time, they would be going someplace cold. He also went to Barrow.
Even when she would lose power at home for a week, George would always make the best of any situation.
“Nothing would ever faze her,” Minor said. “So it’s been my honor to be associated with Jean Craighead George for so many years.”