On an overcast Wednesday morning, nine people gathered at the Riverfront Trailhead of the MYPath Trail System in Owen County.
The rain held off for the group’s mile-long walk along the Riverfront Trail that winds by the White River, into the wetlands restoration area, and through a lowland reforestation project before looping back around to the trailhead near the Owen County Soil and Water Conservation District Office.
This group counts themselves as regulars for the weekly hike along the MYPath Trail. Along the way, the Wednesday Walkers see a Great Blue Heron fly across the river. One of the walkers mentions that a friend spotted a Bald Eagle near the water recently. Bright yellow daisies greet them, and the greenery from a warm summer lingers in the canopy of trees during the peaceful morning walk earlier this fall.
“Every week is a different walk from the animals and plants you see to the weather. There are unique experiences every walk,” Darrell White said as he walked along the trail.
The MYPath Trail System is a network of shared sidewalks throughout Spencer and the natural multi-use Riverfront Trail along the White River. Eventually, the hope is to connect the path from McCormick’s Creek State Park to the Owen County YMCA with a walking and biking trail totaling nearly four miles.
Before his retirement, White served as the CEO of the Owen County YMCA for ten years. The idea for MYPath began when White and former Owen County Community Foundation President and CEO Mark Rogers were part of a small group who initially walked from the primitive campground in the state park to the bridge over White River in Spencer. “That’s how the idea for the trail began,” White explained. “We thought we needed to share our experience and the potential of developing a trail out here.”
Their dream soon became a reality when the property was acquired behind the soil and water office where the Riverfront Trailhead is now and the trail was created in 2016.
Rogers served as the MYPath Trail Systems Coordinator before current coordinator Kyle Hannon took over.
“I have enjoyed great trail projects around the state and I’ve seen how they can add excitement to other communities. Why not Spencer” Hannon said.
“My family has a history with Spencer, so I jumped at the opportunity to help lead this important project in this wonderful town.”
MYPath’s development in Owen County involves the partnership of multiple organizations: The Owen County Community Foundation, the Owen County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), the Town of Spencer, Owen County Government, the Owen County Family YMCA, and McCormick’s Creek State Park.
Since White and Rogers first conceived the MYPath system, the community has rallied around this project. Organizers have secured donations and funding from individuals, businesses, and others to develop different aspects of the trail, including a stone MYPath monument in Cooper Commons town park and a MYPath mural on the side of a Main Street building.
In 2019, Regional Opportunity Initiatives awarded a Ready Communities Quality of Place Implementation Grant to the Owen County Community Foundation to help enhance the trail.
This competitive grant program empowered Indiana Uplands communities to implement projects and programs that build quality of place and improve the attributes and amenities that make the region a desirable place to live, work, and play.
“We want people to see the Indiana Uplands as a region where you can plant your roots and grow,” said ROI President and CEO Tina Peterson.
”We want everyone to feel at home in the Uplands. To feel at home in a community, you also need to feel connected. That connected feeling happens when you smile at your neighbors on your way to the local coffee shop using a trail the whole community worked together to create.”
“We are always inspired and humbled by how our Uplands communities work together on projects to ensure this is a region where everyone wants to live, work, and call home,” added Peterson. “Projects such as MYPath further prove that our communities are ready to embrace a growing regional workforce and welcome other future Uplanders to the region.”
“The trails and the need for trails are well documented throughout Owen County’s Quality of Place and Workforce Attraction Plan,” said Janet Rummel, Owen County Community Foundation President and CEO.
“I think getting all of those people together and doing that planning work really made people understand the value of and importance of trails in general. This trail is an amenity. It’s about quality of life and quality of place, but also connectedness.”
With the funding from Regional Opportunity Initiatives Ready Communities, the South Main Street portion of the MYPath Trail was developed, which connects the Riverfront Trailhead to downtown Spencer. The implementation grant helped fund sidewalk repairs, new streetlights, landscaping, tree plantings, informational signage, street banners, and painted logos on the sidewalks. Due to COVID-related delays and construction material cost increases, additional funding was needed to cover the South Main Street project. The Town of Spencer, Duke Energy, and the Owen County Community Foundation also provided funding and grants to help complete the project.
Informational signs along the path highlight important historical people and places. One of the ROI and Smithville Charitable Foundation Inc.-sponsored signs focuses on the history of African-American churches and schools in Spencer. The new interpretive sign was installed near the former site of an African-American school and African Methodist Episcopal Church. The sign highlights the will of John Secrest. Secrest was a local farmer who wanted to ensure African-American students received adequate resources for their education. He willed his entire estate in 1872 to establish a fund to support their education. The fund still supports Spencer-Owen Community Schools today.
MYPath will also eventually connect to different neighborhood districts in Spencer using existing sidewalks and directional signage. Benches were also added along the trail along with signage at the high-water mark of the 1913 flood.
“This trail is also about connecting the community with the river again,” said Darrell White.
Markers with QR codes along with audio and visual digital maps will also be available to guide the historic walking trail heading north on Main Street from the Riverfront Trailhead.
Rogers added that reconnecting the community with the White River was one of the motivators for the MYPath project. “The river is here, but we don’t pay attention to it anymore because it’s not part of commerce,” he said.
The west fork of the White River is the county’s primary waterway. It was along the river’s banks that much of Owen County’s early settlement activity took place, according to a report on Owen County by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana.
The river was also a source of transportation and commercial activity during the county’s formative years, according to the report.
“With the completion of several rail lines through the area in 1853, Owen County was linked to outside markets, bolstering the local economy,” the report states.
“The coming of the railroad would usher in a long period of prosperity for the county. Both Spencer and Gosport took advantage of these rail links to expand their business opportunities. … Today, Owen County maintains a distinctive
identity. The area’s abundant natural resources, together with its rich collection of historic resources, provides a strong basis for future development.”
Along with connecting people to a county’s history, trails such as MYPath can provide other community benefits, such as giving residents an alternative way to travel and spend time outdoors. The hope is this new trail system will also increase the overall health of residents.
More overall physical activity is measured in communities after trails are built, according to AmericanTrails.org.
According to County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, Owen County is the 71st healthiest county in Indiana.
Promoting health and wellness is one of the reasons it is important to have a trail such as MYPath in the community, Rummel said.“Any opportunity for health and wellness is good. We have a declining population and an aging population,” she said.
Rummel continued that trails are amenities that will help attract new residents and bring back younger residents who move away for college.
Owen County is home to the state’s first park, so another goal is to bring park visitors into Spencer to support the local businesses there.“You have close to 800,000 people who visit McCormick’s Creek. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could come here?” Hannon said.
Rummel agreed. “During peak seasons, people do drive into town, but so many people do want to bike, want to walk to town while visiting the state park,” she said.
What’s next for MYPath
Using a Next Levels Trails Grant from the Department of Natural Resources, the natural surface trail will be upgraded to a paved and ADA-accessible path connecting the soil and water conservation office to the DNR boat launch on River Road. Next Levels Trails grant funding will cover the construction of a bridge across Elliston Creek that will allow visitors to cross the creek into the new MYPath Meadow and pollinator garden. The hope is construction will begin by early next year on the bridge with trail construction to follow. There will be a MYPath Meadow Trail walkers can use, or they can walk further along the shared-access River Road to access the DNR river access site. From there, visitors will see McCormick’s Creek State Park. Property acquisitions are still needed to complete the connection to the state park. Discussions with potential property sellers are ongoing.
Once the trail connects to McCormick’s Creek State Park, a new goal will be set: Connect to Flatwoods Park and Karst Farm Park in Monroe County. This extension of the MYPath trail would also go through a new neighborhood planned for that area.“The developers seem to be very welcoming because it’s like, ‘We’ll build a house, and you can walk to school, or walk to the state park on this trail,’” Rogers said.
The hope is Bloomington and Ellettsville will connect trails in their cities, ultimately connecting the Monroe County YMCA with the Owen County YMCA, Rogers said.
“We want people to walk or ride their bikes more, and think. ‘Let’s ride our bikes to Bloomington and have lunch,’” he said.
How to support
Hannon credits the Owen County Community Foundation for their “overwhelming support” of the project, including grant funding. You can donate to MYPath by visiting the community foundation’s website. Donations will fund future developments along with ongoing expenses and trail maintenance.
Want to see the trail for yourself? Join a weekly walk every Wednesday at 10 a.m. beginning at the MYPath Riverside Trailhead located at 788 Pottersville Road in Spencer.