Civil War Barracks

Highland Park, Meridian's First Pleasure Park

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive by Bill White

Part II

Highland Park Part 2

 

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MERIDIAN

Part 2

 

To us in the twenty-first century, occupying our leisure time would probably be quite a challenge if we had to survive in the 1909 society of more than a hundred years ago. Radio and television are out -- commercial radio would be more than a decade away and television, appearing in the forties, did not really come home for most until the early fifties. Of course, there were no cell phones (a device people today say they cannot live without) and even landline phone conversations were usually quite terse - many were still a little uncomfortable talking into a box on the wall

We might be surprised at the many ways people entertained themselves in that time. Music and dancing were very popular and there were many venues around Meridian. Ragtime was all the rage but next year it would be Jazz. People attended movie theaters and vaudeville or variety shows. In one such show in 1909 in the Palace Theater, Meridian audiences watched a unknown child, just 12 years old, named Jimmy Rodgers sing "Steamboat Bill", win the contest and embark on a too short but oh so wonderful career in music.

Until 1907, only the Opera House offered theatrical performances, in addition to opera they also had plays, vaudeville and the occasional movie. However, help was on the way, by 1908 the Palace Theater, the Magic Theater and the Palais (the French word for Palace) Theater had opened. Moviegoers could watch great silent films like "The Life of Moses," "The Three Musketeers," or "The Sealed Room" one of the first horror flicks ever.

In this era, people were much more gregarious than they are today. Folks would sit on their front porches in the late afternoon or early evenings and chat with neighbors who would come walking past -- "taking the air" they would call it -- and stop for a brief chat. They enjoyed the great outdoors, picnics, watching their children run and play and, most of all, they enjoyed socializing with their friends. It was the ideal time for a place like Highland Park.

However, before we take our first 1909 visit to Highland Park we need to make a few adjustments to our contemporary "mental image" of the park. First, there were no roads in Highland Park; however, in the southeastern part of the park (across Gallagher Creek) there was a horse or carriage trail. Second, there was no swimming pool. The dance pavilion occupied the space where the large swimming pool is today. The Zehler Monument was still downtown at the intersection of Twenty-Fifth Avenue and Fourth Street. There were no tennis courts, no Frank Cochran Center, and no Jimmy Rogers museum or train.

When Highland Park first opened it was divided into two sections, the northwestern section was for pedestrians who would have arrived by streetcar and the southeastern section for riders on horseback or in carriages. As previously noted, Park Superintendent Adolph Arp's home was located at 1615 37th Avenue. Directly across the street was a carriage trail that went down the hill past the amphitheater and into the park. This entrance was for those arriving with horses. There was no entrance on Sixteenth Street. Some know the lane into the park, that was formerly the horse trail, as Sixteenth street but, to avoid any confusion, the actual Sixteenth Street now runs south of the park and has been renamed Highland Park Drive.

Like many projects, the park opened before it was complete, while the initial construction and layout of the park began in 1908, the additions continued from 1909 through about 1914. On opening day, which was probably early in May of 1909 (The Meridian Evening Star reported on April 28, 1909, that "The finishing touches to the park…" were being applied), for the most part, the park visitor would arrive by streetcar. Stepping off the streetcar into Nineteenth Street then up two stairs onto a forty-foot long concrete platform covered with a wooden roof. The visitors would then, walk across the platform and down a wide stairway, the visitor stepped down onto the grand promenade.

The "receiving" or streetcar platform remains even today although the stairs, the roof and its supporting steel posts, as well as the benches for departing trolley passengers are gone as is much of the promenade, victims of more than a hundred years of progress. However, from a height of fifteen or twenty feet, one can see what appears to be an outline in the grass that may define the original location of the promenade between the platform and the carousel house.

After stepping down from the platform, one strolls along the grand promenade. The Promenade was a twelve-foot wide sidewalk leading the visitor throughHighland Park Promenade the park. It leads us first to the carousel house that in 1909 was just being completed in preparation for the arrival of the Dentzel carousel the purchase of which had just recently gone through. The carousel house has the distinction of being the only remaining carousel house in the United States built to the exact specifications of G. A. Dentzel. Of course, there is really no good way to describe this anchor piece for the new park except to say it was, for the time, simply magnificent.

The body of the carousel is thirty feet in diameter; the turntable contains twenty-eight hand carved animals pierced by brass poles. The carvings included a lion, a tiger, two deer, two antelopes, two giraffes, and twenty horses. These animals were decorated with carvings of parrots, eagles, clown faces, flags and young girls. There were also two double-seated chariots with ornamental scrolls and flowers. The final seating capacity was thirty-six.

The crowning glory of the carousel consisted of three rings of magnificent oil paintings suspended at the top of the carousel. On the sixteen-spoke rafters, above and slightly outside of the mounts, are thirty-two scenes of animals, hand-painted in oil on wood, trimmed in gold. On the inner hub of the carousel, concealing most of the machinery of the ride are two inner tiers of paintings. The upper tier consist of fifteen additional scenes. The sixteenth panel contains the words "G.A. Dentzel Builder of the latest Improved Carrousel [sic] 3635-41 Germantown, Pa."

Below the upper tier, there was originally a second set of sixteen canvases. These once contained small landscapes; unfortunately, they have long since Carousel House and Love Seatbeen painted over. The turntable is raised twelve inches above the floor and enclosed within a four-inch metal rim. Unfortunately, the original carousel pipe organ could not be maintained and was replaced by recorded music. The carousel was and continues to be in excellent mechanical condition. The carousel has been in continuous operation since late in 1909. In 1987, it was cited as a National Historic Landmark. It is one of very few remaining two-row stationary Dentzel menagerie carousel in the world.

Leaving the Carousel House visitors to the park immediately came to the park fountain. This circular pool is about sixteen feet in diameter and surrounded by an iron fence. Once a center pedestal contained a multi-tiered fountain. The fountain was first replaced by a concrete ornament and, finally, the ornaments were removed entirely. Upon the side facing the Carousel House is a marble plaque containing the name of the Park Commissioners and donors.

The way along the promenade between the small pool and the gazebo is lighted by eight tall streetlights, in the style of nineteenth century England. The illumination is enhanced by the large glass globes at the top of the ten-foot iron stands. The fluted shafts rest on a small pedestal base.

A second set of streetlights marked the promenade from the gazebo to the bandstand. Originally, lighted arches spanned the promenade between the streetlamps. However, the arches have long since been removed.  In 1912 a "loveseat" was added in an alcove just west of the promenade on a widen section of the walkway. The loveseat was a large semicircular bench about 10-feef in diameter divided at the middle by a concrete divider. The loveseat was designed for young lovers to sit and talk with a small bit of privacy.  A few feet further along and to the west of the promenade is a circular flowerbed with a life-sized statue of the parks founder, I. A. Marks, mounted upon a concrete pedestal at its center. The statue was erected in 1913 as a tribute to Mr. Marks as the park was nearing completion.

Next, one comes to the gazebo. The gazebo was one of the original pieces of the park. It is built on a raised stone foundation. The tile used on theHighland Park Gazebo gazebo floor is the same at that used in the carousel house. The domed and finialed roof is supported by six cast iron Ionic columns. Resting on the base of the tin roof are six electric light fixture from which the globes have been removed; the fixtures themselves have fallen into disrepair. In the center of the gazebo is a water fountain. The gazebo is sometimes referred to as an oriental pagoda, however, it bears no resemblance to that structure.

Scattered along the promenade and through the park are raised cast concrete pedestals holding urns containing arrangements of locally grown flowers produced in the park's greenhouse. There are three pair about four feet tall and a smaller pair nearer to the bandstand. The urn accent pieces that contributed greatly to the appearance of the park have long since been removed, however, some of the pedestals remain.

Continuing south along the promenade one comes to the bandstand. An anchor piece of the park, the bandstand is an octagonal structure approximately thirty feed in diameter. The outer wall of the raised structure is made of native sandstone eight feet high and containing eight wooden columns supporting the peaked roof. Ornamental braces atop the columns help to keep the roof timbers square. The bandstand was in place and used during the 1909 opening of the park and frequently in service three times a week during the warmer months for many years.  In 1913, an additional large cast-concrete urn was placed in a circular flowerbed near the dance pavilion. The urn was four-feet high and was cast with ornamental garlands and cherubs.

Turning to the east, the long narrow building constructed almost entirely of native stone, that now contains the showers and dressing rooms for the swimming pool, originally (1909) contained the ladies restrooms and access to the dance pavilion that was located where the large swimming pool is today.

Highland Park BandstandThe building is in line with the urn mentioned above so that the dancers could enjoy the floral arrangements as they passed on the way to the dance pavilion from the bandstand. The building is topped with an elongated roof of terra cotta tile. The center of the building contained a breezeway providing direct access to the dance pavilion. The dance pavilion consisted of a raised floor and, at one end, a stage. The area of the dance pavilion was converted into the Meridian Little Theater before it was demolished in the 1930s.

Returning to the Bandstand and continuing south, a visitor would find the so-called Alligator pond. The water for this small pond would bubble up from a fountain at the pond's west end. The pond is edged in sandstone and fenced with a heavy wire mesh fence. At the opposite end of the enclosure, a local sandstone archway passed over the water. A live alligator inhabited the pond and its tiny island.

The Lagoon was the largest original feature of the park. It was called the "duck pond" or the "lagoon" in the newspaper articles that offered descriptions of the new park. The lagoon was originally an unfenced natural feature of the park. However, shortly after the lagoon's opening in 1909, it too was fenced and became the home to many live animals. These including deer, goats, peacocks, and geese. There was, from time to time, attempts to create a local animal zoological park in this area but over time, all animals were removed. Jack Shank in his "Meridian: The Queen with a Past" series goes into some depth, naming the various animals and animal species that have, from time to time inhabited the park and the park zoo

Further, at the outset, a small gentlemen's toilet was located at the south entrance of the park. The structure was several hundred yards from theAlligator Enclosure entrance and on the western bank of Gallagher Creek. This entrance, from Thirty-Seventh Avenue, led across the creek passing the amphitheater and allowed equestrian traffic access to the baseball field.

According to the 1899 Chittendens Meridian City Directory, this area is the most likely site of the "Meridian Base Ball [sic] Park." This ballpark would have been open and in use during the years of the Meridian Fair and Exposition (the first team appearing there would have been the Meridian Bluebirds in 1893) and until the city constructed a new baseball park in the city.

Moving east and crossing back over Gallagher Creek, one arrives at the Amphitheater. A terraced amphitheater occupied the area, which is now a youth-league baseball park. The theater seating moved up the bank toward Thirty-Seventh Avenue. The area is partially overgrown since the amphitheater was removed, possibly in the late 1920s.

Returning to the main park, west of the bandstand, there were two picnic shelters (one of which remains. The second was apparently removed and replaced by a concrete and tin shelter. The original picnic shelters were octagonal in shape with low peaked roofs and constructed of local stone.

Many have written affectionately about the park festivities including a pony rides and concerts three times a week from May to October. Further, some comment on the open-air silent movies that were shown in the summer. As well as the many wonderful times they have had with their families in the park. Several families have commented that, throughout the twentieth century, Highland Park was "THE" place in Meridian for their family reunions.
On the way back to the carousel house, you would have noticed the greenhouse. Mentioned as a major asset and structure of the park in a 1909 narrative, the greenhouse was probably located east of the carousel house backing-up to Gallagher Creek. Unfortunately, in the 1940s or 1950s, it fell into disrepair and was removed.

The Trolley SystemFinally, returning to the streetcar platform, one will notice that in 1909 the streetcar crossed a sturdy but wooden-construction bridge spanning Gallagher Creek. In 1914, this bridge was replaced by the contracting firm of Dabbs and Wetmore for the Meridian Light and Railway Company. The single-span concrete bridge was built especially for streetcar traffic. About this same time, the bridge on Thirty-Fifth Avenue near the former Highland Elementary School (no longer existing) was replaced with the same type of concrete bridge allowing the streetcar line to pass underneath Thirty-Fifth Avenue on Nineteenth Street on its way to Highland Park.

The year 1914 was a wonderful year for families, young lovers and the many residents of the city, as well as the United States in general. Cy Young's fastball was still in good shape. He had retired from the Boston Nationals baseball club in 1912 but survived to the age of 88 passing away in 1955. In 1914, the biggest thing in baseball was some upstart pitcher called Babe Ruth who thought he could hit a baseball better than anyone else. He was making his debut with the Boston Red Sox. (Of course, everyone knows that pitchers can't hit.) On November 25, another baseball legend was busy - busy being born, that is. Joe DiMaggio entered this life to become one of baseball's greats. It was a good year for heavy hitters.

The U.S.S. Alcon, an American cargo and passenger ship became the first vessel to transit the Panama Canal. A few years earlier Henry Ford had finally started cranking out the Model T en masse and, in just a few years, would see the delivery of the 15 millionth car While in Washington, D.C., apparently President Woodrow Wilson suddenly remembered that he had a mother and signed a proclamation declaring May 14 to be Mother's Day.
Unfortunately, though, an evil presence was raising its dark countenance above the horizon. On June 28, an assassin and Bosnian national named Gavriol Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in the streets of Sarajevo. The incident would lead to the beginning of the First World War The United States would declare its neutrality for three long years until entering the war in 1917. The Specter of war would claim the lives of more than 100,000 Americans before ending on November 11, 1918.

Further and tragically, for one brief moment in 1914 the wide, bright promenade of Highland Park must have fallen dark. On August 22, 1914 the man most instrumental in the development of Meridian's Pleasure Park died. I. A. Marks was just a few days short of his 70th birthday. Few people did as much to make the city thrive and grow than Israel Marks.

However, despite the horrors that would come in the future, the opening of Highland Park in 1909 until its completion in 1914 (and many years after) was a wonderful time for the families of Meridian.

 

 

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