In 1913, the nascent Connecticut Park Commission embarked on a search for sites for a new state parks system. A year later, the group acquired its first property -- a 5-acre tract on Sherwood Island in Westport that would become the Nutmeg State's first state park.

From that modest acquisition, today's Sherwood Island State Park, now encompassing about 235 waterfront acres, has evolved. On that expanded property, town and state officials gathered Monday to kick off a year-long centennial celebration of a system that now includes 107 state parks and 32 state forests and draws 8 million visitors each year.

"We may be a small state, but we're big in beauty and the special resources we have available," said Daniel Esty, commissioner of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "We're also big in what has begun over the years to protect these resources and ensure that they are available for everyone in the state to enjoy day after day, week after week, not just in the summer, but in all four seasons."

More than two dozen public events throughout the state are slated for this year and next to commemorate the centennial. Those programs include the "Centennial Sojourn," a 169-mile trek from Quaddick State Park in Thompson to Mianus River State Park in Greenwich, which will pass through Sherwood Island State Park.

To mark the centennial, the Bridgeport-based People's United Bank has donated banners that will be displayed at 60 state parks, including one unveiled Monday at Sherwood Island's entrance.

Sherwood Island accommodates a wide range of activities, including walking, biking, swimming, picnicking, fishing, bird-watching, kite-flying, model-airplane flying and volleyball. It also is home to a nature center and the state's 9/11 Living Memorial.

"It's almost a hidden treasure for Westporters, who tend to think of their own municipal beaches, but we know that on a good day, 20,000 or more can fit into Sherwood Island State Park, so it's a very busy venue," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "Sherwood Island is a jewel for Westport and the state, and we aim to keep it that way."

Among those frequent visitors several decades ago was a very young Dannel P. Malloy. The governor recalled Monday his family's ritual of journeying to the park on Independence Day.

"One of the uncles would have to draw the responsibility of being early in line, and cars lined up the night before or very early in the dark, and there usually would be four kids in the car with him," he said. "And then you'd have to make a mad dash to get tables, preferably under a tree and near a beach."; 203-255-4561, ext. 118;