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Roots Revealed Blog

Garfield Park and a Hoosier Farm Boy: A Surprisingly Common Connection

Posted: 2/26/2014
Posted By: Foster Brown

I remember as a child in northern Indiana spending hours upon hours swimming in local farm ponds which (I believe) were  dug to keep farm kids out of trouble. In fact, our 80-acre farm had a 2-acre pond that we took advantage of in all seasons. Stocked bluegills and bass provided hours of fishing in the summer along with ice fishing and spontaneous hockey games in the winter. My favorite activity was in my dad’s old row boat. I would push the leaky wooden boat onto the water, dreaming of being a sailor, spending lazy summer days with my family and friends, jumping in and out of the boat whenever the sun seemed too hot. Of course, we never thought of wearing a life jacket.

But what does this have to do with Garfield Park?  A lot, actually. My country farm was my park,  while for many of you, Garfield Park offered the same outdoor opportunities I had as a child in rural Indiana. In speaking with many of you through the years, you see Garfield Park as a great place to swim, fish, row a boat, play ball or just kick back on a lazy summer or fall day and picnic with the family.  

Although Garfield Park has changed dramatically through the years, the vestiges of its past can still be seen amidst the plants, trees and paths that led to all this activity 100 or more years ago. Let’s take a glance back!

The area that we know as Garfield Heights was once known as South Newburgh. As Cleveland was growing in the lowlands (flats) near Lake Erie, the higher ground away from the lake was called Newburgh. City commissioners of Cleveland began seeking parkland in the mid-1890s outside Cleveland proper to provide  a natural green space for the growing population of Cleveland workers. The Cleveland Park Board created four parks at that time: Brooklyn (Brookside), Reservoir (Fairview), Southside (Lincoln Square) and Newburgh (Garfield).

A Boston firm was contracted in 1894 to assess the land in South Newburgh. Over a half dozen locations were considered, but the present location was chosen due to two waterways (Mill Creek and Wolf Creek) and the diversity of land (lowland, upland, meadow and forest) it offered. Nearly 160 acres were bought from three local farmers in 1895 and Newburgh Park was created. Cleveland State Hospital added 19 moew acres to the park shortly after, which provided more meadow and woodland habitat.

In 1897 Newburgh Park became Garfield Park. The Park Board felt the name needed a more cosmopolitan character and since the late President James A. Garfield grew up in the vicinity, his notoriety and prestige would be the perfect name for this park.

Within a few years, a circular road, bridges and shelter house were built in the park, and trees were planted in strategic areas. The A.B.C. Railroad provided a stop to the park off of Broadway Avenue by 1898, adding accessibility and popularity to the park. Band concerts were offered to draw the public to the park.

Photo courtesy of Garfield Heights Historical Society

Photo Courtesy of CSU- Michael Schwartz - Photo Collection

By 1907, Garfield Park was a favorite weekend get-away for many Clevelanders who enjoyed picnics, walks and ball games. The dammed-up Wolf Creek provided a pond that was perfect for ice skating and row boating.  In 1907, the fee for a single-oared boat was 25 cents and a double-oared boat was 35 cents. A new gravel road was laid for easy access to the famous “Iron Spring” which was said to contain healing properties. People travelled from all over the region to collect its supposedly medicinal qualities.  Special events were held at Garfield Park like May Day, Cleveland Day and Field Days for athletic leagues. With more visitation, came the need to maintain and improve the park. Retaining walls, better roads and bridges were added. In 1910, it is said the first public swimming pool in the Cleveland area was built in Garfield Park. By 1915, a new lower pond was built for boating, the upper pond was used for fishing, a new electric train line (trolley) was brought to the park called the “Scenic Railway” which looped through the park picking up and dropping off visitors.  Three cents would get you to the park!

Photo courtesy of Garfield Heights Historical Society

In 1919 South Newburgh changed its name to Garfield Heights. Whether or not it was from the popularity of Garfield Park is debatable. But, no matter how you look at it, the park became a focal point for community events. High school football games were played in the park, fishing, boating and swimming in the pool or pond were favorite summer pastimes.

Photo courtesy of Garfield Heights Historical Society

Cleveland City Parks were riding high in the teens and twenties as the City of Cleveland boasted being the sixth largest city in the nation and the third largest metropolitan area in the nation with nearly 800,000 people in Cleveland alone. However, by 1930, shortly after the Great Depression hit, Garfield Heights and a multitude of other outlying communities suffered. By November of 1933, the trolley car line loop through Garfield Park was stopped, except for on July 4th.  Despite the downturned economy, Garfield Park provided four baseball diamonds, one softball field, seven tennis courts, one skating rink, one casting platform (fishing), row boating facility, picnic area, swimming pool, boat house, two lakes, one comfort station, a wildlife area and a playground.

Photo courtesy of Garfield Heights Historical Society

In the 1940s the park still remained popular, but with each passing decade the park began to degrade. In 1948 the entire trolley route was cancelled. Eventually the ponds filled in, the boathouse burned down and the pool was closed in 1970. Not until 1987, when Cleveland Metroparks leased the land from the City of Cleveland did Garfield Park begin to show signs of life with public interest and pride.

Today, Garfield Park is truly a valued reservation in the "Emerald Necklace" with wonderful walking trails, fun family events, guided hikes and a nature center and gardens that teach local flora and fauna to all who visit.

The history of Garfield Park is rich and its stories are many. The sandstone bridges, retaining walls and stairways, the remnants of the old trolley pathway and filled in ponds are still there. Times of splashing, diving, rowing, fishing or enjoying a quiet afternoon can still be imagined and even remembered by a few. As I pull into Garfield Park Reservation, for a meeting or to help at a special event, I can’t help but reminisce about my childhood in rural Indiana.  Even though the environment was totally different, the joy I gained from the same outdoor activities reside in both places equally.  

Take a listen to the song "Ponds of Garfield" by Foster Brown


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