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Local History

The History of Phelps Grove Park in Central Springfield

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Johnson Family Collection
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Drive by Phelps Grove Park in central Springfield and you'll likely see people walking their dogs, playing Frisbee, or having a picnic. This park is over 100 years old, and we explored its past as part of our ongoing Sense of Place series looking at local history.

According to Richard Crabtree, a local realtor and Springfield historian, the land for Phelps Grove Park was purchased during the Civil War, but it did not become a park until 1914 when it became both a park and a neighborhood.

Crabtree says some bigwig names and companies at the time helped to develop the plan for the park—including George Kessler, the man who designed the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exhibition, and the company that designed the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.

According to Crabtree, the Springfield Zoo was originally in Phelps Grove Park for 10 years before it moved to where it is today, the Dickerson Park Zoo near the fairgrounds.

“The foundations for the cages are still present, so if you to the tennis courts that are in the park and just walk due south you’ll run into where the zoo sat.”

The park has changed quite a bit over the years. A formal rose garden used to sit where the Art Museum parking lot is today. You can still see columns that were taken from the old Colonial Hotel to decorate the garden. Foliage in the park also changed with the Great Depression, Crabtree said.

“They had issues with people sleeping in the park and so forth, so they actually went in and cleaned out all the shrubs and cleaned up the trees so that the police could drive through and make sure there weren’t any vagrants sleeping in the park.”

The Depression also led to job creation within the park, which can be seen in the stonework on Fassnight Creek in the park.

Phelps Grove Park also originally had a lake. But the park got an extreme makeover in the late 20’s as part of a beautification project, and the lake was drained to clean out septic waste that had contaminated its waters.