Friday, August 07, 2015

South Park from beginning to end

If Chariton's South Park still existed, it would be entered through the gate in the distance, at the extreme south end of South Eighth Street.

Chariton's short-lived South Park, as noted in an earlier post, was a gift during 1899 to the city from William B. Penick, builder of Spring Lake and developer of the Spring Lake residential subdivision in the south part of town. It consisted of 10 acres of native timber and savanna, some areas hilly and wooded; other areas, open and level --- an ideal mix for a public park. A spring provided fresh, pure water.

Chariton's City Council accepted the gift by a 4-2 vote during September of 1899 after considerable debate with the following strings attached --- the city agreed to build and maintain boardwalks to the new park, maintain the park and --- should the park ever be abandoned --- return the property to Penick.

The locations of South Park as well as nearby Spring Lake are indicated on this contemporary aerial view of the site. Chariton Cemetery is to the far left.

By December, the new park had been connected to the city by a boardwalk extending south along an extension of South Eighth Street that ended at the park entrance. More boardwalks would be added later to connect South Eighth to South Main Street to the west, where existing sidewalk already connected the cemetery to the square, and east to South Seventh.

To reach the former park entrance, drive south on Eighth Street past its intersection with Northwestern Avenue.

Frank R. Crocker, then cashier of the Mallory Bank --- First National --- and a trusted associate of Smith H. Mallory, took the lead as principal advocate for the new park and directed its development.

These two duplexes are located along South Eighth just north of the old park entrance. Were Spring Lake still there, their rear decks would overlook its waters.
During early May of 1900, the Chariton Improvement Assocation --- innovative for its time because it consisted of roughly equal numbers of strong women and influential men --- petitioned Mayor George W. Alexander to name Crocker park commissioner, which he did on May 10.

Crocker then issued the following call to action: "To the citizens of Chariton: Something ought to be done this spring toward improving and beautifying the new park south of town. With a little work these grounds can be placed in good shape for picnics, basket meetings, celebrations and outdoor gatherings of all kinds. There is a fine supply of good spring water and plenty of shade. If the small bushes, tree sprouts and other growths that are springing up were cut now, and the grounds were raked, the park would indeed be a most inviting place. All this, or much in this direction, can be accomplished in one day, if our people will turn out and 'have a good time' and do a little work. With this end in view, I have appointed Wednesday, May 23, as 'South Park Day.' Let us have an old-fashioned basket dinner and a general good time. Let us bring our lunches in baskets; also bring shrubs, flower seeds, etc., to be planted in the park. Let the men, young and old, bring scythes, sickles, rakes, spades, hatchets, etc. Everybody invited --- men women and children. Come early and stay all day." (The Chariton Patriot, May 17, 1900)

The Patriot, in its edition of May 24, reported --- somewhat grudgingly --- that South Park Day had been a success, noting that "The Patriot was not favorable to the acquiring of this park by the city, but now that we have it, let us try to make it a place of beauty and comfort." Here's the report:

"The picnic at South Park yesterday was quite a success. Notwithstanding the gloomy aspect of the weather all forenoon there was quite a number who went with well-filled baskets, flower seeds, shrubs, scythes, rakes, spades, axes, hatchets, etc., and the men worked faithfully, trimming trees, mowing grass, burning trash, spading, etc., while the women set out plants, planted flower seeds and prepared a delicious dinner, which was heartily relished by the tired and hungry toilers. A number of flower beds were made, which when the flowers bloom, will add greatly to the beauty of the park. We also noticed several young people enjoying a boat ride on Spring Lake. A large tub of delicious iced orange-pineapple lemonade was placed on the grounds and all were invited to quench their thirst therefrom at any time during the day. All day carriage loads of people could be seen going and coming.

"South Park consists of ten acres of ground and is nicely situated south of town, easy of access, and is covered with a thick growth of native timber, from which the underbrush is being cleared. There is a natural spring of clear, cold water, where the thirsty visitor may go at any time and get a refreshing draught. A large number of seats have also been scattered throughout the grounds."


To say the new park was an instant success would be an understatement. A band stand was erected for Sunday afternoon concerts, playing fields were developed and until 1907, South Park was where high school football games as well as baseball games were played.

If newspaper reports are any indication, every church in town held picnics there at least once per summer during the park's glory years, as did every other organization in town. It was the favored site for family reunions, picnics, gatherings of young people and every other kind of get-together that can be imagined.

The most astonishing event --- and I'll have more to say about this another time --- occurred during August of 1900 when more than 10,000 people poured into the park as part of the annual excursion and picnic sponsored by the John Morrell & Company meatpacking firm of Ottumwa for its employees. Half of Ottumwa, it would seem, arrived in Chariton at 30-minute intervals on five chartered excursion trains --- the first carrying an estimated 1,200 men, women and children. Locals and visitors from elsewhere in southern Iowa swelled their ranks in order to observe and participate in the excitement.

Everything seemed to be going very well indeed by 1906 when W.B. Penick sold property east of South Eighth between the Spring Lake Addition and South Park to Bunn & Co. of Ottumwa, which platted the Lake View Addition. The first public sale of lots was held on June 2, 1906, and the future looked promising.


Financial disaster struck Chariton during the fall of 1907, however, and for reasons that are not entirely clear this was the beginning of the end for South Park.

Park commissioner and community leader Frank R. Crocker committed suicide with an overdose of morphine overnight on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 1907, at his fine home on South Grand (now Fielding Funeral Home). The doors of the bank that he had managed for the Mallory family --- First National --- were sealed that morning and it was soon evident that Crocker had brought it down by misappropriating huge amounts of cash.

This was one of southern Iowa's largest and supposedly most stable financial institutions of that time and its crash was disastrous. Both the city and Lucas County lost money as did residents, city and farm, with bank accounts large and small. Although federal receivers eventually would recover a percentage of the loss through lawsuits against bank owners, Smith H. Mallory's daughter and widow, Lucas County's economy was virtually at a standstill through 1909.

Very little attention seems to have been paid to South Park after 1907, the Lake View Addition stalled and by 1910, the park had deteriorated to the point that W.B. Penick sued the city for its return.

Henry Gittinger, in his Chariton Leader of March 14, 1910, reported that, "Several years since, W.B. Penick deeded a ten acre tract of land, just south of the city, to the town of Chariton for a public park, the only provision being that the city would improve it by keeping it in park shape and also erect and keep in repair a sidewalk to the grounds. This is a rugged and nicely wooded tract and suitable for park purposes. The sidewalk was built but is now decayed and gone and the city has forfeited its rights by not living up to the stipulations. Suit is now brought to quiet title in the original owner, of which no one can complain and the only wonder is that it did not revert ere this."

An added complication was the fact the route selected for the new north-south Rock Island Railroad line through Chariton would require right-of-way through a corner of the park, but the railroad could not condemn a public park nor could the city donate the right-of-way without acknowledging that it no longer was using the property for a park and thus had no legal right to retain ownership.

Finally, during May of 1911 --- 11 years after the park had launched --- South Park's fate was sealed when an agreement was reached, as reported upon in The Herald-Patriot of May 25, 1911:

"The controversy over the Rock Island right of way through the city park south of Chariton has at last been settled. The matter presented some knotty questions, The law does not allow a railroad to condemn a right of way through a city park, nor could the city donate the right of way through the park without acknowledging by that action that it was not using the whole ground for park purposes. In such case, the park would revert to its former owner, Mr. Wm. Penick, who has been trying to recover it in court on the grounds that the city has not kept its part of the agreement, when he presented the ground to the city as a park, and it has not maintained it and used it for a park. An understanding was finally reached whereby the city deeds the land to Mr. Penick again and he sells it immediately to Yengel Bros., who will pay the city $600 and Mr. Penick $500, also allowing the Rock Island a right of way through the land. This will satisfy all parties, and though it loses a fine piece of ground to the city that would have some day been valuable for a park, it settles a vexing problem that has puzzled the city council for some weeks past."

The Yengel brothers, who operated a meat market on the south side of the square and conducted in relation to it a substantial slaughtering operation, had some years earlier purchased from W.B. Penick the south 80 acres of the old Rodgers farm, south of the park property and stretching along what now is Highway 14 to the Chariton River. The Yengel slaughter house and refrigerated storage plant had been built here in late 1906 and early 1907, in the hollow southeast of the cemetery, and the brothers ran livestock on the balance of the property, now including the former South Park.

Although Spring Lake would retain its waters for many years, all prospects for a fine wooded public park nearby had vanished with the 1911 settlement and sale of property to the Yengels. The lake became part of another acreage and eventually was drained.

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