X Marks The Spot: Recreation Park
Where the rivers meet there is a spot, in the heart of Lowell, named Recreation Park, occupying over 30 acres. It was the center of social activity in Lowell and a rare gem in all of Kent County. People began coming to Recreation Park when it was Train’s Track, a half mile race track for horses. From that it evolved into a park used for baseball, football, tennis, large gatherings, and of course, the Kent County Youth Fair.
The earliest known occupants were the Odawa, who had a village here. Lewis Robinson was next to occupy the land, and then Jarvis C. Train. Besides being a well-known businessman, Jarvis C. Train was one of the early horse racing enthusiasts. Horse racing was very popular at the time, and horse races were held at the ‘Old Fairgrounds’ defined as “On the river-flat hollow west of Oakwood cemetery.” It isn’t known how long the “Old Fairgrounds” were in use, but newspaper references before 1878 all refer to the “Lowell Driving Park” or “Lowell track” or “Lowell Horse Fair.” Later, J. C. Train made his own half mile race track on his land that we know today as Recreation Park. Horse race publicity after 1878 specifically refers to “Train’s track,” “Train’s Driving Park” and “Island Park Race Track.” In 1883, Train built grandstands at his Driving Park. In 1906, Train died as a result of a tragic accident, he was kicked by a horse.
The beginning of Recreation Park is difficult to pinpoint. Train donated the islands in the Flat River south of the mill, and at some point the land with the track and park was transferred to the city. For years Island Park was the best picnic spot in town, and the adjoining Recreation Park was known for its recreational opportunities.
The Board of Trade would lease the grounds, and then plan events and rent out the park. Numerous Home Coming celebrations where held there with picnics on the island, and baseball, horse races, balloon ascensions and foot races all at Recreation park. Horse races and baseball continued at Recreation Park, and in 1919 the American Legion was started, with an early project of furnishing Recreation Park with playground equipment. The Board of Trade planned events such as weekly band concerts, a free Chautauqua, and athletic tournaments. A new grandstand, complete with a foundation, was built inside the race track at the North end of the ball grounds. It was 26’X20’ with eight rows of seats. Fall harvest picnics were held at Recreation Park, one featured an exhibition drill by the National Guard of Lowell.
In 1926, the first of several “Field Meet” days for Kent County, was held at Recreation Park in Lowell. Programs were issued with score sheets for events. Hundreds of students from all over the county came to these events.
By now Recreation Park was well known as having one of the best half mile race tracks in the state, good baseball diamonds with grandstand, two standard concrete tennis courts and a large assortment of play equipment. In the summer two athletic directors, a man and a woman supervise village sports. Baseball teams traveled all over the state, with month long Saturday and Sunday double headers. Some events boasted over a thousand spectators. Horse racing was waning in popularity locally, but the Michigan ‘Fair Circuit’ was still popular. Lowell was proud of the fact that many of the horses in the circuit trained right here at Recreation Park.
Perhaps the most festive time ever seen at Recreation Park was the Lowell Centennial Celebration in 1931. The celebration was staged mainly at the park. Publicity described Recreation Park as ‘one of our outstanding possessions.’ Additional bleacher seating was added. The park was alive with fundraising events before the celebration, including an amateur boxing contest. The three day Centennial Celebration began with an ox roast under the supervision of L.W. Rutherford, serving over four thousand people. Throughout the celebration former Governor Chase S. Osborn, then Governor Wilber M. Brucker, and the Hon. Carl E. Mapes, Congressman, all made speeches from Recreation Park. The logistics alone for the arrival of Governor Brucker took a team of people to plan and execute. The Governor arrived in an airplane, landing in a field west of town that had been cleared for the landing. Lowell did not have an airport at this time. From there he was escorted by automobile right to the stage at Recreation Park for his speech.
The grand crowning of the Centennial Queen, Miss Emma Kropf, several band concerts, balloon ascension and parachute drop, baseball games, dancing, a racing matinee, and various contests were all conducted at Recreation Park. The big parade, called “the finest arranged and conducted parades ever held in Western Michigan” ended with an estimated 30,000 people all making their way to Recreation Park. Carnival rides and food vendors were all part of the celebration.
In 1934, Lowell’s Recreation Park hosted the first 4-H Fair, which turned into the Kent County Youth Fair that we know today. Much later, in 1961, Keats K. Vining explained that the West Michigan Fair had folded in the late 1920’s and Kent County 4-H clubs had no place to exhibit their livestock and other club work. Newspaper man R.J. Jeffries took him on a tour of Recreation Park. There was an empty horse barn from when horse races were run at Lowell. With assistance from the Lowell Council, Rotary Club and Board of Trade, a fair was started on a small scale and built into today’s Youth Fair.
Recreation Park as a whole continued to be used for multiple uses and was the center of social events for the village. Baseball games, picnics, and general public use continued. Harvest picnics and events included Halloween frolics with games, lunch and a costume parade. The Board of Trade worked with the common council in the project for a tourist camp at Recreation Park. This came to fruition in 1936. Later, the park even hosted archery tournaments.
Then, football and Coach Burch came to Recreation Park. Countless games have been played at Recreation Park over the years. To many, Recreation Park, football and Coach Burch are all synonyms.
The 1940’s were an exciting time for Recreation Park. Dr. S.S. Lee had left nearly $70,000 to the city stating it was, “to be used in any way the village council may see fit for the general benefit of the village; and I would suggest that a part of the same of said residue be used for the gradual improvement of Recreation Park.” The earnings from the funds paid for the building of the Foreman Building at Recreation Park. This building was used for 4-H exhibitions, stock sales, and indoor ice skating. It was named and dedicated to the memory of Ernest C. Foreman, ‘North America’s foremost poultry man’. As the park was undergoing improvements as provided in Dr. Lee’s will, it was suggested that Lowell should build a museum at Recreation Park for old relics in order to save them for posterity. In the giving spirit, C.H. Runciman donated material for an arena in the Park. It was first used for the Wild West Rodeo.
The 1960’s brought the King Memorial Pool and tennis courts. In 1964 the tennis courts, track area, baseball diamonds and football fields were all deeded to the Lowell area Schools so they could make capital improvements. The agreement contained a reversion clause and the land has since returned to the city. In 1961 and then again in 1970, the high school graduation commencement exercises were held outside at Recreation Park.
The recent past has been rough for Recreation Park. The pool closed permanently, the grandstands were destroyed in a storm, and the Lowell schools built their own sports facilities. Today the fair is working on its own new grounds and facilities, and will leave Recreation Park.
Today we look towards the future of Recreation Park. It still has every potential to once again be a gem, “one of our most prized possessions”, a center of social activity, right here on this 30 acre spot in the heart of Lowell.
Images: Lowell Saddle Club at Recreation Park, Field Meet Program 1924, Football team at Recreation Park 1946