John Shearer: Exploring And Searching For Greenways, Part 17 – The Surprisingly Neat Tree Of Life Park In Bonny Oaks

Monday, October 19, 2020 - by John Shearer

While doing a recent story on the old McDonald Farm property in Sale Creek that is being eyed as a future industrial park, I looked on the Hamilton County parks website to see what parks were in that part of Hamilton County.


I found only the small Bakewell Park listed in that area, but my eyes did catch the name of a park in another part of Hamilton County that I admittedly had never heard of.

It was the Tree of Life Park, located off Bonny Oaks Drive. 


Since the photograph of it made it look pretty enough to visit for exercise at least once, I headed there on Oct. 8 late one morning from our Northgate area home with our 13-year-old Westie dog, Maisie.


I was surprised that it took us only about 10 minutes to get through the usually bothersome Highway 153 traffic lights by the mall and Hamill Road, and down not overly inspiring Bonny Oaks Drive to get there.


The park is located beside the industrial and business park across the main thoroughfare from the historic Bonny Oaks Children’s Home buildings and the newer satellite county clerk/assessor’s office. I parked my car in the mostly deserted park parking lot and proceeded to walk with Maisie and try and take some pictures, despite the mostly cloudy day.


Unfortunately, we had not gone more than 100 yards when a big German shepherd-type dog came running out from one of the fenced yards along the path and proceeded to say “hello” or “who are you” with a series of loud barks.


Maisie quickly said “goodbye” and decided to turn around and move at a quick gait back in the direction of the car.


As a result, I realized I would have to explore this park at another time on my own. But to give her some exercise before lunch, we did cross over Bonny Oaks Drive and park our car by the historic chapel. It had been built in 1939 for the orphanage and is now used by the expanded Chattanooga Church pastored by Morty Lloyd, son of the late Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd.


We walked through the nice arboretum, glanced at the historic education building now used by UT Extension Services and other agencies, and then walked around the pretty former Dent House and outbuildings. Today, the 19th century Dent House – which predates the children’s home – houses Polly Claire’s dining facility.


It was all a nice setting as we, especially Maisie, happily continued walking, despite the passing of a number of cars apparently belonging to those visiting the tag registration and renewal office.


I did feel like I was renewing my soul by visiting here. What really caught my eye and what I had not noticed before was a nice grassy area to the left as you look at the front of the Dent House. Here are a number of trees – including several “bonny (or pretty) oaks” -- that provide a nice setting amid all the development and business parks surrounding the site.


There were also some vintage picnic tables and some double-stacked concrete benches that were stuck together, causing me to become curious what they were.


But I loved the setting and was glad Maisie and I had come here after initially planning to go to the Tree of Life Park. I know she was definitely enjoying not having to face that German shepherd again!


And what this side of Bonny Oaks Drive lacks in greenspace, it makes up for in vintage buildings among a nice and aesthetically pleasing setting.


The only suggestion I would make to this apparently county-owned land is to maybe add some more sidewalks through the grassy area I just referenced and create a small loop of some kind that is also safe from the traffic. I would have to go back and examine it again to see if that is possible. Or at least officials could have it where the circular Adamson Circle is not crossed more than once.


I did go ahead and visit the Tree of Life Park the next day. By then, the multi-day rain pattern was beginning to set in, making me feel like I was in London. But that did not keep me from enjoying the setting and realizing the greenspace is much more expansive than I originally thought. 


The park, no doubt part of a runoff area next to the office and industrial park, is nice when seen from the entrance by the parking lot. It has a long grassy area about 100 yards wide and it seems to go back about 500 yards.


Trees line the paved path and hill to the right/east, as does a giant power tower, and there is a small grassy enclave under the shade where some picnic tables are. Mid-century houses likely resided in by those of median income also line the east side where our German shepherd friend was, and some of the business offices/small-scale industrial line the west side. 


Except for one or two of the facilities that might have a little too much metal siding, most of the buildings are well designed and give one a sense of suburbia here. 


The park got its name because in about the early 1990s, Betina Justice from Tennessee Donor Services came up with an idea to honor those who had donated life-saving organs through the planting of trees. Benches in memory of people also dot the park, although I would have encouraged them to come up with a little higher quality bench material.


When I first visited, I thought it was a neat place with plenty of grass to jog, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an even prettier tract as I moved on. 


What I came to realize then and enjoyed in a follow-up jog on Saturday, Oct. 17, amid much sunnier skies and more ideal weather is that the land is much more expansive than I thought. Actually, I am not sure if they are all connected, but the large undeveloped meadow across a fence on the far end from the parking area and a small wooded area at the end of the L-shaped space are what make this greenway nice in my mind.


I try to write these stories about greenway visits simply with what I see and deliberately don’t get tied down investigating who might own the property around a space. But this surrounding land would be nice to incorporate into the park, if it is not already.


The meadow that straddles Hancock Road has some old trees to accent its rolling terrain, and it looks like an old farm, even with an old basketball court and tennis court. Those, like the land now used as the business and office park apparently came from the Bonny Oaks school and farm that closed in 1985. 


And then on the end by Jersey Pike in an area accessed through a small opening between the fence by the meadow and the office/business properties sits the area covered by some giant trees. The area had just recently been mowed, and I also saw someone mowing the giant field on Oct. 9. 


If somehow all this land can become a big park and the fallen limb trash and overgrowth around the big trees can be cleaned up, Hamilton County could have a really nice park. That is, even though this is one of the few local park spaces where one apparently cannot see any of the area’s ridge-like mountains or the Tennessee River on the horizon.


Also needed is an extension of the asphalt walking path through the meadow and down to the wooded green space by Jersey Pike. In fact, it seems to be calling out for a path like a child asking his mother to stop by a fast-food restaurant on the way home from elementary school.


As I mentioned, I have not investigated whether the area beyond the fence by Hancock Road or the wooded area by Jersey Pike are part of some future development, but they would help create a wonderful park if the fence were to be removed.


And I love that old house on Jersey Pike just a short distance south with grass on either side, although it might be hard to connect it with any path or current park space.


The meadow along Hancock Road still looks like a farm, and that is sometimes what creates a literal “call of the wild” to turn bucolic land into a park. 


In fact, I realized the meadow area had at least two black walnut trees on its southeastern edge. The green-colored walnuts had fallen on the ground Saturday, and I picked up one or two and smelled that wonderful smell of fall.


It sure beat the smells of fumes from cars on Bonny Oaks Drive, Jersey Pike and Highway 153.


And the views were pleasant surprises as well and not what I expected to find by an industrial/office park.


* * * * *


To see the previous story in this series, read here.


* * * * *

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