Happy 30th Birthday, Downs Park!


By Meredith Thompson

This year, John Downs Memorial Park is celebrating its 30th anniversary, yet the land on which it rests donned rich history long before its inception as Anne Arundel County’s first regional park.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800s, what is today called Downs Park was passed along by various owners and used primarily for lumbering and farming. In 1913, as 18-year-old Babe Ruth joined the Orioles for his first professional season of baseball, Baltimore’s H.R. Mayo Thom purchased the land for use as a summer estate.

Thom, a tobacco importer, outfitted the waterfront property with a mansion for his family and seven cottages for friends and workers. Today, pavilions stand where the vacation homes once were, one with a cottage’s chimney attached which serves as a stone skeleton of the park’s history.

The coveted estate, then known as Rocky Beach Farm, also featured a bay-front gazebo and bath house, and a Victorian-style garden constructed for Thom’s wife. “A ranger discovered the garden, and it was uncovered and restored back to its original condition,” explained Debbie Yeater, the park’s superintendent. “Now, Mother’s Garden is used for weddings.”

Yeater highlighted that the Bishop family owned the property from the 1940s until it was purchased by the county in 1977. Five years later, the repurposed land was opened to the public as John Downs Memorial Park in memory of John “Jack” Downs, a former county councilman who passed away in 1976.

In 1991, the Friends of Downs Park were organized as an official nonprofit group of volunteers who work tirelessly to maintain the park and coordinate community events. Today, the Friends have nine board members, a core group of regular members and countless volunteers on whom they can call for projects large and small.

Maintained by rangers, attendants and park staff, the 236 acres of Downs have offered dozens of amenities and great event venues for 30 years. “We’ve always been here ready for the public, but it took a while for the public to find us and utilize the park to its fullest,” Yeater said, alluding to the park’s somewhat secluded location.

Situated along the Chesapeake Bay, Downs Park features 2,000 feet of shoreline and a pier perfect for fishing, boat-watching or simply relaxing waterside. In addition to a dog beach, playground, picnic areas and basketball courts, the park also offers pavilions available for rent for events spanning family reunions to company picnics.

Over five miles of paved hiking and jogging trails are dotted with exercise stations along the way, and the visitors’ center showcases an educational display of wildlife found at Downs Park.

Along with over 4,000 of their closest community friends, the park staff and Friends celebrated Downs’ birthday in May with their annual Family Fun Day. Children played on moon bounces, learned about emergency vehicles, watched a magician and got their faces painted as parents enjoyed live music and browsed crafters’ stations.

“Family Day was a big success. It couldn’t have gotten any better!” smiled Yeater, who admits her favorite part of her post as park superintendent is spending time with visitors. “It was a really great day for the families.”

In the 30 years to come, and perhaps even the near future, the park staff hopes to start nature programs for school and youth groups and extend the summer concert series. Additionally, plans are underway to convert ball fields into a camping site for local scouts and youth groups.

“The population has grown, so we hope to grow what we have to offer,” Yeater said, encouraging those in the community who have not yet explored Downs Park to come on down and become a part of its history.