HISTORY OF THE BELVIDERE PARK DISTRICT
As Belvidere grew in population the need for park spaces increased, both to provide open recreational land and as a beautifying element to attract new families and businesses to settle in Belvidere. On Nov. 4, 1919, an election was held resulting in 764 yea votes versus 280 nay votes to establish the Belvidere Township Park District and to elect a board of five park commissioners.
On March 9, 1920 a fifty-five acre parcel, known as the Baltic Mill tract, was purchased from Frank Taylor for $14,500. It included the Mill, a residence on West Lincoln Avenue, the river dam, the mill race, Gooseberry Island, and a parcel of land on the south bank of the Kishwaukee River, which included an entrance from West Locust Street to the dam. The Baltic Mill was eventually also converted to shelter space and in 1935 it was used as a community theater. Subsequent land purchases over the next few months added land adjacent to the Taylor property to the present park boundaries. Gooseberry Island, the land between the mill race and the river, was cleared of brush and debris, and picnic tables, fireplaces, and water were added to create family picnic spots. Access to the island was provided when two suspension bridges were installed, one crossing the mill race near Baltic Mill and the other spanning the river from the south.
Another goal of the park district election was realized on Nov. 29, 1920, when the three and one-half acre Doty Flats property, located on the south bank of the river, was bought from Frank Stoner for $3250. Over the next decades, the area was frequently rented for athletic and community events. In 1946, the park board sold Doty Park to the school district, and the property was later called Legion Field.
On June 11, 1921, a “bathing beach” opened on the banks of the Kishwaukee River on East Lincoln Avenue at the river’s bend. Called Marshall Park, it was named for George Marshall who leased the land to the park district. A bathhouse, concession stand, benches, picnic tables, fireplaces, a diving float, slides, and a band stand were all part of the park. Across the street, four clay tennis courts were also built and they became the site of many city tournaments. In 1925 a log cabin was built for the use of lifeguards in the summer and the caretaker in the winter. The beach was immensely popular with Belvidere city and township residents and it was the site of exhibition performances by famous swimmers including Johnny Weissmuller.
In 1933, in the depths of the depression, the park board decided they could not afford the expense of the beach’s operation and voted to close it for the summer. A group of concerned citizens and community organizations pledged financial aid and the beach was opened on schedule. After the summer of 1937, the bathing beach was not operated by the district, but the park itself remained open. For a time the board considered building the new pool on the site, but the idea was not popular with the neighborhood, and the pool was sited in Belvidere Park. In late 1946, the Marshall Park property was sold and the leased land was returned to the Marshall family.
In 1938, after the closing of Marshall Beach, discussion began on the feasibility of building a park district swimming pool. WPA funding paid for over half the cost and in June, 1941 the pool opened. It included spacious changing rooms, a separate children’s wading pool and a concession stand located in the log cabin which had been moved from Marshall Park. In 1979, a new children’s pool and concession stand were constructed inside the pool fences. In 1984, a renovation project updated the 43 year old swimming pool. In 1994 the bathhouse was renovated to accommodate the growth of swimmers and individuals with disabilities.
Belvidere Parks’ 105 acres provided baseball fields, play areas, picnic spots, fishing, and the swinging bridge. The Activity Center off West Locust Street had been built during this period, providing sheltered picnic space in the summer and ice skating in the winter.
Gradually, as the 1970’s ended, a new era began for the parks. In 1979, a full time recreation coordinator to provide year-round programming and a Superintendent of Maintenance were hired. In 1982, the first Park Director position was created. This came as a result of changing community needs and park expansion. In 1979, the city had conveyed Harkless Park to the park district. A tot-lot play area on East Avenue was built and organized children’s sports were becoming popular.
In 1986 land on Town Hall Road was leased and developed as soccer fields in response to the popularity of the sport.
Beginning in 1987, a period of expansion, restoration, and growth have made more parks and services available for the enjoyment of the growing Boone County population. In 1988, using the first ever state grant money, the Burgess Street Boat Launch was built. The next year, the first mile loop of the Kishwaukee Riverfront Path was completed in Belvidere Park. Over the next several years, the path was extended to the boat launch site, Doty Park was re-acquired by the district in 1992, a walking bridge was built over the Kishwaukee River, and the recreational path was extended into Doty Park. In 1994, the final phase of the project got underway with the revitalization of Doty Park. The project included building a handicapped accessible playground, a large shelter with restrooms, a boat dock, and two large open field areas. In 2000 the Embankment Skatepark was added.
Other river access facilities include two canoe launches. Red Horse Bend is located on the north bank of the Kishwaukee River just east of Belvidere. Hickory Bill’s Island, west of the park off the Appleton Road bridges, was finished in 1998. It includes a picnic site, a gradual path downhill to the canoe launch area, and a large parking area.
One of the goals of the 90’s park board was to work with the schools to create more play facilities for children. The park’s own Kiddieland had been a popular playground since the late 60’s, but was inaccessible to many Belvidere children. Since the park district didn’t own land in the township’s different neighborhoods, it chose instead to help the grade school’s parent-teacher organizations fund school playgrounds. Perry, Caledonia, Lincoln, Washington, Kishwaukee, and Logan Schools were all recipients of that aid. The Meehan School agreement took the park/school concept several steps further. The park district contributed toward the construction of the gym and recreational facilities at Meehan School in exchange for the use of those facilities for community after-hours and summer programs and activities.
At the same time, the board of commissioners were exploring opportunities for building parks within Belvidere Township, but outside the city limits. Aberdeen Park is one such park. Built on ten acres off Orth Road, it includes tennis courts, sand volleyball court, horseshoe pits, shuffleboard court, playground, ball diamond, soccer field, a walking path, a shelter with restrooms, and two parking lots. This property was acquired through use of the county land-cash ordinance and developer contributions.
In 1992, the park district helped establish the Park District Foundation to provide a means for local people to donate lands for public use and, through its 501C3 status, receive tax deductions. Completely independent from the park board, the foundation has its own members and by-laws, and is able to assist local groups and individuals with charitable gifts.
The Baltic Mill has always been a historic landmark in Belvidere, and in order to preserve it into the new century, an extensive stabilization project was undertaken. The mill was renovated to provide historical artifacts, a meeting room, a public restroom and house the Boone County Arts Council office. Adjacent to the Baltic Mill is a stage area where “Concerts in the Park” are provided for the community. Completed in 1995, the mill is a positive example of community historic preservation merged with practical function.
In 1992 Belvidere Park projects included acquiring and preserving the headgates on the Mill Race and the Mill Race Renovation Project, which included dredging the mill race, removing brush and scrub trees, reconstructing the weir, and re-landscaping the park grounds. Those efforts have opened the vistas of the park as well as correcting serious structural and environmental problems.
The Park District Administration Building was completed in 1999 after years of working out of the former caretaker’s house. This beautiful new facility includes centrally located offices, files, storage, and meeting spaces to provide for growth and anticipated needs well into the future.
As it plans for the future, the Park District has several projects in process. One is Fridh Recreation Area located at 9th Street and 14th Avenue. Currently the park includes a soccer field and parking lot. Future expansion includes a playground, ball field, shelter and restrooms. It also owns a 90 acre land parcel between the Belvidere Cemetery and the Fairgrounds, north of Belvidere, which it plans to develop into a sports park. Prairie Fields Sport Park will encompass many activities for all ages – soccer fields, baseball and softball diamonds, senior activity area, shelters, playgrounds, concessions, sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, tennis courts restrooms, batting cages, neighborhood park and a path looping the sports park. This land almost doubles the land holdings of the park district. Final plans are underway to begin construction in the near future.
The goal of the Belvidere Township Park District is to meet the recreational needs of the community well into the next century. Much of the credit for the existence of the park district goes to one man, William Bowley. A tireless advocate, he lobbied for the creation of the Belvidere Park District and was elected as one of the first park commissioners, a job he held for 27 years until his death in 1946. For many of those years he also served as the General Park Superintendent. As a boy, his father had been part owner of the Baltic Mill and Bill loved the area. Many consider Bill Bowley to be father of Belvidere Park. He was instrumental in getting old Gooseberry Island, which was then no better than a dump, cleaned up and made into a park. One of his most visible efforts, evident even today, is the 1,700 trees he planted to landscape Belvidere Park.
By Marsha Mehl