A celebration of parks
One hundred ten years ago this summer, citizens began enjoying Grass Valley’s first public park.
Ten years after that first public park, Memorial Park was born. It will celebrate its 100th anniversary this Veterans Day.
The creation of the city’s first parks is owed entirely to women.
More than 100 women organized the Grass Valley Women’s Improvement Club around 1910, and loosely allied themselves with similar clubs across America. The Grass Valley women took inspiration from women in distant cities who had planted trees and public gardens, agitated for improved sanitation and pushed officials to ban billboards from their streets.
As one of the women told the club in 1910: “In the evolution of the women’s club the greatest movement, aside from suffrage and temperance, has been along the line of civic improvement.”
The Grass Valley club functioned as a Chamber of Commerce auxiliary. Most members were the wives of merchants, mining engineers or other professionals, and a few were professionals themselves, including teachers and a nurse. Initially, they worked to clean up unsightly lots and plant trees and flowers, using funds raised at card parties. Soon they focused on the need for a public park.
Grass Valley Mayor Charles E. Clinch had suggested a park in 1907, and The Union newspaper took up the cause.
“City parks are beginning to be recognized as among the important improvements in a modern city and one of the best civic contributions to the uplifting and entertaining of the citizens,” the paper editorialized.
But nothing got done until the women got involved.
In April 1910 a delegation of women called on William Bourn, owner of the Empire mine, to ask for help in finding property for a park. Bourn showed keen interest, encouraged the women and promised to help. The women initially set their sights on the Dibble property at the corner of West Main and School streets, but lost a bidding war to the Elks Lodge. Later they settled on a half-acre at Bennett and Bank streets.
A driving force within the club was Sara Kidder, who as a widow became president of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, which she managed with distinction for 12 years. She owned the Bennett Street property and offered it to the club for $1,200, paid as funds became available. Kidder than donated more than $1,200 worth of improvements to the site, including water piped from a spring on her adjacent property and a 6-foot iron fountain with water spewing from the mouths of lions.
In 1911 the women tirelessly raised funds for the park, hosting card parties, teas and raffles. The big fund raiser was a variety show which featured an all-women orchestra. Even as the fundraising continued, the park was taking shape.
THE PARK DEVELOPS
The women plied their connections, especially through local militia leader P. T. Riley, to obtain a park ornament — a cannon from the War Department in Washington. The department offered a 9,100-pound, 10-foot long pre-Civil War Columbiad cannon which once had guarded the Golden Gate. The women faced a daunting freight bill to ship the cannon to Grass Valley, but Sara Kidder used her influence with the Southern Pacific and the big gun rode for free.
By July 1911 the first city park had become, as The Union said, an “object of public gaze.” The jewel-like lot included walkways, lawns, flower gardens and trees, a flagpole and Kidder’s fountain. “It is a beautiful place,” the paper said. “All honor to the women.” The women dedicated the park to veterans of the Spanish American War and California pioneers.
City Square, as people called it, became Grass Valley’s gateway. “As the visitors alight from the train at the Nevada county narrow gauge depot,” the newspaper said, “they come face to face with a pretty little city square.”
In 1973 City Square was renamed to honor Dow Alexander, a long-time Chamber of Commerce member. New roadways have reduced the park to a quarter acre and the Kidder fountain is gone, but the park still offers a playground for children. Students gather after school in the park and individuals sit on benches to reflect amid trees, birds and squirrels.
The creation of the modest park presaged bigger things. In their early conversation with William Bourn, the women asked about a 7-acre property along Colfax Avenue, known as the Barker Tract, which the Empire had purchased for its underground mineral rights. Bourn took the matter to his Board of Directors, and a week later offered the land for a park.
In 1911, the women didn’t have the funds to develop a property as large as the Barker Tract. But later, as a result of organizing successful war bond and Red Cross drives during the Great War of 1914-18, local citizens developed the skills to raise money on a larger scale than they could through parties and variety shows.
After the war Empire’s property would become Grass Valley’s Memorial Park, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2021. Watch for announcements of events and festivities marking the solemn day and celebrating the park’s centennial.
Gage McKinney’s book “Gold Mining Genius: A Life of George W. Starr” is available at The Book Seller, Grass Valley, and Harmony Books, Nevada City
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