An important part of Denison that probably contains more historical events than any other location was recently the recipient of a Texas historical marker. The site dates back to the town’s very beginning in 1872 when the first public park was established so newcomers to the new town could have a place to enjoy and have their own celebrations.
The marker reads: “The city of Denison’s first public park was established in 1872. The town was founded in that same year as a terminus for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas (Katy) Railroad and began as a melting pot for many different cultures. Originally conceived by Robert S. Stevens and the Denison Town Company, the park began with Stevens’ donation of six acres of land and the stipulation that the city solely use the land as a park and continue to preserve it.
“The city’s first official public gathering happened in 1873 when the city celebrated its first anniversary with a barbecue in the park. Forest Park was given its official name in 1875. Due to the dense amount of forested woods that covered the park grounds at the time 1922 a nationwide strike of shop-union employees against the Katy Railroad made its way to Denison. As much violence ensued, Governor Pat Neff sent the Texas National Guard to help keep order among nearly 1,400 Katy Railroad workers. In the park, the 142nd Infantry Regiment erected a large tent city called Camp Ellis. Camp Leeper was built to the west near the Katy Car Shops. Almost 300 civilian arrests were made from August 10 through October 21, 1922. The park has seen many improvements and additions over the years which include tennis courts and a clubhouse, a skate park, playground with splash pad, cast iron fountain, and a restored bandstand. The original Munson Stadium was built in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and replaced by a 2014 stadium complex.
“Forest Park has been a source of pride and recreation in the heart of Denison for its citizens. Today, the park still serves as Denison’s premier downtown park while continuing to maintain its historic charm.”
To elaborate just a little more on what isn’t on the marker because of space, Denison probably made the best-ever investment when it paid $1 for those four blocks bounded by Crawford and Morgan streets and Fannin and Rusk avenues. The land was deeded to the city at a cost of $1. It always has been known as Forest Park and has always and will always be a public park or otherwise will revert to the donors.
When Governor Neff sent the National Guard in during the 1922 railroad strike under way at the car shops on Mirick Avenue, Camp was set up in the southeast corner of the park near what then was the baseball field. Twelve Texas Rangers were joined by 25 more and turned that corner into what was called Camp Leeper.
That event put Denison on the map at the moment. One article claimed that “Denison is the capital of Denison right now and is shoving other big news items off the front pages of the large and small dailies, yet everything in Denison is quiet and the residents of the Gate City are going about their daily labors as usual.”
The gazebo still stands and through the years has been the center of various musical programs and activities such as dog shows, an occasional flea market and other events. In recent years, the area has been a part of the football game tailgate parties.
A fountain and fish pond graced the entrance to the Denison Yellow Jacket Football Stadium in the center of the park for many years until it was removed in 1979 during a $125,000 major facelift of the park. It was a favorite meeting place for young people on a Sunday afternoon and thousands of photographs were taken in the early day with Brownie box cameras there and around the flower beds along sidewalks coming from different directions.
There have been hundreds of Easter egg hunts bringing an unknown number of small children out to meet the Easter bunny and to search for the golden egg. For years, peewee football games were held in the park near the playground area.
One of my faint memories is an “Our Gang” movie filming in the park. I had a small part and my friend, the late Lavada Crook Cuthbertson remembered being in the movie. She said all the good guys sat in a circle when the “bad” guys came up. Her one line speaking part was “Here comes Butch and his gang right now.” I had no speaking part that I can remember.
In more recent years, there have been a lot of car shows, Lion’s Club carnivals that went on despite rain nearly every year at the time of the event, picnics, walkers enjoying the four block event for strolls and even a restroom that resembled the Alamo on the outside. Tennis courts became a place for skateboarders to show their talent.
The name of the park will always be Forest Park according to the agreement when the park was purchased. It also is the home of the Yellow Jacket football stadium that is the scene of other sporting events, an occasional revival or large musical program, graduation exercises and the annual July 4th fireworks show.
The newest addition to the park is a playground area constructed in 2016 for children, including a splash pad that attracted a crowd nearly every day during the summer. The Denison Rotary Club raised the money to pay for the playground.
During the last quarter of the 1800s, a Fourth of July picnic was held every year in the park. Games were played by young and old alike and occasionally a large picnic was attended by those early residents.
For 146 years, the park has been a great place to find a family activity and the site of the city’s outdoor events all year long.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.