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History of park board illustrates changing identity of park and community

June 16, 2013

"THE VIEW FROM MAIN STREET"

Before getting to the gist of this column, a moment to acknowledge, with sadness, the passing of 'Essie' McKinnis, whose absence seems to me like losing a part of Culver itself. She played alternately active and behind-the-scenes roles in many facets of Culver, as have many of her family members. Condolences to her family and loved ones.

The hot topic around Culver in recent weeks has been the park board, of course, and I don't really have much to add to the sometimes-heated discussion surrounding it, at least in terms of my “take” on any particular debated topic.

In all of the discussion, however, I would echo what some went out of their way to point out, which is that none of the controversy pertains to the work of recently-appointed park activities director Donna McKee. I think most everyone in Culver applauds her efforts to bring interesting and engaging activities to the park, and I know the concert series, in particular, this summer has been very well-received (and will hopefully be equally well attended).

Many readers may know Donna and her husband Dave, but I gather many don't. I can only say, as editor, that I've observed their regular volunteerism of time and talent to local endeavors ranging from Cub Scouts to the fire department, VFW Auxiliaries and more. So, whatever controversies may come and go regarding the park, hopefully Culver residents will appreciate what both McKees have contributed to the community.

Secondly, I've attended park board meetings off and on over the past five years as editor, and I must say, the past two meetings (one a regular, monthly meeting and the other a special work session) have been two of the least contentious with regards to controversial topics. As reported in this week's Culver Citizen, there are issues hotly debated by the board for some years which now have seemingly reached a peaceable consensus, and that's always a positive sign.

Hopefully, regardless of one's position regarding various controversies facing the board over the years, an increased spirit of cooperation among park board members, and a growing measure of good will and charity on the part of the public can converge, to the benefit of all.

During the height of some of the debate -- and admittedly sparked by Ginny Munroe's much-discussed letter to the editor regarding the park board a few weeks ago -- the local historian in me became curious. I knew Culver didn't always have a park board proper, and I was intrigued to learn a bit of the backstory there.

What we think of today as the town park, of course, wasn't always the town's, though it was a park of sorts as far back as the 1880s, when the Vandalia Railroad (which put its line through the area in 1883) owned the land, and its grounds extended much further east than we think of today (essentially well into the "Indian Trails" between today's park and Culver Academies).

It was in 1935, well after the "golden age" of the railroad into Culver had dried up, that what we think of today as the town park was sold to Culver. Over the next few years, WPA projects added the beach lodge, the fieldstone retaining walls, and other amenities. All the while, the town continued overseeing the park from more of a distance, with upkeep left to the beach lodge management, which varied through the years but included Mrs. Hugh Harper, Alice McClane, and perhaps the most-remembered Bill and Margaret Washburn (they well into the 1950s).

Culver owes a lot to its Lions Club for a slew of projects, but it's often overlooked that they built a playground court in the park in 1947 (just four years after the club's inception), besides erecting a high dive and repairing the swimming pier (many readers will recall that high dive, as well as the "raft" in the "deep" water of the swimming area -- and many have wistfully longed for their return!).

The impetus for a park board seems to have largely been the deteriorating condition of the park, with few if any volunteers handling the chores with sufficient regularity by then.

The first mention of the park board in the Culver Citizen was in June, 1967, when it was noted Miss Mildred Brickey had been appointed "Water Front Director," which shouldn't be confused with the present position of park superintendent, which came later. At that point, the main concern was appointment of properly trained and certified lifeguards for the summer swimming season.

It's obvious from various writings in the paper at the time that many considered conditions in the park to have reached almost emergency levels.

The June 27, 1968 edition of the Citizen included a statement from the park board which reads, in part: "In attempting to rehabilitate the Town Park and Beach and to extend the program for all of our citizens, particularly our young people, the Board has divided the various responsibilities among its members. Grounds and Equipment are looked after by Mrs. James McCombs and Mrs. Robert Curtis. Mrs. Ronald Mackey and Latham Lawson are in charge of the operation of the Beach Lodge. Walter Johnson and Carl Baker of the operation of the Waterfront Program and the Beach. Mr. Baker also works with the Park League Baseball Program."

In other words, board members divided a fair measure of the work amongst themselves (so being a park board member has gotten considerably easier since then!).

Interestingly, the statement continues, "The Board is aware of the many deficiencies found in the Park. For many years the supervision of the Park has been, of necessity, a responsibility of a single member of the Town Board. Sufficient funds were not available for Park operation. There was no long range plan for the Park. By having the Board of six persons now concerned with the Park, more ideas and effort are being expended on the Park. By the end of this summer a long range plan will be presented to the Town Board which will outline the plans for several years ahead. The major problem the Board faces is lack of funds. In many areas there are obvious improvements that need to be made, but money is not available at the present to do the necessary work. The Board is looking for ways in which the Park can provide more of its own revenue."

The statement goes on to note the beach lodge was the primary source of income (up to then, this had included renting out its upper level as a hotel space). However, in 1967 the lodge netted the town $400, while the park's light bill was $465!

Another ongoing problem noted was vandalism, break-ins, and destruction of property, "most of which is performed by teen-agers." In fact, two members of Culver's Auxiliary Police Patrol monitored the park each Sunday to lessen the above problems.

It was also noted residents of Culver and Union Township would be required to purchase season beach passes at the staggering amount of 25 cents per family, with families outside the township but in the school district paying $10. Funds would go towards "much needed" repairs and upkeep.

In May, 1969, the park board held its first public monthly meeting, in the then-new Culver Community High School, where it heard a report from park baseball league commissioner Ken Grether, and hired lifeguards and clerks for the summer season.

An article in the same issue of the Citizen pointed out the swimming lesson program at the beach saw a first session enrollment of 130 people.

That paper's coverage of the town board meeting wrote that several "out of town people" had signed a letter criticizing the upkeep of the town park. Board member Don Osborn said the park board was doing an excellent job and criticized those not paying taxes complaining, adding it takes time to make needed changes.

In her "Culver Comments" column, Alienor Osborn quipped, "Complaints about the Park have leveled off and the entire Park Board is recovering from the shock they received when some people commented on how beautiful the Park looks."

The themes of lack of funding and the dilapidated appearance of the park resurfaced repeatedly over the next decade, during which the position of park superintendent was established to help alleviate the latter problem, though with mixed results, and the former problem continued.

In 1975, a massive federal grant was secured by the town for an array of improvements to the park, including the beach lodge itself, addition of the basketball courts, paving of what had been a dirt access road (to create the double walkways along the water front west of the beach), new playground equipment, and wooden steps from the upper area to the lower, among others. At various intervals over the years, park activities were planned, such as those overseen by then superintendent Rick C. Ashmore in 1977, which included craft classes and various other programs.

A cover story in the Culver Citizen in 1979, complete with photos, blasted the town and park administration for the deplorable appearance of the park, which included broken picnic tables and benches and an abundance of trash and litter, among other problems -- such criticism continued, on and off, for several years following.

The park continued into the 1980s to struggle to be economically self-sustaining, with income derived almost solely from beach entrance fees and concessions. In the 1990s, fees to park in the town park's lot on weekends and holidays were established to alleviate the problem. The establishment in the mid-2000s of pier slip rentals at the park revolutionized its income, finally not only making it self-sustaining, but facilitating a broader level of maintenance and improvement, and amenities such as the current activities director.

It's interesting to consider present discussions regarding the role of the park in light of the broader question of the identity of Culver, past, present, and future.

Within the context of the park board debate in recent weeks and months, it's been said -- both publicly in meetings and private conversations -- repeatedly that the park is something of the "jewel" of Culver; that is, possibly the most attractive and desirable location to showcase an increasingly visitor-driven community.

As the above historical information -- and the personal experience of anyone with much longevity here -- makes clear, this is a fairly recent way of viewing the town park, and it of course grows from a fairly recent way of viewing Culver.

It's obvious the main set of challenges facing those responsible for the park for the past four or five decades were related to simply keeping the place from falling apart, and paying the bills to keep the lights on. As such, it's somewhat understandable why residents who well remember those days might be puzzled at more recent efforts to take the park from simply maintaining a standard of beauty and safety, to becoming an increasingly dynamic host for events and activities to draw new people to Culver and cultivate a sense of regular activity and attraction for locals as well.

So to some extent, we're back to that oft-discussed (at least in this column!) matter of the "old Culver" verses the "new Culver," with all its complexities. As I've often written and discussed here, unfortunately the "old Culver" many locals remember is a victim not so much of Culver itself, but of a shift in American culture towards a more corporatized, urbanized means of commerce (in other words, "big box stores") and the internet, combined with increased outsourcing of industrial and other labor. The days of the "old Culver" are gone as surely as can be seen by looking at some of our neighboring small towns who don't have the benefit of a beautiful, clean, natural lake and a world-renowned prep school: they're all but dying, like it or not.

So, many local businesses and organizations are understandably seeking to capitalize on the few strengths Culver has which set it apart from many small towns, and have sought to benefit from the tourism (and seasonal second home ownership) which is already here.

In that atmosphere, it's easier to see why the town park would be seen more and more as an asset which could help propel Culver's economy and identity as a "destination" forward. The park has, to an extent, come to be the center (and perhaps a symbol) of a sort of tug-of-war for Culver's present and future identity, an identity which continues to be worked out and puzzled over by concerned locals of all stripes.

I'd add, for what it's worth, that I think most all parties involved genuinely care for and love the community, and feel a sense of both indebtedness to it and ownership of it (though not exclusive ownership), which is important to bear in mind: there are no moustache-twisting evil villains in this story, though good people on all sides can, in the heat of disagreement, resort to tactics beneath them, and frankly I've seen that happen on all sides of the equation here.

Culver's park -- and its management -- has obviously come a long way since the town first took it over in 1935, and it will be interesting to see it continue to evolve...hopefully in a spirit of cooperation and focus on what's best for the whole community. Recent park board meetings make that goal seem more plausible than it appeared for some time.

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