Civil War Barracks

Highland Park, Meridian's First Pleasure Park

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive by Bill White

Part I

Highland Park


Long, Long Ago But Not Too Far Away.

Part I

In U.S. history, the year 1904 spoke very well for itself. Theodore "Speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick." Roosevelt continued his residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue having been sworn in three years earlier after the assassination of President William McKinley. Henry Ford was busy cranking out the new Model B Ford automobiles up in Dearborn, Michigan and doing so faster than Cy Young could throw a baseball. I'll bet folks were wondering when old Henry would get around to inventing the assembly line to make his life a little easier. Speaking of Cy Young, he was keeping HIMSELF busy by pitching a perfect game for the Boston Americans sending all 27 Philadelphia Athletics back to the bench with only a frown, an occasional "Dagnammit!" and a series of very weak excuses.

For Meridian, however, there were much more important events unfolding. On April 30, 1904 the Louisiana Purchase Exposition - some folks called it The Saint Louis World's Fair - opened in St. Louis, Missouri to an opening day crowd of more than 200,000 people. This was important to Meridian because this exposition along with the World's Fair in Chicago (1893), Atlanta's International Cotton Exposition (1895) and an earlier St. Louis Exposition (1902) served to inspire certain successful Meridian executives to bring some of the fellowship and fun back home to Meridian.

That same year a group of prominent Meridian merchants who were all, in some way, instrumental in leading Meridian into her "Golden Years," were continuing their efforts to bring a similar series of attractions to the city. Some of them (specifically Israel A. Marks and his three half-brothers, Sam, Levi, and Marks Rothenberg) had already given the city The Grand Opera House in 1890, one of the best-known entertainment venues in the south, but, apparently, they felt that they could do more.

Israel A. MarksI. A. Marks, H. M. Threefoot, Krutcher Threefoot, Sam Rothenberg, Marks Rothenberg, and W. Rosenbaum, working under the name The Meridian Fair and Exposition Corporation, had purchased a large parcel of land in west Meridian some twelve years earlier in 1892 hoping to organize an annual event similar to other expositions premiering across the country.

The Meridian Fair and Exposition presented fun games of luck or skill, rides, food, shows and cooking competitions very much like the fairs of today. Of course, the largest attraction was the judging of livestock and the awarding of prizes to adults and young people who had spent the preceding year raising and grooming their particular entry in the competition. The Meridian Expo probably ran, like the state fairs of today, for a week or ten days, then folded their tents, and quietly rolled out of town. The Expo was certainly great fun and was held for several years (the exact number is unknown), on the parcel of land provided.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the city began working on another fairground on the south side of the city. The new venue would include an 8-furlong racetrack with a large concourse, grandstands and several permanent building such as restrooms, restaurants and livestock barns. The old Meridian Fair and Exposition was over; the Mississippi-Alabama State Fair was coming to Meridian.

It is hard not to imagine that the gentlemen of the Meridian Fair and Exposition along with several other altruistic and successful Meridian citizens, including Meridian's Mayor and City Council, had a lot to do with the development of the new fairgrounds and, of course, the creation of the new fair.

In 1906, the Meridian Fair and Exposition Corporation resolved its outstanding debt, having issued a number of bonds to fund development efforts and was dissolved. In a final act of generosity, the corporation donated the 32-acre parcel of land that had been purchased with private funds, to the City of Meridian. A small group of dedicated and knowledgeable businessmen began to prepare for the work on a park for the city.

However, an organization was needed to oversee the creation of the new park and to approve planning efforts. Such a group was formed under the mayoral auspices of James Henry Rivers. Rivers was a friend of the working person being especially vocal over employee neglect in the many local cotton mills. He pushed the Meridian Light and Railway Company to complete the east end loop making downtown as well as other sections of the city available to those citizens. The forward thinking Mayor Rivers, working closely with benevolent members of the community, organized the Meridian Park Commission. The Commission was authorized to commit city resources to the development the new park on behalf of the citizens of Meridian.

Although planning for the new park had begun as early as 1906, no formal plans could be offered until the commission was formed and had their first meeting. When the Park Commission met, they elected Israel Marks their President. F. C. McGee was elected Vice President and L. Alexander Duncan, Secretary. Other members were equally well-known businessmen of Meridian; J. E. Watts worked in insurance and Frank Heiss, was the president of G. M. Heiss and Sons, Company. There was Frank M. Hawkes of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad and Duncan D. Briggs who was deeply involved in area Real Estate.

When the commission began its work, it had property but no funding to pay a landscape architect, construct buildings or hire workers. That is not to mention the fact that the commission had its eye on a new and very special attraction for the park. The commission was in negotiations to purchase the Dentzel Carousel that had been made for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.

Therefore, the commission could not afford to make any improvements without additional funding. As one might expect, those same people stepped forward and opened their hearts and checkbooks for the commission. The main donors were John Kamper, Meridian's premier banker, Israel Marks and his brothers Sam, Levi and Marks Rothenberg, the Threefoot Brothers, H. M. and Krutchner Threefoot, of the Threefoot Bros. and Company Wholesale Grocery, W. Rosenbaum, L. Alex Ducan, of M and W Building, and T. Bostick.

Having been blessed with a steady group of donors committed to completing the park effort, the next step was to find someone to design Meridian's new Pleasure Park, as it was to be called. It seems reasonable to expect that a search was done and the work of various Landscape Architects was examined before an offer was given. Here, however, we need to correct a small mistake in the record. Mr. Adolph R. Arp has been incorrectly given credit for the design of the new park. Although Arp had an important role to play in the completion and upkeep of the park, he was not the designer. In an April 1908 copy of the Meridian Star, I. A. Marks, the President of the Meridian Park Commission, is quoted as saying "Architect Shaw is now busy laying out the ground according to our present plans…" Further, a year later in a Meridian Star article entitled "The Finishing Touches to the Park", the Star prints, "Architect Shaw had been replaced by Superintendent Adolph R. Arp, a landscape specialist…," and the official name Highland Park had beenHighland Park Original Fountain determined. Clearly, the Architect that developed the design of the park was named Shaw. The Specialist that came in to put the "finishing touches" on the park after Mr. Shaw finished, was Mr. Adolph Arp. Arp remained as the superintendent of the park for several years.

Adolph R. Arp was born in Germany about 1862. Before showing up in Meridian in 1908. He had been a schoolteacher in Scott County, Illinois. Arp arrived with his wife, Margaret, and two daughters, Ella, age 15, and Tillie, Age 13. They moved in to a house built by the city especially for the Park Superintendent at 1615 37th Avenue. Although the major pieces of Architect Shaw's plan were already in place, Arp finished the plantings and added other "finishing touches" that were required.

At last, Highland Park was beginning to take shape. Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that all of today's great theme parks and amusement parks grew out of the streetcar pleasure parks of this era and pleasure parks, in turn, rose from the 16th and 17th century "pleasure gardens" of Europe. It was not what one would call an "organized progression." Of course, not all pleasure parks became modern amusement parks but many people were happy just to have a quiet, safe place for a family picnic or to take an evening stroll -- "taking the air" -- they would call it or, perhaps just to sit in quiet conversation on a warm summer evening. A place where children could run and play to their hearts content, where children and parents alike could sit and listen to music or watch a live theatrical performance under the stars. Such a place was Highland Park.

In part two we will look at the Highland Park of 1909 and see how very much different it was from today.


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