Liberty Park & The Witness Trees: 1936


There are a number of directions from which the story of Liberty Park can be approached, and every one of them evokes inspiring views of people during the Great Depression who were committed to the well-being of their children and willing to make the effort to prove it.

This photo essay focuses on just two elements of the tale: 1) Why the park was built; and 2) How the little saplings planted in 1936 tell the story most elegantly of a community’s faith in the future.

1) The New Americans

The whole idea of Liberty Park was dreamed up by people who lived on the northeast side of the city, in the Syndicate, Lincoln Heights, and East Mansfield.  In 1934, those neighborhoods were designated as the Fifth Ward, and most of the people who lived there were recently arrived on American shores from the Old Country.

They were immigrants.

The label “immigrant” sounds like not-quite-really American.  But that’s not how they felt at all—they were New Americans who were thrilled at the prospect of building a new life and a new neighborhood, and a new way to be free and experience the powerful blessing of Liberty for All.

As they were settling into their new life, they came to recognize that the Mansfield city park system was clear on the other side of town, where picnic folks were not exactly thrilled to see them. They didn’t complain to the city government, or fight for their rights, or try to shoulder their way in where they weren’t welcome—instead they embraced their new freedom as Americans, and decided to build their own park.

And they did a terrific job of it.  They started from zero, and with true American pluck and inexhaustible human ingenuity they created a vibrant garden of green where their children could be nurtured in the wise ways of beauty and sport and nature.

They made arrangements for their park to include a swimming pool—which turned out to be the first municipal pool in Mansfield—and then, as cheerful new enthusiasts of Democracy, they welcomed everyone from every neighborhood in town to enjoy it with them.

This is the genius of Liberty Park: the power of community.


In order to buy the land for their new park, the folks nearby formed an organization called the Liberty Park & Civic Association to sponsor events. By collecting 25 cents a head from crowds who came to dance, cheer, eat, and play, the Association raised $900 in little more than a month. (Nearly $20,000 in today’s dollars.)

Most of it was raised in one day by a massive picnic held at the G.B.U. Park (that’s the German Benefit Union, later known as the Liederkrantz; on land later known as Hunsinger Park)

By the time they bowed out of the project, about eight years later, the Association had raised more than $6,000 (over $120,000 today) for additional improvements, playground and sports equipment & infrastructure.

This is the power of community: in June, the Liberty Park Association was formed at a mass meeting; by August they had raised enough to buy the farm field they wanted on Grace Street; and in November they presented the deed to the City of Mansfield.

The plan for Liberty Park, as it was first imagined in 1934, was to include an outdoor performance venue of bandstand and amphitheater. Several of the sports facilities—tennis courts, ball park—were completed right away and in use within months; others, like the putting green, the wading pool, and the shuffleboard courts, never made it off the drawing board.

Work on the new park was begun almost immediately when 50 men were hired to grade roadways and lay the grounds for Liberty Park’s ball field and swimming pool.  Wages for the project came from FERA funds (Federal Emergency Relief Act) which shortly became better known as the WPA (Works Projects Administration.)

Stone for the park’s infrastructure came from practically the back yard—across Fifth Avenue in the city’s famous sandstone quarry.

A close look at this 1936 view of the Liberty Park lake spillway shows the completed swimming pool in the background on the right.  Notice the little spruce tree a few feet off the dam, to the left, which today casts a considerable shadow.

The pool was built in the summer of 1936 but it didn’t have swimmers until the following year after a stately bath house was constructed of native sandstone by WPA craftsmen.

The diving board was given Olympic status in 1938 when young divers from around Ohio trained there for the 1940 Games.  Their coach was Russell Von Wieder, a member of the 1924 U.S. Olympic team, who served as Liberty Park director and Senior High swim coach.

The Liberty Park ball field quickly became one of the top sports venues of the city.  Beginning in 1935, before the grass was even seeded, the bleachers saw action that continued for decades with many hundreds of games and many thousands of fans rooting for City Leagues, Industrial Leagues, Church Leagues, Senior Leagues, Junior Leagues, and American Legion Leagues.  This is the Liberty Park team of 1938.

The ball park spawned such a winning tradition that the Liberty Park team was chosen by the City to face off against the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when they came to Mansfield in 1941. 
It was Liberty Park that got the first city parks stadium-quality ballfield lighting in 1954.

Liberty Park was officially dedicated over the July 4 weekend in 1938 when 5,000 folks gathered to try out the lawn.  A parade of 400 Ohio National Guardsmen marched from Park Avenue West with a corps of Legion veterans to raise the flag, and a flight of military planes buzzed the scene to waggle their wings at the crowd.

There is never any shortage of words when a holiday crowd gathers, and this ceremony had 13 speakers who made time occasionally for two city bands.

The festive gathering took a solemn moment to dedicate a memorial to their well-loved and respected local boy, Frank Fisch, who joined the Army Air Corps didn’t come home. 

Frankie Fisch was one of the city’s great athletes, having led the Senior High football and basketball teams 1929-31, and quarterbacked at Ohio State 1933-35.  He is always remembered at Ohio State whenever they play Michigan for his touchdown pass against the Wolverines in 1934.  This portrait is from the 1934 game program.

The pavilion at Liberty Park was built in 1940 and consecrated by a thousand covered dish suppers.

2) The Witness Trees

When does an ordinary piece of farm land become a park? When there are trees.

It is the trees that sanctify the acreage with shade and the solemn safety of their guardian presence.  Their long passage through time overlooks the racing short lives of one generation after the next, to provide something of constancy in the winds of time.

They anchor our fleeting existence, and provide roots for neighborhoods.

The trees mean something at Liberty Park.  It was a large, well-watered piece of useful cropland before it was dedicated as a public space for recreation, but it didn’t become a true refuge until the trees took their stature.

They stand in memory of all the New Americans with purpose and vision.

Look at the little spruce trees planted around the bridge from this 1937 photo, and see how they have sculpted the entire atmosphere in the decades since.

 
Those skinny little trees in 1938 are today the reliable elders of summer shade.  These hardwoods were donated to the city in 1935 by W.S. Champion, and moved to the park from his farm grove near Shiloh.

Many of the trees in Liberty Park were planted by Boy Scouts and volunteers, but various pines came courtesy of the Department of Agriculture and the WPA in 1936.

Holding down the western front today in a magnificent green break-weather are the modest little pinelings of 1936.


Thank You!

Images in this photo essay come from the Richland County Museum, the Mansfield City Engineer’s Department, Sherman Room of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library, Will Harmon, Vic Day & Anne Sabri, and the Mark Hertzler Collection.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s