- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Toting fishing poles to their favorite lake on a recent Friday morning, Libby Tayler and Marie Vazquez had no idea they were passing through history on their way to casting for bass and bream.

The gate they walked around blocked the former entry to Epping Forest Manor, an estate once owned by a wealthy cotton merchant and famed big-game hunter. Farther down the pavement, the two women passed the crumbling slab of the former home and the weed-enveloped tennis courts that were used after the property became a private club. The club’s old swimming pool has long since been filled in.

All Tayler and Vazquez knew of the property at 2630 Epping Way was that slowly and inexorably, nature has reclaimed it. And they like it that way.

“Even if we don’t catch fish, we’ve still had a good day,” said Tayler.

Within months, new attention will be focused on the 66-acre tract in the Raleigh area of Memphis as the Wolf River Conservancy breaks ground on new sections of a planned greenway, or multiuse trail that will follow the river throughout Shelby County. The Epping Way land is one of four parcels where the nonprofit conservancy will launch an expedited effort to complete the nearly 22-mile portion of the greenway within the city of Memphis.

“It’s going to be one of our easier sections to build,” said Chuck Flink, project director and senior adviser for the greenway project.

He also noted the central location of the tract, roughly a halfway point along the Wolf’s course through Memphis. “You’re out in nature, but you’re still really close to the city,” Flink said.

The other three sections where work is set to get underway early next year are in nearby Kennedy Park, at the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers, and downstream from Walnut Grove Road. Using mostly private donations, the conservancy hopes to complete the $40 million greenway in 2019.

At Epping Way, the 12-foot-wide paved trail will wind eight-tenths of a mile along a 20-acre lake created after dirt was scooped out for use in nearby construction in the early 1970s. The diversity of the landscape will make it a key piece of the greenway.

“You’ve got three ecosystems in one place there. You’ve got a river, you’ve got wetlands, you’ve got a lake,” said Bob Wenner, chief financial officer for the conservancy.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property.”

It’s also a tract with a rich past. According to a report prepared for the county, the property was part of a larger parcel owned by several individuals dating back to 1898.

Among the most prominent owners was Berry Brooks, who purchased more than 200 acres in 1948. A native of Senatobia, Mississippi, who moved with his family to Memphis at age 12, he entered the cotton industry and rose from a clerk to owner of a company.

At Epping Way, Brooks and his wife Virginia raised cattle and kept peacocks on their lushly vegetated land. But more than anything, Brooks was known as a big-game hunter who brought back many trophies from Africa and elsewhere. He donated several to the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, which exhibited them in a space named the Berry B. Brooks African Hall. In 1947, Life magazine featured a photo spread showing the Brookses’ 14-year-old daughter posing with animals she killed in Africa.

Longtime columnist Ann Meeks, who wrote about neighborhoods and history for The Commercial Appeal, said in a 1994 column that Brooks was the first American accepted into the International Hunting Hall of Fame. But he often expressed sadness about the animals he killed, she wrote, and eventually developed a preference for shooting only with a camera.

Johnnye Arnett Eure, whose family lived in Raleigh and were friends with the Brookses, remembered the house being “cluttered” with mementos, hunting trophies and art collected during world travels.

“As you went in the front door, there was a full suit of armor,” recalls Eure, now 68 and living in Vermont. “There’d be a table with an elephant’s foot, and then you’d have a portrait of Queen Elizabeth at her coronation … It was like a museum.”

In 1972, the year he retired and four years before his death at age 73, Brooks sold most of his property for use in a planned development. Two years later, the Epping Forest Club - a country club without a golf course - was under construction. It would feature tennis courts, a swimming pool and the lake.

Despite its popularity as a family recreation spot, the club operated only until the early 1980s, after which the owners defaulted on a loan, the report for the county says. The property was sold at public auction in 1990 and gradually deteriorated, with facilities falling into disrepair and illegal dumping becoming more and more of a problem.

In 2007, the property was donated to the old Memphis city Schools, which razed the buildings, filled in the pool and secured it from dumpers. After MCS surrendered its charter and became part of Shelby County Schools, the conservancy began looking at the site for use in the greenway project.

Conservancy officials considered requesting just a trail easement from SCS. But school officials eventually agreed to deed the entire property over to the conservancy because “they determined they weren’t going to use it for a school,” Wenner said.

The report found no significant pollution or environmental problems on the site.

With the greenway, the site should again become a recreational attraction, Wenner said.

“We’d love … to reconnect people to the landscape,” he said.

___

Information from: The Commercial Appeal, https://www.commercialappeal.com

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