McKennan Park

The Jewel of the Park System

Before there was the park, there was the prairie. It stretched for miles above the valley of the Big Sioux River, unbroken and unblemished. Before 1856, the prairie above the little river was home only to creatures of the prairie, and to the native people who roamed through its grassland. The only sound that fell across the prairie skies was the breeze rustling through the time-less sod of the earth. The crickets serenaded the night above the prairie, and the prairie larks sang to the land through the day. Boiling, simmering heat that was occasionally broken by thunderstorms and hail marked the summers, and sleet and snow that was driven before the great white wind from the north accompanied the darkness of winter. Above the Big Sioux River Valley, the land lay pregnant with fertility and beauty.

The prairie had a partner in its life, for the little river had helped to form the land. For endless days it had flowed south through the prairie, seeking the great ocean. The river had been born of the great ice glacier which 10,000 years ago had ground the prairie land before it. When it began to melt, the waters flowed forth to form the river. As the river twisted its way South, it met the high bluffs that would become Lincoln County, and was forced to turn back East, then North, and then South again as it searched for a way through the land to the ocean. Where the river turned east through the prairie, it created a wide valley of prairie grass that was ringed with the bluffs of the river. Above the bluffs, one and one half miles North of the river, lay the land that would become a park.

In 1856, people began to appear on the prairie, lured here by the promise of riches. It was not gold or silver, but land that promised wealth to the man who could "prove up." There were two companies that came here with the goal of locating a new town among the crickets and meadowlarks of the prairie. One company was from St. Paul, Minnesota, and one from Dubuque, Iowa. There was money to be made by selling land to the new settlers who were flooding out onto the prairie from the east. Land speculation was the way to wealth, and people bought land, mortgaged land, sold land, and bought land again in an endless urge for wealth. The little village of Sioux Falls City grew, and the land began to change.

One of the people who changed the land was Artemus Gale, who came to live in Sioux Falls City in 1872. He had first visited the village in 1868, and had platted his first land development area in 1870. As a businessman he must have known that ownership of the land held the key to prosperity. It is during this time that we find his sister, Mrs. Helen McKennan, located in Sioux Falls. She was a woman who was interested in the prairie land, and was a partner with her brother in land speculation and development. She is forever bound to the land and the park that bears her name.

The history of man's involvement in McKennan Park goes back to the very early days of Sioux Falls when the city was still a small town. In the late 1890s, many local citizens started to talk about the need for a park for the city, and it became a lively topic in the newspapers of the day. Many people who came to Sioux Falls to live were from large cities of the East, where parks were part of the life of the people. They missed the majestic trees of the East, the oaks and maples, that shaded their boyhood homes. It was suggested that Sioux Falls would never prosper without the lovely parks that were so common in places like Des Moines or St. Paul. People looked toward the Seney Island area near the Falls of the Big Sioux River as a potential park, but the rush toward industry for the town eventually ruined the island when the area was filled in for railroad marshalling yards. Several fine groves of trees, planted by the early pioneers on the treeless prairie, were mentioned as possible park sites. Mrs. Helen McKennan and her brother Artemus Gale were early pioneers of the Sioux Falls area, acquiring land and wealth as the little village grew. They had planted many trees out on the prairie, and the fertile prairie loam had given life to the trees. There was an area of trees near McKennan Park that was known as Galesburg in the early days of Sioux Falls.

In 1906, Helen McKennan contacted her friend E.A. Sherman and discussed with him her idea to give her house and the 20 acres of adjacent land to the city for a park. Mr. Edwin A. Sherman was the father of the park system, and he must have been excited over the thought of this wonderful gift. Helen McKennan died in 1906 after giving to the city of Sioux Falls what would become the jewel of the park system. She also left money for the development of a new hospital, which was named McKennan Hospital.

E. A. Sherman was an early backer of park projects, and he became the unofficial park commissioner for the city. One of the first things that he did in 1907 was the hiring of a landscape gardener to look over McKennan Park and to assist in development of plans for the future development of the park. Helen McKennan's house was sold by the city in 1907 to U.S.G. Cherry, another Sioux Falls pioneer and early resident. Not long after that, about 1909, the house was sold to the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese, who in turn gave it to the Episcopal Church in Sioux Falls. Eventually the city would buy the house back in 1943.

In 1908, many improvements were made at the park. This was the year when many trees were planted in the park, and the park became well known for its graceful elm trees. The trees provided welcome shade, and E.A. Sherman planted trees on his land at Sherman Park that same year. Today, these are the only two parks that contain numerous walnut trees of about the same age. Many flowers were also planted to beautify the park, and the first public event that was ever held at the park took place on the Fourth of July in 1908 when a fireworks display was held. The first band concert was held in the park in 1908, and the park caretaker's "lodge" was constructed. Late in the summer of 1908, Mr. Sherman had a small lake constructed in the park as part of the beautification of the park. It quickly became a swimming hole for children, and perhaps started the traditions of swimming and wading pools in McKennan Park. During the winter of 1908-1909, E. A. Sherman constructed a toboggan slide near the caretakers lodge by mounding up snow. Many happy winter days were spent at the slide, with Sherman hosting adults and children at the lodge, including oyster stew dinners.

In 1909, the first tennis courts were built in the park, beginning another tradition of tennis at the park. McKennan Park became Sherman's hobby, and about this time the City began to consider setting up a park board for the city. E.A. Sherman was instrumental in establishing State Legislative Authority for cities to create park boards, and in 1915 the Sioux Falls City Commission named its first Board of Park Supervisors, with Sherman as president, with Astor Blauvelt and Robert Wehling serving as well. Also in 1915, the 21st Street boulevard was turned over to the new Park Board. This boulevard is today the only residential boulevard in the city, and is a well-known neighborhood landmark of floral beauty. The care and beautification of the boulevard is paid for by a special tax that was placed on the properties that lay adjacent to it. In 1915 the park reported that it had a small zoo containing an ostrich, deer, wolves, opossum, eagles, and pheasants. It was common for city parks to have animals on display, but eventually they were all consolidated into one zoo at Sherman Park. The park also reported on having a horse-drawn lawn mower, assorted hand tools like scythes for cutting weeds and grass, and 100 benches. A golf course, the city's first, was laid out on the prairie to the east of the park on private land. All of this work had been done under the direction of E.A. Sherman and the new Board of Park Supervisors, but it was time for the City to take the next step in the development of a park system.

In 1916, the City hired its first Park Superintendent, Fred Spellerberg. The drive to create parks now passed to Mr. Spellerberg, and interestingly E. A. Sherman passed away that same year. In 1920, the first greenhouses were built in the park, beginning another tradition of growing flowers in the park that would last until the 60s when the greenhouse was torn down. However, there were formal flower gardens at Mckennan Park from the very start of the park. The gardens have become a showcase for the city, and today they are one of only two formal gardens in the city.

Another tradition at McKennan Park, playing horseshoes, first started in 1921 when horseshoe pits were constructed in the park. The clanking of horseshoes together has become a familiar sound at McKennan Park. Many local and state tournaments have been held at the "pits," as the "pitchers" tried for the all-important "ringer." In 1969, the South Dakota State Horseshoe Tournament was held at the courts, with many people in attendance. The popularity of the game of horseshoes is not what it once was, but the horseshoe pits at McKennan Park continue to be used.

Band concerts had been played in the park since 1908, and they were a very popular form of entertainment. In 1918, the first bandstand was built in the park. The Sioux Falls Band and the Moose Band were hired by the Board of Park Supervisors to put on band concerts from time to time. In 1927, the Sioux Falls Cosmopolitan Club sponsored the construction of a new band shell at the South end of the park. Since that time, many summer evenings have been sweetened by the sounds of the Sioux Falls Municipal Band playing at the band shell. The Sioux Falls Municipal Band was organized in 1919, and is one of the few Municipal Bands in the country that is supported by tax dollars.

Swimming was another activity that had been popular in the park since the days of Sherman's old swimming hole. The first permanent wading pool for the park was built in 1929. It was located south and west of the sunken garden, and was very primitive by today's standards. For many children, it was the first introduction to swimming, and it looked awfully big to young eyes. A small platform was located on the North side of the pool, and this was the launching point for many belly flops into the pool. A family reunion picnic on a hot day in July always included a dip in the ice-cold water of the old pool. The old pool lasted until 1971, when a new wading pool was constructed.

In 1914, the United States entered World War I, called the "war to end all wars." From 1914 to 1918, the country struggled with the first global conflict that saw many young boys go "over there" to the fields of France, some never to return. In 1921, the History Club planted an oak tree in the flower garden in memory of all those who had lost their lives in the "World War." This would have been World War I, but the marker just says "World War," indicating that the horrors of World War II were not envisioned yet. The club just called it "The World War." The oak tree is still flourishing (2003), feeding on the prairie soil. Another memorial tree, this one a Colorado spruce tree, was planted by the Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in memory of all Civil War veterans. It was located East of the South end of the sunken garden. Both of these trees stand in silent testimony to those who served and were remembered by the citizens of Sioux Falls so long ago.

With the coming of the 1930s and the depression years, park development slowed considerably. Park employees lost their jobs to the economic hard times. However, several interesting projects occurred at Mckennan Park. In 1931, park employees built a miniature rock garden and miniature village near the greenhouse in the park, including a goldfish pond. The village was constructed out of many unusual rocks, and was the start of several different rock garden displays in the park. In 1932, a cactus garden was added to the park close to the miniature village. In May of 1930, Park Board President John M. Toohey decided that he wanted rose bushes added to the gardens, and 100 roses were ordered from the Tuthill Lumber Company. Since that time, the rose garden has been a favorite spot in the park for people who enjoy the beauty of the rose.

In 1937, there were two large entrance posts built next to the West driveway into the park by the park caretaker. The posts or pillars were built out of decorative stones, fossils, and Indian artifacts. These two pillars were joined in 1941 by two more pillars made of stone, with each state's initials carved into the stone. The pillars also included two stone maps of South Dakota. In 1941, with war clouds looming on the horizon, the Chamber of Commerce named the pillars the "Pillars of the Nation." In 1943, during the darkest days of World War II, the park received a wood replica of the Statue of Liberty. The statue was dedicated on Sunday evening, August 1, 1943. The statue, which had previously been owned by Sioux Falls pioneer Charles A. Sells, was presented to Park Board chairman R. B. Meldrum during the ceremonies. The Sioux Falls Garden Club raised the money to purchase the statue. The statue was placed at the South end of the sunken garden on a rock pedestal.

In 1943, the City purchased the Helen McKennan house and the grounds around the house back from the Episcopal Diocese. The City then leased the house to the Red Cross until March 1, 1959. By then the old house was in bad condition, and they said it would take too much money to "fix it up," and the days of Historic Preservation were not yet in view. So, the old house was torn down by the City in February of 1961 by Oberg Construction for $790. Thus ended the life of Helen McKennan's home, which had stood as a landmark for the park and the city.

One of the activities that had occurred at the park since the early days was tennis. In 1945, the tennis courts were rebuilt out of concrete, and McKennan Park became a well-known location for both recreational and championship tennis. The courts were first lighted in 1953, and eventually totaled eight courts. Many tournaments, both state and local, were held at the park through the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Names like Floyd "Lefty" Johnson and John Simko became well-known in local tennis circles. The courts were also the location of many recreational games of tennis, and many kids would ride their bikes to the courts to take on all comers. But the old asphalt and concrete courts, which had seen so many battles and championships played out on them, were cracked and crumbling. In 1984, the old courts were demolished and replaced with eight new concrete courts, thereby continuing the tennis tradition at McKennan Park.

It was thought that McKennan Park was fully developed by the 1960s so little development occurred. There were a number of items that were removed by the City, including the old Helen Mckennan house in 1961. Vandalism became the plague of the park, and the little miniature village with its unusual rock garden had to be removed after it had been damaged. Also removed were the old park greenhouses that had grown many of the flowers used at the park. The old caretaker's house, which E.A. Sherman had called the "lodge," was removed. Most of these old facilities suffered badly from vandalism, the scourge of any public park. The 1960s also saw the death of many fine old elm trees due to Dutch elm disease, which killed thousands of trees in the park system. McKennan Park was severely impacted by the removal of many trees, both on the boulevard and in the park. The sound of the chain saw throughout the park and the city became a forlorn call of misery.

In 1968, the South Dakota Department of Health and the Park Board toured the old wading pool in the park. The pool was in poor condition, and a number of water quality issues were documented and reported to the City. The Park Board decided that the old wading pool needed to be replaced. In 1971, the City announced plans to build a full-size swimming pool in McKennan Park. The people who lived around the park objected to this plan, and they got a court injunction to stop the project. Petitions were turned into the Park Department, and the Park Board had several meetings to discuss the need for swimming pools for the city. It turned out that many of the people who had signed the petition against the pool at Mckennan Park lived in the new area of the city called Hilltop Heights. They thought a pool was needed more in their area due to the large number of children in the hilltop area. The City was forced to abandon the project of a large pool in McKennan Park, but in 1971 it did build a new wading pool, and demolished the old existing wading pool. The funds that would have been used to build the large pool at McKennan Park were partially obtained through a grant from the federal government. These funds were ultimately used to build the swimming pool at Frank Olson Park in the Hilltop Heights area of the city.

In the early 1990s, the Park and Recreation Department organized a series of meetings with the people who lived around the park to talk about a number of improvements that were needed at the park. Many of the existing facilities at the park were either worn out or in disrepair. As a result of these meetings, a plan of action was developed to make the necessary improvements. One of the things that the neighbors feared was that the City would demolish the old band shell that had been built in 1927. They insisted that the band shell be the first thing to be restored. In 1995, the old band shell was completely renovated. This was the first of several improvements to the park that had been approved by the neighbors of the park. In 1996, the existing sunken garden was repaired and remodeled, with new landscape plantings added and a new access at the North end of the garden. In 1997, the four Pillars of the Nation located on the West side of the park were renovated, and in 1998 a new decorative stone pillar was constructed in the formal flower garden area of the park.

The old wooden Statue of Liberty located at the South end of the sunken garden had been vandalized in the 1960s and removed by the City. But, the neighbors remembered it as a focal point for the park, and wanted a new one put back in the park. The original base for the statue was still in place, but it looked out of place with nothing on it. The Mayor of Sioux Falls, Gary Hanson, was a major backer of the project, and helped to secure funding for the statue. In 2001, the City contracted with a firm in St. Paul, Minnesota, called Tivoli-Too to create a new replica of the statue. They hired a local sculptor named Serguei Iourov, who had immigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1997. It seems ironic to think that a Russian immigrant created one of the symbols of America and of freedom, especially since he had recently been living in a country ruled by a Communist regime. On July 22, 2002, almost 59 years since the first statue appeared in the park, the new bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty was dedicated and installed at the South end of the sunken garden.

For nearly 100 years, McKennan Park has served the city as a place of beauty and open space. The land has never felt the touch of the plow, and the prairie remains the same as it was. It has now been surrounded by the city, but the park land remains open to whoever wishes to stroll beneath the historic trees in the park, or smell the blooms of the rose garden. Helen McKennan wanted her land to be a place where "children, young people, and mothers with their little babies could come and rest in the cool shade, drinking in the fresh air." Today, the prairie land has changed into a park, and McKennan Park has become the crown jewel of the park system. That is exactly what Helen McKennan and E.A. Sherman wanted.