A.B. Coleman’s vision preserved a natural wonder

Published 5:03 pm Friday, April 28, 2023

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GATESVILLE – Fifty years ago, Allen Benson Coleman – better known simply by his initials – donated over 900 acres of land in Gates County to be used as a state park.

That land included a centuries-old millpond and part of the surrounding swamp. Along with other adjoining acreage, it became Merchants Millpond State Park.

Family members of the late A.B. Coleman visited the park on Friday, April 21 to commemorate the anniversary of the generous donation. A luncheon was held at the park’s picnic area – named after Mr. Coleman himself – where family members had a chance to share stories and talk with current and former park staff members.

A.B. Coleman was originally from Kentucky, but it was his Navy service that sent him towards the East Coast. According to his son, Mike Coleman, A.B. enjoyed exploring nature – particularly swamps – in the surrounding areas during his free time from basic training.

Mike Coleman recounted one memorable story of his father from the 1930s while exploring the Great Dismal Swamp. He got lost in the thick brush and decided to simply keep walking straight until he got out of the swamp. When he did make it out, he was all the way in Suffolk, VA.

It was those kinds of experiences that helped Mr. Coleman cultivate a love of nature, and later spurred his decision to purchase the Merchants Millpond property decades later when he had the chance.

Mr. Coleman’s daughter, Sue Kay, explained that it was her father’s friendship with a local Gates County attorney – the late Philip Godwin – that gave him the opportunity to purchase the millpond. A.B. Coleman didn’t live in Gates County, and were it not for that connection, Sue said things might have turned out differently.

While it was still his father’s private property, Mike fondly recalled many occasions where they went canoeing around the millpond, exploring the area. There was one particular occasion while hiking around Lassiter Swamp that they both heard a chainsaw in the distance, a stark reminder that civilization was much closer than they thought. That was one reason, at least, why he began to focus his efforts on conservation.

“I think the idea [for a state park] had been fermenting in his mind for quite some time,” Mike explained.

There were plenty of ways he could utilize the land, but A.B. Coleman knew a state park would be the best way to preserve it for future generations.

“He wanted people to enjoy this nature, but in a respectful way, and to be educated in how to respect nature and enjoy it,” explained Joelle Morris, one of A.B. Coleman’s granddaughters. “It was always meant for people instead of just being a pristine thing that nobody can go to.”

For Morris, this was her first trip to Merchants Millpond, and she said she was thrilled to see how well the park staff has cared for the land over the past 50 years.

“He would be overjoyed. Just absolutely overjoyed. Especially with all the outreach programs that you’ve been doing with the children,” Morris said. “But the stewardship that you have done through the years, through the decades… I just don’t think we would have thought of anything better than that.”

A.B. Coleman’s love of hiking and exploring nature lives on in other family members who enjoy the same hobby, including his granddaughter Alex Coleman, who took a break from hiking the Pacific Trail to attend Friday’s event.

Alex, however, doesn’t trek through nature in plain white, flatbottom shoes like Mr. Coleman was known for hiking in. Occasionally, he did trade them in for a pair of white boots.

Floyd Williams, a retired park ranger who first started working at Merchants Millpond in the late 1970s, remembered the eye-catching footwear in his first encounter with Mr. Coleman.

“I happened to be walking down by the water. I looked and here was this fella standing in the middle of a small canoe with a double-ended kayak paddle. With the white boots, a white hat, and I think the pants were like navy wool,” Williams explained.

Williams said the mystery person was just paddling around the millpond with a group of people around him, listening as he spoke. He mentioned the strange sight to his supervisor later, who simply replied, “when he comes back, you can thank him for your job. That was A.B.”

Jackie Coleman, a friend of Mr. Coleman, recalled that during her spring break at college one year, she brought several of her friends back home to Gates County to experience the park. She wrote a letter to Mr. Coleman to ask if he’d take them canoeing on the pond.

“We had the best time,” she said. “He was very unique.”

In addition to enjoying time together at the park, the Coleman family also made another, albeit smaller, donation on Friday.

A.B. Coleman’s great-grandchildren, Nathaniel and Camille Morris, presented Park Superintendent Steve Rogers with an American flag that belonged to the late Navy veteran. The flag flew over the ship that Mr. Coleman was stationed on during World War II.

“This is one piece of his history, and we’re grateful for the donation,” Rogers said as he accepted the flag.

He said they will include it in one of the park’s exhibits.

“There’s nothing that I can do to show all my appreciation, and the state’s appreciation, for the generosity of Mr. Coleman and everyone who was involved in the donations to the park,” Rogers added.

Though Mr. Coleman passed away in 1991, the millpond and swamp he dearly loved continues to be a place for people to explore and enjoy.

Just as he intended.

Merchants Millpond State Park is located at 176 Millpond Road, Gatesville, and is open daily except during Christmas Day.