In the 1950s, Anoka County wasn't in the parks business. Matters of leisure were left to the cities and townships.

Fearful that the region's picturesque waterfronts and woodlands were disappearing under developers' bulldozers, a young county commissioner set out to create a parks system that would preserve a piece of it all.

It wasn't a walk in the park.

Landowners weren't always willing to sell, so county officials used condemnation proceedings to acquire property during the early years. Lawsuits coupled with limited money and staff also posed challenges.

But five decades and more than 11,000 acres later, Anoka County is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its parks system. Today, 3.8 million users visit the county's 20 parks, conservation areas and natural areas each year.

By acreage, Anoka's is the second-largest county park system in the state, behind only the independently governed Three Rivers Park District. Anoka County is considered a trailblazer, with other counties across Minnesota later establishing parks systems, county officials say.

"Almost everyone enjoys parks today, but not everyone knows or appreciates that they didn't just happen," said Todd Mahon, executive director of the Anoka County Historical Society. "With Anoka County, as well as most other park systems, there was sometimes conflict in their creation."

In honor of its 50th anniversary, county parks officials are planning summertime celebrations, including a free admission evening at Bunker Beach Water Park in August.

"It's time to reflect on the whole of the system, recognize people who are important to getting this established and celebrating our successes over the past 50 years," said County Parks Director John VonDeLinde.

The first park

Albert Kordiak Park was Anoka County's first park, officially established after a legal battle with a developer. It's a 29-acre slice of land in Columbia Heights named after the young commissioner who fought to establish it and built its first picnic table.

"The county parks system offers people an opportunity to step outside the urban world and into an oasis," said Anoka County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, son of Albert Kordiak. "You can step in and feel like you are miles away from the city. City parks are for bocce ball, soccer, hockey and ice rinks. They don't provide the kind of outdoor beauty and amenities our county system does."

Albert Kordiak, who served on the county board from 1954 to 1986, recalls how the idea for a parks system was born. The Columbia Heights native, now 84, admits he isn't a particularly outdoorsy guy, but he knew his constituents wanted access to the woodlands, lakes and streams.

"I am not a hunter, but I just love the sight of open land and open terrain and places where people would go for picnics and family gatherings," said Kordiak.

When he heard that a developer planned to clear what was then known as Peck's Woods at Highland Lake in Columbia Heights and build homes, the young commissioner decided the county should buy the land and make it a park. It was the late 1950s.

"Every young person was touring Peck's Woods. We had so much fun there," Albert Kordiak said.

But the developer refused to sell, and a legal battle began.

"We had to go through all types of channels to get that first park," Kordiak said. "It was fought in the Legislature and the courts."

Kordiak said the county initiated a condemnation hearing, pushing the dispute into a courtroom. The county and the developer eventually reached an agreement and the county acquired acreage that would become its first park. There was no parks department, so Kordiak and his father mowed around some trees and built a wooden picnic table at the future park site.

During the legal battle, it became clear parks were not part of the county's legislative mandate, Kordiak said. Legislation passed in 1961 explicitly granted Anoka County the right to establish parks and playgrounds and acquire future park lands by gift, purchase or condemnation.

The county acquired other property for park development in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with an eye toward waterfront properties.

"A lot of the property we bought outright. Some property went through the condemnation process," Kordiak recalls.

He knows it caused a stir at the time, but he points to his political record: He was re-elected eight times.

Birth of the system

By 1963, the County Board appointed it first parks supervisor, Dave Torkildson, and the parks system was officially born.

Torkildson and Kordiak traversed the county looking for good sites. Initially, there was no staff or money, so the sheriff deputized Torkildson and he used jail inmates to do some of the manual labor. Torkildson remembers the long days, hard work and small paychecks that came with those early years, but he said he shared Kordiak's vision.

"I believed in him from day one. He was very astute when it came to the needs of the people in Anoka County. He knew what the people wanted. He talked to them all," Torkildson said.

The park legacy

Today, the county parks system is an 11,000-acre expanse of trails, beaches, water parks and facilities. The parks have an $11 million annual budget. Anoka County taxpayers pay $2.5 million of that, VonDeLinde said. User fees and grants make up the rest.

"We are greatly expanded compared to the first little park at Highland Lake," VonDeLinde said. "We offer a rich diversity of facilities. We have 50-plus miles of trails. We have 13 boat launches and four swimming beaches."

It's the only county parks system in the metro area with a horse riding stable and conservation areas open to public hunting, VonDeLinde said. Other amenities include the Bunker Beach Water Park, a golf course, two campgrounds, an archery range, arts center, nature center and campsites along the Rum River accessible only by boat.

"The county's niche is really based on a natural-resource-based parks system that really incorporates outdoor recreational trails, scenic areas and waterways," said Jeff Perry, Anoka County parks operations manager. "There's also an emphasis on ecological restoration of natural areas -- our forests, lakes and prairies."

In the past two decades, the county has moved away from condemnation as a means to acquire future park land.

"We now only work with willing sellers," Perry said.

The period of rapid acquisition also is largely over, VonDeLinde said. Emphasis is now on redevelopment and adding programming to existing parks. The county is interested in buying land in the next decade to create one final regional park in St. Francis.

The parks system's most important legacy may be the public's access to lakes, rivers and waterfronts. In other communities, private owners box in lakes and waterways, said Perry.

"Oftentimes you have gated communities where the public can't get in and enjoy the resource," Perry said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804