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Springfield-Greene County Park Board Celebrates 100 years

The entrance to Doling Park, 1911. Photo Credit: Springfield-Greene County Library

Within the past century Springfield has grown exponentially, with city parks some of the most beloved parts of that urban development. This year, the Springfield-Greene County Park Board is celebrating its centennial in cooperation with the History Museum. For our local history series, Sense of place, KSMU’s Emma Wilson brings us the story.

Think about your favorite park. Maybe you’re imagining a family picnic or riding your bike, seeing a concert or strolling through a garden. Many generations of Springfield residents have used and loved park sites though the city and Greene County. John Sellars, the director of the Springfield-Greene County History Museum, says the first two parks, Washington and Lafayette, were platted as part of the new town of North Springfield in 1870.

“And they were controlled by the public works department until 1913, when a decision was made to establish a Parks Department for the city of Springfield to oversee the parks. And begin the acquisition of a number of new parks to set up a parks department for the whole city,” says Sellars.

So this year, 2013, marks 100 years of maintained, organized parks and a chance to reflect on the massive changes that have made our parks what they are today. Jenny Fillmer Edwards is the public information administrator for the Springfield-Greene County Board of Parks and Recreation. She says when they started planning for the centennial they realized they had no comprehensive history of the parks to share with visitors.

“So we really needed some help assembling and remembering and—really—learning our own history. So we thought it was a natural fit to approach the History museum of Springfield and Greene County,” Fillmer Edwards says.

Again, John Sellars,

“We thought it was a good example of the growth of the city it kind of follows along with telling the good stories of things that have occurred in the city,” Sellars said.

This is the second exhibit at the new History Museum location on the downtown square. The folks at the history museum rummaged through closets, files, and park museums to come up with a wide variety of materials, many revealing the former lives of parks. The curator of the Springfield –Greene County History Museum, Joan Hampton-Porter, showed me around the exhibit on a recent Thursday. We step into the section about Doling Park. The room contains many memories from its bygone existence.

[old-timey music in the background]

“They might be surprised to know that there was an amusement park, that there was a skating rink, that there was a dance hall, that there was a restaurant. That the lake was much larger than it [is] today and even, at one point, had a chute ride in it. There was boating on the lake, and paddle boating on the lake. It really was the preeminent park for many, many years,” says Hampton-Porter.

That’s not the only dramatic change in the nature of our parks. Hapton-Porter says until well after the desegregation of the public schools, black Springfieldians were—by law—barred from any park but Silver Springs Park and Doling one day a week.

Some parks were used for recreation long before they were part of the system. Sequiota, for instance, was first a  trout hatchery and the Frisco Railroad would bring passengers far out of town for “day trips.”

The first park created by the new park board is still extremely popular and has gone through quite a few phases of its own. Phelps Grove was originally the land of Springfield settler, congressman, and Governor John Phelps and his wife, Civil War era heroine, Mary Whitney Phelps. Eventually it was purchased by some investors—Charles Heer, Douglas Landers, and Charles McGregor among them—intent on developing the area into upscale housing. Jenny Fillmer Edwards says the property was just a little too far from where most people lived and worked.

“And it had some disadvantages on top of that. It was considered out in the sticks; it wasn’t really served by any public transportation—or streetcars.”

And many wealthy residents had recently built large show-houses in the fashionable Meadowmere and Rountree neighborhoods that were serviced by the street cars. Fillmer Edwards says, at the time, these investors had close political ties with the new Park Board members and the board bought the land. It became a park much different than the one we know today, with a thickly wooded area, a small zoo, and a lake for fishing.  

“We’re all proud of our park system, but you become even more proud the more that you know about—especially your favorite park,” Says Fillmer Edwards

The park system currently includes more than 100 sites, and has continually expanded and renewed. And now Springfield is looking toward the next century of parks. Springfield-Greene County Parks and Recreation is collecting surveys so visitors can tell their stories about parks and voice their opinion about the future of public spaces in town.

The link to that survey is:

The hours for the History Museum, are: Tuesday-Sunday, 10:30-4:30 (Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children)

The exhibit will continue through March 15th.

For KSMU’s Sense of Place, I’m Emma Wilson.