Spirit of Rowan 2022: Dan Nicholas’ generosity sparked vision for county’s top park

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 27, 2022

SALISBURY — Dan Nicholas could sell ice to an eskimo, but he had a tough time giving away a park to county government.

Nicholas was a Salisbury-born businessman and entrepreneur in the days before websites and smartphones. He found success in ventures ranging from ice cream to fuel. In the 1950s, Nicholas worked with another Salisbury man to import horses from France to create a racing stable here. But the idea for his longest-lasting legacy found its spark at a Roanoke, Virginia, park.

While in Roanoke in the mid-1960s, Nicholas watched kids playing on the slides and swings as well as how an animal zoo generated big smiles on the faces of children there. He came home, found 100 acres on Bringle Ferry Road and tried talking to the Jaycees, city of Salisbury and county government about it.

The Jaycees couldn’t afford to take on the project. The city of Salisbury didn’t want to talk on a park outside of the city limits. Nicholas first offered 100 acres, but state planners said that wasn’t large enough for proper development. So, he purchased an option on 200 more. The county finally accepted the deal in the late 1960s after Nicholas invited commissioners to a steak dinner to make the presentation.

“Dan Nicholas is probably the only man in town who ever had to pay somebody to take something for nothing,” wrote then-Salisbury Post reporter Ned Cline.

The park opened Aug. 2, 1968, more than a year after the county accepted the land and about two years before Nicholas’ death.

Rowan County Tourism Director James Meacham says the park today is a key part of the local economy.

“Seeing close to 700,000 visitors per year, the park offers a large number of unique attractions and events for families,” Meacham said. “It is rare to find a park in the state as versatile as Dan Nicholas, and we are honored to promote it to both visitors and residents alike.”

Phyllis Cornelison, who worked for the county from 1985 to 2016, usually handled the park’s budget and remembers its early days. Many of the amenities were in place when she started, including a mini golf course, paddle boats, some picnic shelters, outdoor theater and part of the nature center.

“But it was nothing like it is today,” Cornelison said.

Just as the park is a key tourism draw today, Cornelison said it was popular in its earlier years, too.

“We didn’t have anything remotely like that around here,” she said. “We had people come from everywhere, all different counties, to make reservations, for shelters, for family reunions and things like that.”

Bob Pendergrass, who works today as the county’s animal services supervisor, was an early employee of the park — working weekends at the campground in high school in the late 1970s. It was his first job. And while it was one that prevented him from hanging out with other people on the weekends, it wasn’t altogether bad.

During the school year, he went into work on Friday and worked and slept at the campground until Sunday. During the summer, he went in on Thursday and left on Sunday. He kept the campgrounds clean, took money, confirmed reservations and responded to camper requests.

Today, Pendergrass says the county is lucky to have Dan Nicholas Park and that it has exceeded initial expectations.

“Everybody always knew it was a diamond in the rough,” Pendergrass said.