DANVILLE -- Ross Smith has his very own field of dreams.
It's a neglected 2.7-acre park nestled neatly between Montair Elementary School and the Montair neighborhood.
Smith is determined to transform the park, dubbed Montair Nature Trail, from an eyesore and party spot back into the community treasure it was in its heyday.
"The bones of the park are still in place," Smith said. "It's a great educational opportunity for kids to get out and take a walk to look at the trees and bugs and rocks and the creatures. There are a lot of raccoons and possums. I even saw a coyote down there once."
The retired geologist stumbled onto the hidden-in-plain-sight gem a year ago when he was out for a stroll.
"I walked across a field when I was walking my next-door neighbor's dog and stumbled across a brass plaque buried in the field," Smith recalled. "It said Maevis Wood Amphitheater. I wondered what it was."
The plaque piqued Smith's interest, so he called a friend with the last name Wood. Turns out Maevis Wood is that friend's mother and the first Montair principal. That led Smith to visit the Museum of San Ramon Valley, of which he's a former president, to explore the park and trail even further.
"I found out that this was a substantial park," Smith said. "Lo and behold, I found a bunch of old pictures of this park."
The nature area was owned by the Danville Union School District, now the San Ramon Valley Unified School District. The park and accompanying trail were developed in 1963 by the Montair PTA in conjunction with the Kiwanis, Rotary and Lions clubs. The park featured a 400-seat amphitheater for outdoor education, an astronomy and weather station, several wood picnic tables and benches, barbecue pits, water fountains and lighting.
The adjacent trail runs along a creek behind the school and ultimately circles the entire campus. Students used two redwood bridges to get from the trail and school to the park on the other side of the creek. Sadly, the petite park and trail fell into disrepair in the late 1960s and were completely trashed just a few years after opening to great fanfare.
"As soon as I saw this area, I was intrigued," Danville parks Commissioner Stewart Proctor said.
"What got my attention is that (Smith is) pulling together a lot of energy. Whenever we can harness something that's already in motion, it's a lot easier than fighting your way upstream."
Indeed, Smith has already wrangled the local Kiwanis Club, of which he's a member, to help in initial cleanup efforts along the trail. Smith and more than a dozen club members labored to remove overgrown poison oak and blackberry brambles. They also removed concrete blocks with spikes that had previously been topped with redwood rounds.
"It was something that Kiwanis had been involved with in the '60s," club President Paul Byer said of Kiwanis' involvement. "It's good for the school, and we like to work with children. It's good for the community, and we like to help the community. It fit all of our criteria, so it became a community service project."
The Kiwanis Club of San Ramon Valley will continue to be involved in renovation efforts by volunteering a couple of work days per year, Byer said. The group will also help collect funds for renovations.
"It's a job that needs to be done," he said. "Right now, it's an eyesore. It serves no function. It appears as though people are using it at night to drink. That's not good for the community. Why not take it back and make it a nice walking area for the kids and maybe a learning area?"
Currently, the wooded trail comes to an abrupt halt where it meets the fence surrounding the school. Smith will pitch to school district officials his idea of replacing the fence with a gate that can be opened and shut as needed.
"Site safety is always one of our main concerns," said Gary Black, the school district's assistant superintendent of facilities. "Money is definitely a challenge. One of the biggest challenges with volunteer drives is that we have to look at the one-time outlay of capital versus the ongoing costs."
The school district has several parks that are jointly owned and maintained by the district and town, Black noted. The Montair Nature Trail is owned exclusively by the district.
"Certainly keeping within that tradition of joint use, I would think that anything that makes sense for the town and the school district would be discussed," he said. "At this point, we're just listening to people's thoughts, gathering opinions and listening to proposals."
Smith, who lives near the nature area, has already recruited Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to channel their community service projects into improving the park, such as adding benches or cleaning up the park and trail. He's also recruiting the Rotary and Lions clubs to get involved. The local Grange chapter, a farmers group, has donated $250. Smith's dream is to buy large boulders that represent the six major types of California rock. It's a project that could easily cost nearly $20,000, so he realizes a community fundraiser would be needed.
"Children don't get to the mountains," Smith said. "They don't know what granite or serpentine looks like. They could touch it. This is your state right here."
While Smith has grand plans for the park and trail, he doesn't think he can restore the area back to its former grandeur. He's shooting for a nature area that's safe enough for student and community use.
"Danville has a lot of great parks for kids to play basketball and baseball, but there aren't a lot of places for people to just have a pleasant stroll," Smith said. "It's the perfect pocket park. God made it. It's still there and hasn't been ruined. It just takes some manpower to keep the place cleaned up."
You can help volunteer by emailing
Ross Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Send donations to Kiwanis Club
of San Ramon Valley, P.O. Box 404, Danville,
CA 94526 (write "Montair Nature Trail"
on the check memo line).