As City of Lawrence celebrates 75 years of parks and recreation, community looks back at how it began

photo by: Ciity of Lawrence contributed photo

Children play at South Park Wading Pool in this photo from the early 1950s.

Perhaps it is fitting that what led to the creation of a city department whose business includes organizing games, hanging holiday lights and planting flowers was actually the community’s hardship.

In the late 1930s, Lawrence, like the rest of the country, was still in the midst of the Great Depression, and while the adults worked longer hours and dealt with the struggles of the time, the activities that once entertained the children had become scarce.

“All of these organized activities that would have occupied young people, scouting trips, outings and hikes, they weren’t happening as much,” said Watkins Museum of History Curator and Collections manager Brittany Keegan. “So what the city started noticing was groups of kids around without an activity.”

The city was planned with central and neighborhood parks from its beginning, but Keegan said it was in the context of the depression that a volunteer council started the recreational component of what would eventually become the Parks and Recreation Department we know today. Those involved in the volunteer-led effort said the success of the early recreation programming helped win public support for a tax-supported program, which Lawrence voters approved in 1946. As the City of Lawrence celebrates 75 years since that vote, Watkins is opening an exhibit to help tell the story of Parks and Rec and the city is planning ways to commemorate the occasion throughout the year.

Roger Steinbrock, who oversees the Parks and Rec marketing division, said the community has always understood the importance of parks and recreation, and as such has invested in both parks infrastructure and programming.

“It shows any time you unfurl a map, because you see all the parkland, you see the green space, you see the interconnected trails between neighborhoods,” Steinbrock said.

photo by: Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

People gather at Central Park, now known as Watson Park, in Lawrence in this undated photo.

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In the early days under the volunteer council, which included some coordination with the school district, volunteer instructors ran daily activities in the summer at a handful of parks around town and in some schools, according to newspaper clippings and other historical documents at Watkins that the Journal-World reviewed. Activities included games, swimming, softball leagues, story-telling, singing, theater, art, band, and folk dancing, as well as more practical things like typing classes, Red Cross classes, and an “employment bureau.” People had to sign up for the activities, but they were free, though some required a small fee for materials such as clay.

The group of Lawrence citizens who started the volunteer council, which began in 1938, included educational psychologist Dr. Bert Nash, journalist Elfriede Fischer Rowe, and several prominent Lawrence women, according to exhibit information Keegan shared with the Journal-World. Keegan said that when the U.S. entered World War II and parents went to war or to work in supporting industries, the activities for youth became even more important. She said the council engaged young people not only in summer activities but victory gardens and scrap drives.

photo by: Ciity of Lawrence contributed photo

Children participate in an art class in a Lawrence community building circa 1959.

photo by: City of Lawrence contributed photo

Blue ribbon winners look at their prizes from the playground olympics in August 1952.

Marge Stockton, one of the volunteer organizers, spoke to the role of recreational programming and the wartime expansion of the offerings in 1942, according to Journal-World archives.

“Altho (sic) aware of the fact that our children must keep physically fit thru outdoor activity and spiritually aware thru the retention of aesthetic interests, the compulsion to include some definite participation in the national war effort is imperative,” Stockton said.

As the programming gained in attendance, the City of Lawrence “actively sponsored” the Recreation Enabling Act, which the Kansas Legislature passed in 1945, according to a report on the history of recreation in Lawrence later written by Stockton. The act allowed communities across the state to organize tax-supported recreation programs, and Lawrence was one of the first cities to approve a new tax levy under the law and create a Recreation Commission, of which Stockton was a member.

In a brochure urging residents to “Vote Recreation for Lawrence,” it was stated in part that a recreational program would keep many children off the streets, teach useful activities, and “train children in cooperative community activity.” The brochure stated approval of a city recreation program would also expand the offerings from what at the time was a summer and school holiday program, to a year-round program.

photo by: Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History

This image shows the cover of a brochure advocating for residents to vote to approve a tax-supported recreation program.

“Without some community effort, throughout the year, young people and adults in Lawrence have no provision for leisure time activities, except those of a commercial nature,” the brochure states.

Lawrence residents voted to create the Lawrence Recreation Commission on April 2, 1946, according to information from the city. Further legislation from the Kansas Legislature in July 1965 allowed for the Lawrence Recreation Commission to be dissolved, which enabled the city to combine parks and recreation into one system, formally becoming a city department in January of the following year.

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Since its beginnings as a depression-era summer youth program, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has grown substantially.

The department oversees a citywide park and trail system, youth and adult sports leagues, a variety of fitness classes, and provides hundreds of activities and programs annually for all ages. Recent offerings include gymnastics, martial arts, workshops on how to create a butterfly garden, a bird watching program, dance classes ranging from the line dancing to salsa, beginning archery, and even a class on the art of hand spinning, or turning sheep’s wool into yarn. The department operates four recreation centers, 65 parks, 70 miles of trails, a nature center, a golf course, indoor and outdoor pools, and the cemetery division runs and maintains three cemeteries.

“We are very active in people’s lives and even the end of life, when we bury loved ones in the cemeteries,” Steinbrock said.

The department has a horticulture division, which Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said is involved with planning landscaping, planting trees in new developments, and tending to the trees and flowers in city parks, medians and the planters throughout the downtown.

“Parks and Recreation over the years has made a huge difference in how green and colorful our community is,” Rogers said.

Popular events provided by the department include the downtown holiday lights, the annual pooch plunge, and the summertime band concerts series in South Park. When the pandemic forced the cancelation of many programs, the department helped run campsites and hotel shelter programs for people experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t think people often think of Parks and Recreation as they think of some of the issues that we have undertaken,” Steinbrock said.

Steinbrock said the city has not been afraid to try new or different activities — he said Lawrence was one of the first to have a swim day for dogs at the end of the pool season — and other communities have even adopted some of the city’s activities. He said other activities may be unique to the Lawrence recreation department, such as graveyard walks where actors come out and play historical figures from Lawrence’s past.

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Though even as the offerings have expanded, the city has held onto the notion that many of the programs should be free or low-cost.

The summer playgrounds program that began in the depression era continues, offering supervised play and activities in parks throughout Lawrence. Unlike some other cities, entry to the city’s recreation centers remains free, and the city continues to subsidize programing at differing levels, including swimming lessons, sports leagues and activities. In more recent years, when former City Manager Tom Markus suggested charging membership fees at recreation centers, many in the community spoke out against those changes, which ultimately have not occurred.

Children look at a list of summer events at the New York Elementary playground circa 1949.

Rogers, who grew up in Lawrence himself, said the decision to subsidize costs to keep certain services and programs free or low-cost has been based on what the community has said it values.

“Our Parks and Rec system is, in my opinion, unlike any other in the country, with how we do business,” Rogers said. “…Some communities go for 100% of cost recovery of everything, and that’s not what Lawrence is about.”

Rogers said he is excited for what the future holds for the department, and that the city plans to work to develop greater partnerships throughout the community and tie the department closer to what the community wants to see.

Apart from the department’s offerings, various outside events and festivals are held in the parks, particularly South Park and Watson Park in the downtown, and the community has gathered in those same parks for countless protests, rallies and vigils over the years.

In addition to the activities, Keegan said the city’s parks and recreational leagues have offered a space to gather and foster community.

“I think a lot of the conversations that become important in Lawrence, the driving things forward, happens in these social gatherings and the conversations that take place with recreation leagues or in these public places,” Keegan said.

Watkins exhibit, Field Days: 75 Years of Lawrence’s Parks and Recreation, will be in the Community Gallery and will be up from April 17 through May 15. Keegan said the exhibit highlights the early history of recreational classes and shares photographs of Lawrence’s parks throughout the city’s history.

The city intends to commemorate the anniversary throughout the year, and as COVID-19 restrictions allow for larger gatherings, additional opportunities will be created to celebrate as a community, according to a news release from the city.

photo by: Ciity of Lawrence contributed photo

People gather for a volleyball game at an unidentified Lawrence park in this undated photo.

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