Illinois' Oldest Park District Celebrates Century of Service
by Monica Vest
Mother Nature wove her finest magic here. Those who admire the beauty today understand what brought man here and enticed him to stay. That special union of land and water and trees as far as the eye can see stakes an equally special claim in the hearts of those who live here today.
It was and is Peoria, founded more than 300 years ago by white man, but discovered long before by the Native American Indian. Over time, as a city grew, sprouting smoke stacks as tall as trees, the need to set aside undisturbed natural reserves was becoming more apparent. Thanks to a concerned citizenry then, the Peoria Park District is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and its status as the oldest and largest (acres) park district in the state.
Its formal boundaries in the heart of Illinois today far exceed those humble beginnings when the voters gave the green thumbs up to the establishment of a Pleasure Driveway and Park District. The formation of districts had been sanctioned by the Illinois General Assembly on June 19,1893, and Peoria was the first to plant the seed the following March.
Peoria was a town that meant business...yet threads of charity bound her together. One significant donation of land was the catalyst of the park district growth, the gift of a shrewd, yet caring businesswoman.
Lydia Moss Bradley's life was rife with tragedy, losing her husband in an accident and their six children who died in childhood, the oldest living to age 15. Mrs. Bradley's name still rings every day in modem Peoria, as clear as the bells at the university that bears her name. She gave more than 100 acres to the fledgling park district in 1894. The site was to be named Laura Bradley Park, in memory of her child who lived longest. Mrs. Bradley could and perhaps should be called the "mother" of the Peoria Park District.
However, the work was just beginning. This parcel of land was joined by three others purchased by the new park board and scattered throughout the thriving metropolis for a total of almost 423 acres. The original park system was designed by Oscar F. Dubuis, who was influenced by his teacher, Frederick Law Olmsted, the foremost landscape architect of the time and designer of New York City's Central Park. One of the first Olmsted-inspired site designs was Glen Oak Park, the heart of park operations then and now.
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"Nature has done more for Peoria than for many cities, and public enterprise has done the rest," declared Peoria's mayor at Glen Oak's dedication in 1897.
The parks became a public enterprise, a centerpiece of the community. Peorians and their parks have nurtured each other, from the Old Settlers Association that financed a log cabin to a public outcry demanding the park board take over and save a recreation center, originally built as a bath house for the poor.
People strolled in the parks, celebrated in the sun, and stopped to smell the roses. It was pretty to behold but not to touch, like the formal china on the dining room table every day.
However, by the middle teen years of the 20th century, Peorians wanted to cut loose and play. A 1916 study of recreational opportunities in Peoria boldly announced: "...The old notion of parks as horticultural spots is dead. Parks are for the use of people. ... Parks are made for men, not men for parks. ..."
The Peoria parks of that decade were bursting with blooms and active people. A community recreation system brought a whole new look to Peoria's burgeoning playgrounds and athletic fields. Boys would be boys with supervised basketball, tennis, track and hikes. Girls would be girls with stories, games, folk dances and athletic contests. Both sexes would swim, picnic and showcase their exercise skills at annual field days in the park, part of the never-ending emphasis on family fun and togetherness.
Peoria parks would frame nature's finest with pergolas, pavilions, beaches, boat landings and endless acres of a rainbow of green. One could find an abundance of celebrities in these early days of the 20th century recreating on Peoria's park shores: swimmer Johnny Weismuller, boxer John L. Sullivan, magician Harry Houdini, cowboy star Tom Mix and even Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show.
Perhaps the most lasting impression created by this period was Grand View Drive, offering as breathtaking a view of the Illinois River and Peoria Lake today as it did in 1910. That's when Theodore Roosevelt ignored the bumpy ride along Grand View and simply
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soaked up the view, declaring, "I have travelled all over the world, and this is the world's most beautiful drive."
Peorians and visitors have never doubted a smart politician's observation for a moment, and celebrate the beauty of Peoria's parks today as much as they did 100 years ago. The adulation may be quieter but just as personally intense. The congestion of city life that drove the people to the parks in 1894 drives them there today, the unity of man and nature, woven into man's very nature.
Today, Peorians can look back upon ornate buildings, bridges and stages where their grandparents and great-grandparents strolled, danced and relaxed. One of the largest and finest public golf course systems in the state today started in 1909 with a nine-hole course off a dirt road. The district's recreational opportunities blossomed, especially after the city's Playground and Recreation Department was merged into the Peoria Park District in 1963.
Neighborhood parks are the norm, organized activities the expected, and award-winning beauty a must. From the tiniest bud in the conservatory to the tallest tree in the woods, and from the children-covered playgrounds to the furry collection in the nationally accredited zoo, Peoria parks have kept the pace, set the standards and been a showplace of the pretty, the planned and the progressive ... nationwide. The Peoria Park District is a Gold Medal park district, winning that prestigious award in 1971 and achieving finalist status in 1979,1991,1992 and 1993.
Its inventory is impressive, the responsibility awesome. The Peoria Park District is the keeper of Peoria's past. present and future, blooming a little bigger and brighter every day.
The next century seems so distant, yet its trees and flowers are taking root today. The social contract that laid the dirt foundation for the relationship between the parks and Peorians 100 years ago is renewed daily, perhaps with a little more hoopla this anniversary year.
But the district, with a rich heritage of personnel and volunteers devoted to the most beautiful parks in the state, continues to reassess the needs of its patrons, the 126,000 residents within its boundaries. Like the seasons of nature herself, it's an endless cycle of re-evaluating the district's efforts and re-affirming its commitment to meeting the park, recreation and conservation needs of a community blessed with a special gift.
"Here right at our door and almost in the city is tendered for us the most beautiful spot on earth," said the mayor at Glen Oak's dedication in 1897.
Thankfully some things never change.
Monica Vest is a Peoria free-lance writer editing a book marking the centennial of the Peoria Park District, due to be published this fall. She formerly edited weekly newspapers in the Peoria area.
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Agencies Organized Prior to World War II
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator