Melissa Cook manages the Hank Aaron State Trail. The project has been many years in the making.
The trail starts in downtown Milwaukee at Lake Michigan and reaches west to the county line.
We meet at one of its most recently completed pieces – Three Bridges Park – and crunch a path across the undulating landscape.
It’s bitter cold and Melissa Cook is not an arctic weather fan. Yet, she says this is the best time to take in the park.
“We don’t plow this, we don’t shovel this – makes it a little more difficult to navigate, but when you have a blanket of snow on this – it is absolutely stunningly gorgeous – and you see the hillsides and everything is cloaked in white and you have to kind of look to your left and look to the right you see the built environment because it is so incredibly beautiful in winter,” Cook says.
Reflecting on her love of the natural environment takes Cook back to a particular walk she took with her mom on a school day, “when I went to school, they still used to send kids home for like an hour of a half.”
Her mom served lunch and sometimes they’d squeeze in a walk in a small natural area near their home, Cook adds, “this one time we saw a mother duck and some little ducks in this area, and she said ‘oh let’s follow them’ and I said ‘oh – I gotta be back to school.'”
Their family code was never, ever be absent. This day was different.
“She said ‘I will write a note explaining why you are going to be late’ and that to me made it really clear that nature is really, really important and here I almost 50 years later thinking how this influenced me,” Cook says.
Still, her parents saw a different life trajectory for their only daughter. Her mom wished that Cook would pursue nursing. "And, my father thought I should be a teacher and I wasn’t interested in either of those at all – so I literally opened a catalog for UWM and I started looking at what majors they had available," she says.
Cook eyes fell on Biological Aspects of Conservation. "You were allowed to focus in your area of interest, I focused a little more on the plant-life than animal-life and also the whole conservation issues," she says.
But it was years before she landed her dream job.
The Department of Natural Resources was studying the potential of turning an abandoned railroad manufacturing site in the Menomonee Valley into a state trail. Cook helped pull together water and air quality data. When the DNR was ready to bring on its first trail manager, they chose her.
It took years and years of meetings and negotiating to take the plan beyond paper. Today, twelve miles of trail traverse Milwaukee County.
One of Cook’s favorite spots is just north of the VA Medical Center. "We went to the Soldier’s Home with my mother on an annual basis. That was her family’s tradition, every Memorial Day they would go to the Soldier’s Home," she says.
As the Hank Aaron came to life, Cook set out to weave public art into the landscape. It looked more post-industrial than natural. “I would travel to different areas and I would see what kind of a trail they had; and sometimes I would call up a trail manager and I’d says I want a tour of your worst trail. I don’t want the one that looks all glitzy and glamorous, I want the one that’s in the toughest area – because that’s what we have,” Cook says.
She set lose students from neighborhood schools to create murals to soften barbed wire fencing that runs along a bit of the trail. It was there, that Cook unearthed three copper streetcar shelters.
“They were built in 1929 by City of Milwaukee employees and they are beautiful – they are pieces of art in and of themselves; but when they came off the 16th Street viaduct in the 1980s because they were pretty much falling apart, they were stored in the City yard for two decades. And I saw them in there – and I love history and I love architecture, and I asked ‘you know what they would cost to fix – we don’t have the money for that,’” Cook says.
The trail’s friends group eventually raises nearly $180,000 to restore the shelters. One now stands at each end of the trail – and midway on Canal. Bold lettering on them reads “Hank Aaron State Trail”.
“That is such a thrill to me because it didn’t only add something to the trail, it preserved something really significant of Milwaukee’s history and a beautiful piece of architecture,” Cook says.
Cook never had the chance to share the Hank Aaron State Trail with her mother. “It’s so sad because my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease was really progressing when I first took this job. I enjoy this more through her memories and I know she’d be proud and she’d enjoy it too," she says.