LISBON — When Verla Ridley was hired as Beaver Park’s first ranger, the park didn’t have trails or even a picnic table. Locals used its 337 acres as a dump when the landfill down the road was closed.

“I didn’t hear a bird sing for three years because they’d all been shot,” Ridley said. “The bathroom was riddled with bullet holes. I even got shot at once.”

Ridley grew up on a Fort Fairfield potato farm. She went to college to be a park ranger and the jobs were hard to come by.

When she wanted to quit, her then-husband encouraged her to stick it out. Just give it five years, he said.

“Next thing I know, it’s 31 years,” she said.

She tamed the park, came to love it and now she’s leaving with a wistful smile. 

“I know I did my part,” Ridley, 56, said last week. “I have to move on. It’s somebody else’s adventure.”

Ridley gives a lot of the credit to the late Jack Arndt, a retired dairy farmer and chairman of the local Conservation Commission who took an early, dogged interest in Beaver Park. He advocated for raising funds and first hiring a ranger in 1983. Although a volunteer, he also took the unofficial role of her boss.

Arndt gave Ridley “a chain saw, a pruning saw and an axe and he said, ‘Go build the park,'” she said.

Together, they cut eight miles of trails and built four outhouses, a picnic shelter, a wood shed and a garage, all out of lumber milled from trees there.

For a project like the garage, “He’d get me started, ‘Oh, you’ve got to dig 24 posts, 6 feet apart,'” Ridley said. And then, she would. “In the beginning, Jack said I could have rain days (off). He must have thought there were too many rain days because he had me build this place so I could work when it rained.”

The work was hard, but Ridley said she loved the opportunity to learn. “He expected it and you wanted to do your best,” she said.

After enough years, people mistook him for her father.

She’s lived on the park property since 1983, first in a trailer then in a log cabin kit that she and Arndt assembled. She raised her daughter there, divorced and fit life in around the ranger job while being on the clock nearly night and day, seven days a week.

In the evenings, when most people relax at home after a day at work, a new car could drive into the park and Ridley would pop up from dinner to make sure she grabbed the entry fee.

“I’d chase the dollar,” she said. “That’ll be on my grave site, ‘She chased the dollar to (her) last day.”’

In the decades since she started, the park has become a busy spot for families who walk the trails, visit the beach, fish, cross-country ski and snowshoe in the winter. Thousands of people visit each year.

It has three man-made ponds. One of them, Upper Pond, is off limits to human swimmers. That’s where the horses, dogs and sometimes even goats take a dip.

“Over 30 years, you try to figure things out a bit, keep everyone happy,” Ridley said. 

Last fall, she married Kevin Ridley, a regular runner whom she met in the park. They had their wedding pictures taken overlooking Upper Pond. He’s helped her build a garden shed, machine shed and a large picnic shelter.

“It was done a day at a time, but now, look at what we’ve done here,” she said, standing beside the water. “We’ve transformed a dump.”

Ridley made her retirement official on April 1. Her daughter is upset about losing what she’s considered the family home, and Ridley is a little sad, too, but ready.

Now she’ll have more time for biking, sewing and quilting. She and Kevin will live just two miles away.

She’s expecting her first grandchild soon and looks forward to taking him to Beaver Park someday.

“I’ll do whatever makes my heart sing,” Ridley said. 

Know someone everyone knows? Contact staff writer Kathryn Skelton at 689-2844 or [email protected]

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