History Matters: The importance of park districts

By Michael A. Lambert | Plainfield Historical Society

The Plainfield Historical Society and Plainfield Park District have shared a positive partnership for several years. It is with pleasure that we now celebrate the 50th anniversary of our community’s park district. The PHS has an exhibit at the museum that tells its story. This first segment of History Matters will give some facts about how park districts came into existence and have significance in America.

The Facts

In 1858, the potential for parks to serve as relief from worsening urban conditions was realized with the design and subsequent construction of Central Park in New York.

Parks were perceived as a means to encourage orderly expansion of cities. Additionally, well-planned open space appeared to improve the economic viability of the community. In larger cities and some small towns, planned parks became sources of civic pride.

However, before the Civil War, most Americans did not have access to much land that was specifically designed for public use as dedicated parks.

Early Parks

Throughout the 19th Century, most towns and cities of all sizes had set aside public land during the original platting process. Open space took the form of the public green, commons or square; a public landing or market; and school land reserved by law for future construction of school facilities.

However, most of this public land was not protected as permanent open space. Courthouses, town halls and other public edifices often were erected on the land. In many small towns, the community parks were little more than unkempt patches of weeds.

Some community leaders made minimal improvements to their public commons. Improvements typically consisted of the construction of perimeter fences to keep wildlife and livestock from roaming public land. In the mid 19th century, some small town parks installed simple walking paths and hired a sexton to trim the wild turf from time-to-time. In spite of efforts to improve public open space, many small town parks fell into a cycle of improvement and disrepair.

Establishment of Local Park Commissions in Illinois

Beginning in 1867, Chicago lobbied the Illinois legislature for permission to create a park improvement commission. Two years later, the legislative efforts were successful, resulting in the West and South Park districts.

The two districts were granted independent taxing authority in order to assure park land acquisition and improvement.

This ability to levy property taxes by voter-approved park commissions separate from municipal and county government was extended to all of Illinois in 1893. In short order, park districts were created in Quincy, Peoria, Springfield and Dixon.

The Illinois State Park Commission was created in 1911. Between 1870 and 1930, more than 60 Illinois park districts and forest preserve districts were organized. In 1928, the Illinois Association of Park Districts was established, followed by the establishment of the Illinois Recreation Association by 1941.

The Push for a Local Park District

In 1960, the two Illinois associations met, jointly, at Joliet and Springfield.  As a result of the meetings, many new park districts began to emerge.

In the ensuing years, local individuals began regular discussion about plans for the formation of a government authority to improve parks and provide recreation opportunities throughout Plainfield Township.

Nearly a century after Chicagoans lobbied for the formation of a park district, Plainfield area efforts were solidified in 1966. In June, a group of local leaders successfully petitioned to have the question of forming a township park district placed on the September ballot. The petition was signed by Violet A. Niver, Mr. and Mrs. William Polley, Irving Johnson, Samuel Saxon, Don Cowger, Robert and Phyllis Bostanche, Robert Beshoar, Mr. Richards and Hazel Zimmerman.

Those running for election as the first commissioners included Joseph Rutten, John R. Zupancic, Howard K. Washam, Frederick L. “Fritz” Hageman, Eugene V. Smith, Bruce E. McMullin, Duane H. Maas, Robert B. Anderson, Charles F. Stansberry, Jr., Glen A. Sedlacek and Harold A. Pennington.

At the Oct. 22, 1966, election, the establishment of the Plainfield Township Park District was approved by the voters. The public elected Rutten, Anderson, Stansberry, Hagerman and Maas as the first commissioners of the newly-formed organization.

And so it all began.

Next month we will take a closer look at how our PPD has become a vital part of local activities and events.

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