Islands of Peace park area is legacy of disabled veteran's efforts

Islands of Peace park area is legacy of disabled veteran's efforts

A Mississippi River park area between Fridley and Brooklyn Center is not only one of the Twin Cities region’s first accessible park spaces, it is also a testament to the tenacity of a disabled veteran. The Islands of Peace Park includes accessible fixtures, trails, natural areas, camping and picnic spots, and fishing piers. It was not only designed to be wheelchair-accessible, it also was one of the first regional recreation areas to use Braille signage. 

The Islands of Peace – Durnham Island, Chase Island and Gil Hodges Island – have a remarkable story. 
“I watched the cars with their boats and campers going up north to get away for a while and find some cool spot to enjoy. This is fine for those people, but then I would come back to the cities and go [to] the vets’ hospital, soldiers’ home and the nursing homes. These people had no place to go and if they did, there is nobody to take them even for an hour or a day.” 

That was the observation of Edward T. Wilmes, a disabled veteran living in Fridley in the early 1970s. His dream took flight 50 years ago this summer, with needed approvals. 

Wilmes had baseball aspirations before he entered military service. An Indiana childhood friend was Gil Hodges, who was later first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers throughout the 1950s. Hodges was instrumental in the Dodgers’ World Series championships in 1955 and 1959, and played on the team for its first year in Los Angeles. 

Wilmes named one island after his ballplayer friend; the other two are named after pioneer land owners in that area. 

The World War II U.S. Navy pharmacist’s mate saw action in Europe, including D-Day. Media accounts and old photos don’t make it clear as to what Wilmes’ disabilities were. Some news stories indicate that he was paraplegic due to war injuries. Photos show him walking with a cane. 

Other news articles said that he had a heart condition. Later in life he developed severe arthritis and had knee and hip replacement surgery. He also went through treatment for alcoholism. 

Wilmes grew up with a disabled mother and understood the need for a recreational space for people with disabilities, describing in one news article the family’s efforts to help her enjoy the outdoors. 

He came to the Minnesota Veterans Administration hospital for treatment of his war wounds and made his home with a Fridley family for a time. At one point he lived in a trailer on park property. 

Wilmes would alternately shun the media or seek reporters out to tell the park’s story. He’d badger public officials for action on the park and then show up at their offices with baked treats. 

The quest for Islands of Peace took key steps in 1972. The project had plenty of community support, but also encountered much red tape. Durnham Island was legally in Brooklyn Park and was once eyed as a future high-rise development site. 

Considerable fundraising and volunteer work was needed to obtain land and make the park a success. It opened in 1973. Its visitors center opened a few years later. 

Chase Island can be reached via walking bridge, but Durnham and Gil Hodges islands can only be reached by boat. Islands of Peace is now part of the Anoka County Riverfront Regional Park and the county’s parks system. 

Wilmes died in 1985 and is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Markers commemorate him and all veterans at the park he cared so much about.  

The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at 
www.mnddc.org