Down on the Farm

At Memphis’s Shelby Farms, it’s all about size
By Gregg Elliott, November 2008, Updated February 2015

My five-year-old daughter and I go regularly to Shelby Farms Park to run and ramble with our pup, Lambchop. While people and their pets repeat rituals like these every day at off-leash parks around the country, this park has a unique characteristic, the stuff of dog-lovers’ dreams: size.

Bigger than NYC’s Central Park and SF’s Golden Gate Park combined, Shelby Farms ranks as one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. And within its 4,500 acres, a whopping 150 acres are officially off-leash. Golden fields undulate as far as the eye can see, and to the south, there’s a large pond, smooth mud beaches and a wooded trail. This bucolic spot might just be the nation’s largest municipal off-leash park as well. Moreover, it’s a public park without entrance fees.

The multilayered history of Shelby Farms Park is as varied as its users. Originally Chickasaw tribal lands, between 1825 and 1828, Frances Wright’s Nashoba, one of America’s most well-known communes, was in operation here, with the goal of educating and liberating slaves. During the first half of the 20th century, it was a penal colony, with a truck farm and Jersey dairy herd. In the 1970s, as the use of prison labor for farming declined, the first 270 acres were opened to the public.

In December 2006, the Shelby County commission approved a 50-year conservation easement that will protect all of Shelby Farms for “natural, scenic and recreational” purposes. Next on the agenda is a management partnership between local government and a private nonprofit, possibly the Shelby Farms Park Alliance. Finally, a park master plan is slated for 2008. If done right, it will solidly plant the park in a special place within the hearts of area residents—the most permanent of protections. For Lambchop and the other dogs at yappy hour, that’s already happened.