The Battle For Stewart Park

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Almost every year for the past 50 years, a pack of bicycles, tricycles, scooters, wagons, dogs, friends, parents, neighbors and guests have congregated at Garth Avenue and East Parkway Drive on the Fourth of July. Everything is decorated in red, white and blue — streamers, crepe paper, ribbons and bows — and kids big and little wait with their legs tense on their pedals, ready to start the parade.

The afternoon procession pulses with conversation, laughter and music as everyone walks, skips, dances or rolls along East Parkway Drive, John A. Stewart Park to the left, houses to the right. As they reach the end of the street, the marchers turn and proceed down West Parkway Drive, back toward Garth Avenue. Three quarters of the way down West Parkway, the parade crosses the bridge over a creek that runs through the middle of the park. On the other side, they’re greeted by a spread of delicious food and drinks. Everyone chips in.

“David will cook like 80 bratwursts,” says Karen Miller of her partner, David Brown. “We soak them for a week in beer and hot mustard and onions, and we’ll have somebody smoke like four pork butts.” Miller and Brown have lived in the neighborhood for almost 10 years.

“Weather permitting, everybody is welcome to hang out and loiter on my stoop before the parade,” Jon Poses announces at the Park Hill Neighborhood Association’s annual meeting in April. “Have some free adult and other beverages. You can invite guests as’ well.”

“What time, like 3 or 3:30?” Cathy Gunther asks.

“Whenever. Eight a.m., if you want,” Poses chuckles.

The Fourth of July parade in the Park Hill neighborhood that surrounds John A. Stewart Park is just one of the traditions that have persisted since the neighborhood was developed in the 1920s. The parade is the neighborhood’s biggest and best-attended event, although it’s not just a celebration of American independence. The parade also commemorates the park and the community that was forged among the residents more than 80 years ago.

It began with a well-meaning gesture from Judge John Stewart, for whom the park is named.

Columbia In The ’20s
In the 1920s, Model Ts parked in the center of a cobblestone Broadway, and ornamental iron lampposts lined the sidewalks. From what is now Waugh Street to Providence Road, people bustled along the streets, walking to drug stores, grocery stores, auto mechanics and dry goods stores that once occupied the spaces where restaurants and boutique shops now reside. The outskirts of town included the land west of Providence, as close to downtown as the current Columbia Public Library. The land consisted of mostly rolling, untamed green space lined with country roads and ripe for development as Columbia’s population grew to 10,000.

In the early ’20s, Stewart owned much of the land west of Providence Road and south of Broadway between Garth Avenue and West Boulevard. He divided a section of his land known as the “Jones Tract” into 150 lots and sold them for $850 to $1,600 apiece. Stewart intended the future neighborhood — known then and now as Park Hill — to mimic the ritzy Country Club Plaza neighborhood in Kansas City.

To accomplish this, he set aside 15 acres of land, which included a creek and a natural spring in the middle of the 150 plots. Stewart offered to give the boot-shaped 15 acres to the city under the condition it be maintained as a public park. It would be the first piece of land designated as such in Columbia.

After Stewart’s offer, or perhaps because of it, Columbians voted in July 1922 on whether to establish a system of public parks and levy a one-mill tax (or 10 cents on a $100 value). The tax would fund the development and maintenance of public parks, according to an article in the Columbia Evening Missourian. The measure would also establish a park board appointed by the mayor and City Council. The nine-member board would control funds accumulated by the tax.

The levy failed to pass, and Stewart retracted his offer. In doing so, he made his intention for the cozy 15 acres clear. He wanted the area to remain a park, and he wanted to create a sense of community among the neighbors grounded in the park’s care and protection. He decided to establish a private park owned jointly by the residents of Park Hill.

Stewart advertised his plots for sale along with his plans for a private community park in the Columbia Daily Tribune:

“In presenting to the people of Columbia Park Hill addition, I wish to say that I have put in a great deal of time the past 12 months in perfecting the plat and park plan, and now believe it is almost perfect,” he wrote in the advertisement. “I have set apart a little over fifteen acres of appropriate land for a community park. With the sale of each and every lot goes an interest in the park and $100 of the purchase price of each lot will be set over into a perpetual park care fund, which will give a fund of $15,000 … With the purchase price of each lot will go interest in the park, so when you and your children are enjoying it, you will have the feeling that it is yours.”

At the time Stewart Park was established, it was the only piece of land in Columbia designated as a park, public or private.

“It set an example of how valuable parks are,” says former mayor Darwin Hindman. “It may have set an example that helped the city start making some process toward public parks.”

Hindman, well-known for his efforts to improve Columbia’s parks, trails and bike paths during his 15 years in office, grew up in Columbia and remembers playing in Stewart Park as a boy. In the 1980s, Hindman helped create the Katy Trail State Park, one of the most recognizable trails in the country.

The Park Hill Neighborhood now includes 115 houses on East and West Parkway Drives, Edgewood Avenue, Crestmere Avenue, Maupin Road, Park Hill Avenue and sections of Garth Avenue, Stewart Road and West Broadway.

Columbia maintains more than 3,000 acres of parkland spread throughout 70 public parks. That first effort at preservation and parks nearly died about eight decades ago — and the community along with it. The tranquil respite Stewart Park offered residents and others just a stone’s throw from downtown was almost lost in favor of a few commercial buildings and more houses.

In the 1930s, a decade-long legal battle that made it to the Missouri Supreme Court finally granted ownership of the park — their park — to the Park Hill Improvement Association, as Stewart originally intended. The sense of solidarity has not been lost since. The association holds annual meetings and maintains the park with dues and volunteer work.

Battle For Ownership
Shortly before his death in 1936, Stewart suffered financial setbacks. Resigned to take out a loan, he offered as collateral the unsold lots in the Park Hill neighborhood and the 15-acre park. A month after Stewart’s death, J.P. Hetzler, W.J. Hetzler and Kirk Hays purchased a deed of trust for the remaining lots and parkland at a foreclosure sale.

At the time, Stewart Park was a peaceful green oasis just minutes away from the dust and clatter of downtown. A relaxing midday stroll or an after-dinner ball game on summer evenings were mainstays. Wooden planks nailed to the trunk of a tall tree led to a platform laid across two branches — a makeshift tree house. The residents had adopted the land as their own; it had become an extension of their front yards. They owned it and cherished it.

But the Hetzlers and Hays saw a different kind of green — the kind usually folded between two pieces of leather. The men planned to divide the 15-acre park into a residential and commercial development called “Park Plaza.”

The residents were outraged. By June 1937, word of the planned development spread, and the neighbors banded together to save their park.

A judge’s conflict of interest in Boone County sent the dispute to Osage County Circuit Court. Hetzler, Hetzler and Hays won their case, and the residents immediately appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The legal process was long and expensive. Most of Park Hill’s residents at that time chipped in for legal fees and attorneys, though tensions were high and memories were long of those who didn’t contribute, says Jeannette Jackson-Thompson, who moved to the neighborhood with her husband, Richard, in 1979 when a number of the original residents still lived there.

In 1941, the state Supreme Court opined in favor of the Park Hill Improvement Association on the basis of equity, which is based on a legal doctrine that takes fairness into consideration.

“It stands conceded that a grave injustice has been done to the lot purchasers,” the state Supreme Court opinion reads. “That wrong should be redressed if it can be.”

And it was. Following the state Supreme Court opinion, the case was finally decided in Pettis County Circuit Court in 1946. The court appointed three trustees, one from each of the three Park Hill additions, to oversee future legal matters. Legal fees totaled about $3,000, a lot of money at the time. The debt was not paid until 1950, four years after the final decision.

 

Stewart Park Today
The park means different things for different people.

For Ernest Hilderbrand, who with his wife, Pat, moved to the neighborhood in 1971, the park provides good fodder for a retirement project. Hilderbrand removed 31 dead trees from the park last year, some big and some small. He uses some of the wood to turn bowls on a lathe in his small garage woodshop. His work is well-known in the neighborhood and around town.

“Sometimes we’ll wake up and there will be a pile of wood in front of the driveway,” he says.

Many of the neighbors have purchased his bowls or received them as gifts.

For Cathy Gunther, the park serves as an exercise outlet for her and her dogs, and as a place for relaxation. Her dogs, Otter and Clover, explore nearby while she pulls weeds and snips honeysuckle. Gunther also got married in the park.

Lou Mazzocco, though, has the most unique perspective on Stewart Park. He’s lived in the same house on West Parkway for 42 years. As a boy, he remembers countless pickup softball games in front of the old backstop, long since removed. He remembers the four trees that stood in as bases during whiffle ball games and the huge oak that marked the fence line for a home run. He remembers games of hotbox and bouts of poison ivy. He learned a European style of soccer from international students living across the street from the park; and he and his brother made a killing mowing neighborhood lawns.

Mazzocco is now a trustee, making him one of three people responsible for any legal decisions pertaining to the park. He often finds himself worrying about the same things his parents worried about when he was young, such as kids’ safety while playing in the creek or the dark spot between two lampposts on West Parkway, perfect for exploring teenage curiosity.

For the children who live in the neighborhood, the park represents endless possibilities for freedom and exploration. A few abandoned socks caked with mud are scattered around the creek at a place where the honeysuckle isn’t too thick — perhaps removed for a romp in the creek’s cool water on a hot day and then forgotten.

Stewart Park has been the location of countless picnics, soccer games and creek walks; as well as the occasional wedding, reunion, movie night and Easter egg hunt. The Park Hill Improvement Association still meets once a year to discuss park maintenance, the budget and other issues pertaining to the park. Most households contribute voluntary annual dues, which pay for mowing, tree removal and liability insurance.

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in early April, about 30 members — representing about 20 of the 115 Park Hill households — attended the annual association meeting. Discussion touched on traffic-calming issues and possible speed bumps, an increase in annual dues and this year’s budget. Gunther, head of the grounds committee, announced this year’s volunteer cleanup days, which took place April 12 and 13.

Before Gunther took over the grounds committee, cleanup days usually consisted of trash pickup, some weed whacking and fallen tree removal. Vegetation was left to run wild, giving the park a full, bushy look. Honeysuckle ran rampant, and some places resembled a forest more than a neighborhood park.

For the past two years, however, Gunther has shifted the focus to honeysuckle removal. Honeysuckle is an invasive plant that comes into leaf early in the spring, usually around the end of March, and remains until late fall. It has silver-tinted bark and grows in an umbrella shape. Some places in the park have honeysuckle that stands more than 15 feet.

“They’re light suckers,” Gunther says. “We basically have no reseeding of our natural trees and wildflowers. It’s hard to get baby trees to renew the old trees because they’re shaded out [by honeysuckle].”

Cliff Thompson and his wife, Mary, who have lived in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, remember when the park had many more trees than it does now.

“We went through a period when it was pretty bald,” Thompson says. “We lost so many trees. It was just covered. Great big elm trees, beautiful things that died all over town,” he says referring to the Dutch elm disease that spread throughout the country from the 1930s until the 1980s.

To combat the loss of more trees and promote new tree growth, cleanup volunteers work to eradicate the honeysuckle that prevents new trees or native vegetation from sprouting.

On an unseasonably warm April morning, Gunther joins 10 of her neighbors where the park meets the bend on East Parkway Drive for the first cleanup day of the year. Jon Poses, drawn from his house by chatter and the noise of a weed whacker, moseys over and asks what he can do to help. Gunther puts him on lawn-mower duty.

“Just mow over everything after we’ve cleared it out,” she tells him, pointing to a space where Chris and Don Walker just finished removing honeysuckle and weeds.

“Over everything?” Poses asks. “Even over this stuff?” He points at the tangle of twigs, vines and small, recently snipped honeysuckle stumps.

“Everything,” Gunther says.

Yanking honeysuckle and the tangled vine that thrives in its shade is hard work — like pulling a goat on a rope. Even after the honeysuckle is snipped, the vine clutches at the bush, requiring a person’s entire body weight behind the tug to wrestle it free. After three hours of pulling, whacking, trimming and mowing, the entire section near the curve in East Parkway Drive is clear of honeysuckle, and massive piles of branches and vines await pickup. Poses, Gunther and the Walkers stick around after the work is done to talk about nothing in particular. They’re sweaty and dirty and tired, but it’s a warm day and the sun is out. What could be better than catching up with your neighbors?

Commitment & Conviction
Parks are important; some would say essential. They represent a commitment to our future and to our past. Their conservation prevents loss from bulldozers, chainsaws, pollution and garbage, and the sacrifice of trees and wildlife to concrete and asphalt. Parks represent an effort to preserve natural landscape, our history and, in some cases, our sanity. They allow visitors to escape noisy cities and discover nature’s beauty, even if it’s only for a moment.

American writer Wallace Stegner, sometimes referred to as “the dean of western writers,” said it best in his “Wilderness Letter” that he wrote in 1960, used to introduce the Wilderness Act of 1964.

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” he wrote.

Stegner originally wrote the letter to argue for the importance of the federal government’s role in preserving natural landscapes and the beauty, resources and history that humanity stands to lose with their eventual destruction.

The Wilderness Act, which created the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The NWPS spans more than 100 million acres of protected wilderness including national forests, wildlife refuges, Bureau of Land Management property and national parks.

Even before the Wilderness Act, though, the United States has shown a commitment to preserving natural spaces. In 1916, the Organic Act allowed the formation of the National Park Service, charged with the care of all areas designated as national parks. Shortly after, the National Park Conservation Association was founded in 1919. Today, national parks in the United States span 84 million acres throughout 401 individual parks.

Columbia, however, was a bit slow to designate land for public parks.

The city created the Parks and Recreation Department in 1949. In the same year, the city dedicated the Cosmo Recreation area (520 acres) as a park, but the land was not developed until 1972, when funds from a 25-cent-sales tax and a matching federal grant became available.

Not quite 100 years after Stewart Park was established, the conviction that favors real jungles to concrete ones has prevailed, as Columbia now maintains 70 parks comprising more than 3,000 acres of land and trails.

A Country Place
Stewart Park and the Park Hill Neighborhood is an everybody-knows-everybody, come-in-through-the-backdoor, lazy-front-porch-evenings kind of a place — a country atmosphere within walking distance of The District. It’s the kind of place where people take pride in their homes and their yards, of which many consider Stewart Park to be an extension.

“You’re sort of out in the country,” says Hilderbrand. In the summer, when he and his wife turn onto West Parkway Drive from West Broadway, they immediately notice a 10-degree difference due to the heat island effect.

“Every once in a while you’ll see a badger kind of lumbering along the creek,” he says. “There are big water turtles, and we have owls that talk to each other at night. That’s really fun to listen to.”

Generations of families have come and gone, but the community created by the little park remains. A few months ago, Thompson says, his granddaughter and her four little boys, ages 5 and younger, stayed with them for four days. They spent most of their time running through the park as their parents and grandparents did.

“It was just starting all over again,” Thompson says. “Just like the circle of life goes around and around and around, and you really see it here. It’s been an awful good place to live, it really has.”

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