Duluth Playgrounds & Sporting Facilities

Playground equipment at Observation Park photographed in 1929. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Supervised Play becomes Recreation for All Ages

Playground supporters began to see real progress in 1915, including the introduction of the new term recreation for the supervised play they were advocating. In February, they formed the Duluth Recreation Committee, which included Mayor Prince; Frank A. Brewer, president of the Duluth Board of Education; Robert E. Denfeld, school superintendent; Henry Cleveland, park superintendent; and a number of interested citizens. The committee brought in Mr. T. S. Settle, field secretary of the Playground and Recreation Association of America, to help it create a plan specifically for Duluth. The group’s recommendations to the board of education and city council included a minimum expenditure of $3,000 to operate playgrounds from June 1 to December 31, 1915. The group suggested that the money should be provided equally by the city and the board of education.

By May the group announced that a three-month experiment would start on July 1 under direction of the city’s welfare board and the board of education. John R. Batchelor, secretary of the local playground association and physical director of the Boys’ Department of the YMCA, would be in charge. The board of education provided $80 and Mayor Prince pledged that the city would devote all its recreational funds for the summer to the experiment. The plan would be tried out at three existing playgrounds: Chester Park, Harrison Park, and Fifty-first Avenue West. Daily activities for children included organized games, team races, athletic competitions, and storytelling, alternating with fifteen to thirty minutes of free play.

In July the News Tribune reported that four hundred youngsters and grownups were using the playgrounds every day. The supervisors were surprised by the number of adults who participated. According to Batchelor:

Adults are showing as keen interest as young people and children in supervised recreation, and attendance is increasing so rapidly that directors anticipate trouble in handling crowds. While children frolic in games mapped out for them by qualified supervisors, older folks play quoits, throw horseshoes, vie in athletic contests or bask in the sun observing the young people… There has never been anything like it before. The sight of mature persons frolicking with children on the same grounds is something new at the Head of the Lakes.

At the end of the successful three-month experiment, the city hired Batchelor as public recreation director at a salary of $75 per month, with half paid by the city and half by the board of education.

For the 1916 summer recreation season, the city opened nine additional playgrounds, all located near schools. On July 23, 1916, the News Tribune headline declared, “Duluth Playgrounds are a Moral Force.” Reporting attendances of between nine and ten thousand per week, the newspaper claimed that before the “new” way of supervised recreation, boys often ended up forming gangs and going in for some “mild lawlessness” while girls were left to their own devices and mostly played with dolls. Under the new system, “every child has a chance and…the strong characters lose none of their individuality while the more timid ones, who under the old plan of play had to stand back and look on, are given a chance to also participate and thus develop traits and characteristics that might have never come to the surface.”

The popularity of recreation continued to grow every year, and the city administration and school board responded by adding more playgrounds and recreation centers. In 1919 the city built a fieldhouse at Harrison Park, and the estate of Duluth pioneer Henry W. Wheeler offered use of about twenty-five acres on West Third Street between Thirty-fourth and Thirty-sixth Avenues West for baseball games.

By the 1920s, recreation for adults was just as popular as playgrounds for children. In West Duluth, Memorial Park—at the intersection of Grand Avenue, Elinor Street, and Central Avenue—was created as a memorial to honor those who served in World War I, but West Duluth residents soon requested that the city add a running track for Denfeld High School students to use. In 1927 Park Superintendent F. Rodney Paine opened the golf course at Enger Park, developed Chester Bowl as a center for year-round outdoor activities, and created a plan for the winter sports center at Fond du Lac Park. In 1928 dirt removed to construct Duluth’s new city hall was hauled to Observation Park, doubling the size of its play area. That same year Paine wrote in his annual report that “during the past three years considerable advancement has been made in providing recreational facilities for grown ups.”

Duluth’s recreation program continued as a cooperative venture between the school board and park department. In 1931 Paine explained that “the Recreation Department of the School Board was in charge of the play activities and games on active recreation areas located within park property, and the Park Department paid the salaries of the supervisors and performed the maintenance work on the grounds and buildings.”

Recreation gradually took over the entire city park system, replacing the idealistic vision of Duluth’s first park board with a more pragmatic view that recognized how twentieth-century Duluthians were using the parks. In 1911 the park board members had eloquently described their vision when they wrote, “The park system of a modern city not only aims at beauty, but strives to express the concept of the soul of the city. The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family. They are the concrete expression of civic consciousness in its highest visible form.”

In 1943 Park Superintendent John Hoene wrote that “recreation, a word which was unheard of a few years ago, has become a very important activity or phase of a person’s life. It should be pointed out…that all of the activities carried on by the Park Department are recreational…, whether you enjoy active recreation by participating in some sport…or if you participate in passive recreation by driving along the Skyline Parkway…you still are seeking and obtaining recreation.” In 1957 Mayor Eugene Lambert changed the name of the Park Department to the Department of Public Recreation. The playground movement had achieved much more than its original supporters had ever hoped for.

In 2016 the Duluth Parks and Recreation Division maintained dozens of playgrounds at a variety of parks throughout the city, including Birchwood Park, Blackmer Park, Cascade Square, Central Hillside Park, Chester Park, Cobb Park, Como Park, Duluth Heights Park, Endion Park, the Franklin Tot Lot, Grant Park, Harrison Park, Hillside Sport Court, Irving Park, Klang Memorial Park, Lafayette Square, Lester Park, Lincoln Park, Memorial Park, Merritt Park, Minnesota Point Recreation Area, Morgan Park, Munger Park, Norton Park, Observation Park, Piedmont Park, Portland Square, Portman Square, Riverside Park, Smithville Park, Washington Square, and Woodland Park. The newest and largest of these playgrounds, Playfront Park at the Bayfront Festival Park, was created in 1989 as a community project led by the Junior League of Duluth. In 2010 the playground underwent a major renovation, again funded by the Junior League of Duluth.

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