Saturday, October 25, 2014

Forest Park’s history branches out

By ABBY ECKEL, Herald Staff Writer | 4/25/2014

No photos of a zoo at Forest Park are known to exist, but Susan Geiss said she has memories of it and the man she thought ran the menagerie.

“I vaguely remember the zoo when I was a kid [in the 1950s],” Geiss, archivist at the Franklin County Historical Society, said. “It was just a long set of cages, all wired and I believe that Ray Hartshorn was the caretaker.”

Of course, the “zoo” at Forest Park, 320 N. Locust St., Ottawa, wasn’t much like its modern-day counterparts — places where such animals as polar bears, pandas and seals can be seen, Deb Barker said. 

“I think it was mainly more native animals of Kansas than exotic ones, which they wouldn’t have had any way to keep warm,” Barker, Franklin County Historical Society director, said. “They didn’t have polar bears. It was pretty much stuff people captured alive and brought down there and a few other odd things.”

Hartshorn, the man thought to have been the caretaker of the zoo, lived near the park, Barker said. His personal history makes it understandable why he would have been in charge of the zoo, she added.

“Ray was an interesting character,” Barker said. “He was connected with circuses. He used to tour with circuses with a collection of snakes. He had a wagon or [cart] with one tropical giant snake and then smaller Kansas rattlesnakes. The idea of traveling with animals or being part of something you come to see would make perfect sense with Ray Hartshorn.”

Along with the zoo, Hartshorn offered other entertainment in Forest Park, Barker said.

“He also did hot air balloon launchings from the park,” she said. “We have pictures of him with snakes and hot air balloons. It may be that the zoo was completely Ray’s idea, and while he was involved it was there, and when he quit being involved, it wasn’t.”

Historical references to the zoo have been found, Barker said, but not with much detail, and no photos are known to exist. 

“People alive remember the zoo because it was not that long ago,” she said. “I think it was, truth be told, almost like a hobby [Hartshorn] had, as well as an effort to provide another attraction for the park. I don’t think anybody was sinking any major money into it.”

Though there weren’t exotic animals showcased at the zoo, sightings of such creatures at the park weren’t uncommon, Barker said.

“There was an elephant, I’m not sure the year, but an elephant escaped from a circus and was wondering around three to four counties,” Barker said giggling. “There would be sightings of an elephant going through people’s fields. Exotic animal sightings weren’t bizarre or unusual.”

‘VARIETY OF ACTIVITIES’

Forest Park has gone through many incarnations through the years, Barker said, having been home to a zoo and now boasting an area specifically dedicated to dogs. 

It’s also no stranger to festivities, ranging from community barbecues, car shows, Veterans Day celebrations and even the Franklin County Fair, Barker said.

“The park existed in the earliest part of town in the [1860s] and expanded north at a certain point,” she said. “It’s main purpose was to hold Ottawa Chautauqua assemblies from 1883 to 1914.”

Chautauqua assemblies were large, 10-day, summer gatherings encompassing 33 buildings at the park, Barker said. 

“The floods kept eating away at [the buildings] and it died away,” she said. “After that, the park became just a park. They had the county fair there and some buildings that had been part of the Chautauquas became part of the fair buildings, but the floods kept eroding it and they eventually pulled all the buildings down.”

The returning floods forced many changes on the park, Barker said, including its main entrance.

“You used to enter the park not where you do now, but if you stayed straight on Tecumseh Street, you would’ve been able to drive straight into the park, so the gates were [originally] further south,” she said. “When they did flood control in the [1960s] and built the overpass to get across the river, it destroyed that section of the old park grounds, so they moved the gates further north and reinstalled them.”

The floods ruined quite a few landmarks in Forest Park, Barker said, but if a keen-eyed observer looks close enough, a race track can be seen on one of the baseball diamonds at the Orlis Cox Sports Complex, which sits near the intersection of Beech Street and West K-68.

“You can even see it, if you know where you’re looking, sort of north of the big baseball diamond,” she said. “They had horse races and sulky races, which is where a little tiny one-man seat is hitched to a horse so that the driver is riding behind and then the horse doesn’t have anyone sitting on him.”

There’s no record of when the racetrack was built nor when it vanished, Barker said, but she thinks the racetrack’s grandstand once was part of the summer Chautauquas.

The track also was used for car races, Barker said, but it might have been a stigma related to racing that brought about its demise — that and the deteriorating condition of the grandstand.

“There’s not much fun to have races if you can’t watch [from the grandstand], and horse races always have gambling associated with them, even illegally,” she said. “I think it ended because of the combination of the grandstand falling to bits, and floods and all that, and then they decided gambling wasn’t anything to be encouraging.”

Because Forest Park was naturally inhabited by trees when settlers founded Ottawa, it’s made for a great outdoor event space for the past 150 years, Barker said.

“They had conferences and conventions and camping things and the Chautauquas themselves [gathered there] and different organizations had annual conventions there,” she said. “It was just a gathering place and mostly a recreation place every part of the year except for when the Chautauquas met. If you go down there now, there’s a variety of recreational activities down there.”

Today’s Forest Park not only features the new Bark Park dog park, but also the city pool, the new Adventureland children’s play area, tennis courts, horseshoe pits and other offerings.

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