Eric Fredrickson: What happened to the old Hennessy playground?
As superintendent of the Grass Valley School District, I’ve been asked, “What happened to the playground at the old Hennessy School?”
I’d like to answer that question by telling the story of one of the finest moments in our community’s history.
The playground at 225 South Auburn Street was called the “Play Like A Youngster” (PLAY) Field of Dreams. Community leaders such as Linda Martin and Midge Scotten, joined by a dedicated coordinating committee that met once a week for two years, spearheaded the effort.
Construction of the all-volunteer-built playground began April 20, 1994.
It was completed in just five days.
The first day of construction began with a student parade and the Gilmore School Marching Band. Only 83 people had signed up to work. More than 1,000 showed up each day.
Volunteers worked Wednesday through Sunday, toiling dawn to dusk. Even a Saturday rainstorm didn’t dampen their spirits.
Crews were organized in groups of three, with one skilled worker teamed with two others willing to learn. Even children had their own work area where they scrubbed tires and soaped down anything that didn’t move.
Local companies donated labor and heavy equipment. PG&E sent crews to drill holes and install poles. Other businesses encouraged and sometimes even paid their employees to volunteer at the playground.
Service clubs, stores and restaurants donated food and beverages. A typical day saw workers consume 6,000 cups of coffee and 4,000 cups of cocoa. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served to 500 people at a time.
The ribbon cutting and dedication ceremony on the fifth and final day was attended by hundreds of people and covered by Sacramento television news crews.
Midge Scotten and Linda Brown hammered the final nail into the structure — a nail plated with gold from the South Yuba River — as volunteers wiped away tears of joy.
We’ve placed a link to a documentary about the PLAY construction project on our website https://www.gvsd.us/Community/Our-District/History/.
The children who would one day enjoy the playground had helped design it and raised money to build it. They staged a “Pennies from Heaven” campaign, placing collection boxes at favorite stores. They raised more than $1,500 in pennies and spare change.
Also included in the grand total of $300,000 in construction funds was money raised from the sale of tiles. Individuals, families, groups and businesses purchased more than 600 tiles for $25 each. The tiles were decorated and affixed to cement slabs that were secured into the ground with heavy rebar. The slabs served as both decorations and tributes to those who helped make the playground possible.
The PLAY Field of Dreams was indeed 14,000 square feet of fun, with an amphitheater, mazes, pirate ships, bridges, swings, bars, and ladders.
Alas, the facility became outdated long before it was outworn.
Several years ago, concerns were raised about the safety and integrity of the playground structures. The facility was no longer in compliance with modern state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That’s why the Grass Valley School District included the $509,778 playground replacement project in the district’s $18.8 million Measure D Bond initiative. The measure was approved by voters in March 2018, and demolition of the PLAY playground began in June.
Please know we tried to salvage the tiles that meant so much to so many.
We suspended demolition as work crews tried to pry tiles from the walls of the six concrete slabs. They tried using air chisels and rotary hammers, and finally, hand tools. Yet the brittle terra cotta tiles continued to crack and break.
Crews also tried to extricate the six cement slabs with tiles intact. They used a backhoe — no luck. They tried using excavators to lift the slabs out of the ground, but the awkward shape of the slabs defied those attempts, as did the deeply buried rebar.
Even before demolition, many tiles had been vandalized; others were damaged by age and weather. But thanks to the patience of our district maintenance crews, a handful of tiles with loose adhesive were salvaged.
Despite our efforts, I understand there are hurt feelings. As GVSD superintendent, I fell short of my goal to fully acknowledge the sacrifice and commitment of those who created the PLAY Field of Dreams.
I believe it is not too late for GVSD to honor the PLAY legacy. As I said, we were able to salvage some tiles. We have about 75 photographs of the tiles affixed to the concrete walls. We also have the bronze plaque from the PLAY playground.
We’d like to erect a kiosk or historical display showcasing PLAY memories demonstrated through artifacts and memorabilia. We welcome your input.
The new charter playground will be completed next month. The main structures are a three-story feature with five slides and an outdoor amphitheater. There are other structures with more slides, climbing ropes, and interactive features. There are also a number of natural rock formations, various swings, a spinning orb, zip line, and smaller stand-alone elements.
The new playground is safe, challenging, and contemporary, and I hope generations of children will enjoy it.
I also realize nothing can replace the PLAY Field of Dreams, which served as a monument to our community’s spirit and what can be achieved when people share a common goal.
Eric Fredrickson has worked in public education for 36 years. For the past 24 years, he has lived and worked in the Grass Valley area, and is now serving his ninth year as superintendent of the Grass Valley School District. His children graduated from local schools and he has grandchildren currently enrolled in the Grass Valley School District.
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