Duluth’s Park System, 1856 – 1956

Lithographic postcard ca. 1935, of bathers enjoying the surf and beach on the lake side of Minnesota Point. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Deterioration of the Parks

After Sam Snively’s tenure as mayor ended in 1937, support of the park system varied with every change in leadership, and for the next two decades each mayor appointed his own park superintendent. The problems caused by the Depression and the war continued to mount, creating increasing challenges for the park department.

When Rudolph Berghult replaced Snively in 1937, he appointed Earl H. Sherman as park superintendent. Sherman continued many of the projects started by Paine, including development of the ski center at Fond du Lac and the recreation area on Minnesota Point. Sherman also created the arboretum adjacent to the municipal nursery. In his 1940 report Sherman stated, “Properties which have deteriorated through neglect, due to lack of funds for maintenance, are examples of temporary economy resulting in the need for reconstruction which demands a large single annual outlay of funds. This necessary reconstruction of deteriorated properties amounts to accumulated maintenance.”

In 1941, Mayor Edward Hatch chose John V. Hoene as his park superintendent. The park department’s financial challenges continued. In his first annual report Hoene wrote that “the receipts were very poor, due to a very rainy fall season. The department, therefore, ended the year being overdrawn approximately $4,000.00.”

Hoene’s yearly reports regularly acknowledged his gratitude to the citizen volunteers and organizations that helped with park programs, and to his employees, who did their best to keep up with maintenance needs. He wrote, “Although our 1942 budget for operation and maintenance was approximately 16% lower than it was in 1941, we attempted to keep the most essential facilities and grounds in good condition. … The employees worked as they have never worked before, many of them putting in longer hours than are required. At the same time they took on their shoulders the responsibilities of the tasks that they were performing and as much as possible tried to solve their own problems without referring to the office.”

The federal government eliminated the WPA in 1943, and the Duluth Park Department did not have the resources to maintain all the new facilities that had been created with its help. That year Hoene wrote, “It is interesting to note that the Park system, since 1929, has more than doubled in its size and scope, yet less money is available to the Park Department in order to operate and maintain its facilities. … The total estimated valuation of the park system is $6,739,451.88 and the tax monies spent in 1943 totalled $90,299.69, which figures less than 1½% spent for upkeep.”

George W. Johnson took over as mayor in 1945 and hired Gust A. Johnson as park superintendent. The eight-year Johnson administration included the final months of World War II and the early postwar years. No annual reports are available from this period, but a 1946 study of public recreation in Duluth by L. H. Weir, field secretary of the National Recreation Association, reflected how completely recreation had taken over the park system. Weir’s report stated: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that the Park Department is a primary recreation agency. It exists for no other purpose than to provide recreation opportunities for all ages and both sexes of the population.”

George D. Johnson served as mayor from 1953 to 1956 with former mayor Edward H. Hatch as his park superintendent. In his annual report for 1955, Hatch tried to sound optimistic, but he didn’t have much good news to report. He wrote, “Although our budget was again substantially reduced we managed to keep all our equipment working and [made] a few worth while improvements. This was accomplished by the cooperation of civic minded citizens, city and county employees.” Hatch resigned at the end of October 1956 after Duluthians once again voted in favor of a major change to the city charter and reorganization of city government.

This time the city transformed from the commission form of government to a strong mayor and nine-member city council system. Eugene R. Lambert, publisher of the News Tribune, was the first mayor elected under the new system. Sigurd I. Duclett served as acting park superintendent from November 1, 1956, until the end of the year, after which Mayor Lambert renamed the park department as the department of public recreation and Duclett became director of public recreation. Before Duclett retired on August 1, 1957, he recommended the establishment of a citizen advisory board as a way to divorce park management from politics. Duclett was replaced by Lauren J. Ogston.

E. Clifford Mork became mayor in 1959, and Ogston stayed on until he retired in early 1960. In July 1960, Mayor Mork appointed Harry Nash as the new director of the department of public recreation. Nash remained with the department for fifteen years, serving under three different administrations. When Nash took over in 1960, the parks were a mess, but conditions gradually began to improve. Many civic organizations, individual citizens, and members of the business community stepped in as volunteers, donating time to beautify the parks and enrich the recreation program. In 1960 the Arrowhead Civic Club’s City-wide City Pride Campaign helped inspire many organizations to adopt a park and work on cleaning it up.

In 1961 the mayor appointed a nine-member Recreation Advisory Board, which met for the first time on February 23, 1961. In 1962 Mork put the word “park” back into the department’s name, making it the “Park and Recreation Advisory Board.”

After George D. Johnson became mayor for the second time in 1963, Nash, as director of the parks and recreation department, wrote in his report for 1964 that “for the first time in many years, the women and girls of our community were given a chance to participate in recreational activities designed especially for them. This was brought about by the additional funds received from the Duluth Board of Education.”

But finances were still tight, and some city councilors wanted to sell park land because they believed the city had too many parks. In May 1964 Duluth City Council President Clifford W. Johnson told the Herald, “We should get rid of our surplus land and thoroughly develop about six good parks where people will use them…not attempt to keep up many areas which are seldom used.” According to researcher Charles Aguar, Johnson had the support of many Duluthians who “considered the greenbelt a wasted resource that might better be sold to real estate developers. George E. Dizard, president of the Duluth Park and Recreation Advisory Board, agreed, saying, “We are badly in need of revenue to prevent the collapse of our park and recreation program. Maybe the sale of some of this land would be the answer to our problem.” Fortunately, very little park land was sold to developers.

At the end of 1966, Nash wrote, “It is also unfortunate that so many of the Department’s facilities are deteriorating because of the lack of financing…. I believe that the time is drawing near when much more money will have to be spent on capital improvements and programming, or many of our Department’s facilities will deteriorate beyond repair.”

Citizen volunteers continued to support the park system. In the mid 1960s, as the concept of “urban renewal” reached Duluth, Julia and Caroline Marshall and Dorothy Congdon formed the Duluth Improvement Company. They privately financed the Fifth Avenue West Mall, a greenspace that linked the Civic Center with the waterfront near the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. And in 1967 the Duluth Rose Society began transforming a portion of Leif Erikson Park into a spectacular rose garden.

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