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The Many Lives of Phelps Grove Park

phelps grove bus

In our local history series, Sense of Place, we examine times gone by to understand how our community has grown and changed. In her final piece for KSMU, Emma Wilson brings us the story of a beloved city park that has evolved dramatically over the past century.

This year, big anniversaries abound in Springfield. We kicked off the year commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Springfield, and honored the incorporation of Springfield 175 years ago in April. The Pythian Castle was built 100 years ago by the Knights of Pythias, and of course, this year marks the 50thanniversary of Springfield-Style Cashew Chicken. Next week will be the 100thanniversary of the Springfield Park Board, an anniversary they’ll be celebrating at Phelps Grove Park tomorrow.  Richard Crabtree is a realtor with Murney, he’s documented the numerous roles Phelps Grove has played in the past century and a half.

“What intrigued me about all of this—when I started doing this research—from the Phelps point of view, this land brought them nothing but misery.”

The park is named after John Phelps, a Civil-War era congressman, and prominent slave-holding unionist in southwest Missouri. He spent much less time on the land than his wife, Mary Whitney Phelps, who treated wounded soldiers during the civil war and established two orphanages on their property after the war. At that time, their land would have been considered far south of town. The Phelps family sold it to Menna Fulbacher, who sold it for a substantial profit to Francis Heer, of Heer’s department store.

“And then he gets together with some very well-known people here in Springfield, John Landers, Arch McGregor, and MC Baker and starts the Phelps Grove Park company with the intent of developing this and making it one of the most exclusive real estate developments in Springfield.”

But people didn’t buy the lots. Crabtree says the Phelps Grove Park Company only sold six lots between 1910 and 1930. In 1913, the Springfield Park Board was formed so the city could maintain existing parks and coordinate the creation of new parks. E.E.E. McJimsey was the president of the new Park Board as well as the editor of the Springfield Republican Newspaper. He was a close colleague of Mr. Heer, who advertised in the Springfield Republican.

“Everyone was interconnected, everybody wanted to make sure Francis was able to get his money back. Because, basically, he put himself out on a limb and it failed miserably.”

Over the years the Springfield Park board brought many elements into Phelps Grove, one of the first two parks created by the city. Originally, the park would have been much more wooded and brushy than what we see today. In the 1930s, much of that growth was cleaned out so police officers could have a line of sight across the entire park. A shallow lake was dug, and re-dug several times, where the Art Museum stands today.

“Just south of the existing tennis courts, there was our first zoo for the park board. The zoo had multiple different animals - buffalo, bear, eagles, alligator - people would bring stuff back from trips and say ‘here, put it in the zoo.’”

The concrete slab that supported the cages is still there but the Dickerson Park Zoo opened ten years later. It’s celebrating its 90thbirthday this year, and has been the primary Springfield zoo in the last century. The bridges and the pavilion were part of the initial plans for the park and were built in 1914 and 1916, respectively. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration had several projects in the area around the park, including straightening the channel of Fulbright creek.

Initially, free busses would take Springfieldians down to the park from the square, as the streetcars didn’t run that far south from central Springfield. Today, the city has grown southward around the park, and it’s naturally developed into a popular gathering place for people throughout the center city.

To learn more about the events at the park this weekend, go to KSMU.org and click on Community Calendar.

Signing off for the last time, this is Emma Wilson for KSMU’s Sense of Place.