Volunteers working to bring park back to life
By Nancy Leasman
On the evening of Feb. 19, 1938, about 4,000 people, bundled up in hats, mittens, coats and blankets, were thrilled to the illuminated performance of ice follies on ponds dug by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) near the river on the west side of Long Prairie. Though bleachers provided seating for many, they could not contain the crowd and people stood around the 400 foot long rink, six and eight people deep. The local newspaper’s report of the performance indicated that the temperature dropped to five below zero before the final acts were completed.
This historical performance of the ice follies was the talk of the town for years to come. But after less than a decade of use, the park fell into decay and has since then been viewed by some as more folly (an ornamental building, especially a tower, with no practical purpose) than follies (a theatrical review on ice). Now, over 80 years later, remnants of the WPA project that created the park in which the ice follies were held are reemerging. With enthusiastic volunteer leadership provided by retired teacher Reta Dahlen, the park may find new purpose.
During the dry years of the Great Depression when economic hardship was more common than rainfall, the WPA put out a request for proposals of projects that would involve large amounts of unskilled labor. One of those projects was the transformation of a pasture adjacent to the Long Prairie River and what was then Highway 71. The city purchased an estimated 8 acres from Adolph Huber who had moved to Long Prairie to start a meat packing plant. That acreage, across the road from the proposed site of the packing plant, would become a recreational area.
Work began on the park, designed by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, in November of 1935. This project, one of 22 in Todd County, employed 42 men. They dug holes for two ponds to be flooded for ice skating. They built a fieldstone dam and a weir to divert water from the river to fill the ponds, with channels to drain overflow back to the river. Concrete foot bridges were built over the channels. The resulting rink was said to be a half-mile long and ranged between 30 and 70 feet wide. Other sources indicate it was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. Measurements may have depended on whether parts of the river were skate-able and included in the estimation.
The following year WPA workers completed a stone club house with materials supplied by the local sportsman’s group, and a stone tower with lights at the top so skaters could glide on the ponds in the dark winter evenings. Stone pillars with a sign announcing “Riverside Park, 1936” provided a formal entrance.
According to Susan Lorenz of Eagle Bend, her grandfather, Frank Scharnoski, a skilled stonemason, was one of the major builders of the structures in Riverside Park. He was born in Prussia and immigrated to Michigan as a small boy. He moved to Minnesota in his early 30s and became a citizen when he was 37 years old.
While it is unknown whether Scharnoski had a part in building two large fire rings and a stone barbecue, he most likely did not take part in the construction of the eleven guest log cabins that were built on concrete pads in an arc along the river.
Some people say that the dry years were coming to an end and flood waters threatened the park even before the final stone was placed. Records from 1937 report that the rainfall in April of that year exceeded the normal average for that month and that it rained on Memorial Day for the first time in years.
Riverside Park’s use ebbed and flowed with the flood waters of the next few years. Between 1936 and 1943, the lodge hosted community events as well as a meeting place for the sportsman’s club. Boy Scouts met there, and the long room on the back of the building was sometimes used for BB gun target practice. Youth from the county’s 4-H clubs used it as a dormitory during the Todd County Fair. Highschool home economics teacher Avis Dahlman brought students to experience outdoor cooking on the stone barbecue.
With America’s involvement in World War II in the early 1940s, manpower to maintain the park was reduced. According to local resident Shirley Lano (whose father-in-law’s cousin, Laurel Lano, was Long Prairie’s mayor in those years), the city sold the park property in 1943.
Riverside Park remained under private ownership for the next 50 years. Trees and shrubs grew up to fill what had once been an open pasture. Hordes of mosquitoes followed the annual floods and many newer residents came to know the area only as “Mosquito Park.” Vandals found their way into the park and had a hand in damaging the stone structures. Taggers, hidden by the screen of shrubs, wielded their spray paint cans.
In the 1990s, a local group contacted the owner, who at that time was willing to donate the property back to the city if funding could be found to “fix it up.” They put together a proposal and presented it to the state legislature. John Kroll, a local farmer who remembered seeing the ice follies in 1938 when he was a small boy, brought in his brush-hog to clear a lot of the land around the lodge and the stone entrance. Though the local interest was strong, the time wasn’t right to get the necessary funds.
Another 20 years went by. The willow trees along the river grew large and some fell into the water. Deer and raccoons were frequent nocturnal visitors as were local teenagers. The city dumped construction refuse in large lumpy piles. Buckthorn invaded.
Reta Dahlen was one of the members of the group who had tried to fix up the property in the 90s. She had moved to Long Prairie (with her music teacher husband Orvis) in 1970 and learned about the history of the area. Even though the park was essentially abandoned, she took her young children there. “We played Wind in the Willows,” she remembers, “with each of us taking a part of one of the characters in the book: Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger.” She said her involvement with the park stems from her childhood on an Iowa farm. “I just like to be outside.”
Reta taught in the Long Prairie School District for more than two decades, spending the last 10 years teaching earth science. She took her students to Riverside Park to monitor water flow in the river. She found that her students were happy in that outdoor classroom.
Three years ago, the current owner of the park property passed away. The family donated the park back to the city of Long Prairie; no strings attached.
Once again interest in finding a value added purpose for this piece of property is growing. Reta, who lives only a few blocks from the park, rides her bicycle there year round. In the last year she spent 650 hours picking up sticks and brush, leading work groups, and unearthing and rediscovering the work done by the WPA workers so long ago. Her son, Joe, often accompanies her. The Sentence to Serve work crew, led by Tony Towle, has also logged many hours clearing fallen trees. Reta even counts the number of fires (83) they’ve ignited to burn accumulated piles of brush. Stacks of wood have been given away to anyone willing to load them up.
Creating a Facebook page, Friends of Riverside Park, has been an excellent method for informing the general public about the potential for the area. Reta quickly credits Jeff Lucas, a local history enthusiast who also hosts the History of Long Prairie, MN page, with starting the social media effort. Last fall he led historical tours of the park.
“Lu Thomas-Brunkhorst [manager of the Chamber of Commerce] showed me how to make posts so that I could help administrate the site, and our mayor, Jodi Dixon, has been faithful in approving new members to Friends of Riverside. Nature photographer Alisha Sunderman recently agreed to post her pictures of plants, animals and snow people at Riverside.” Reta also posts photos of visitors to the park if she’s there when they visit. People are finding the park, in all seasons, and some have even used the stone structures for backdrops for family photos.
As interest grows, so too, grows the knowledge of this nature area. Master Naturalists Ann Luloff and Kay Maher have completed a biodiversity study at Riverside. As Reta said, “Both spent many hours wandering through the flora and fauna at Riverside.”
Terry Carr, a member of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society, has surveyed the site for dragonfly species. She hopes to return with students in the spring.
Pat Schultz, who lives with his family in the Huber house, shovels snow from the two ponds and encourages ice skaters to use them.
Jonathon Finke, youth pastor at the First Baptist Church, has brought his youth groups to complete work lists that Reta provided.
One of the main projects has been to clear paths to make the park accessible for dog walkers and nature enthusiasts. Reta has learned that fill material cannot be brought in without special consideration, though existing material can be moved around. She hopes that the refuse piles made up of dirt, field stone, and concrete can fill in some of the dips and hollows along the trails. She’s also learned that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has very specific rules about altering waterways.
The original stone lodge, though roofless for many years, is a defining feature of the park. There are no plans afoot to restore it but Reta has a few other ideas. The stone tower was built with a crenelated crown. Stones from the top have fallen but are still there, lying on the ground. It may be possible to put them back as they were. Some of the stones from the fire rings have been unearthed and might be reassembled. The same is true for stones from the sides of the foot bridges. A larger project would be to build a bridge over the river on the back side of the park. This would allow access from Riverside Park to Westside Park which has game fields and playground equipment.
Reta is now on the city’s park board. While development of Riverside Park has not been prioritized, she is watchful for grants or other funding opportunities.
“It could be a nature center, wildlife reserve or just a park,” she said. In many ways, it has been, for 85 years. But it also may be that the best is yet to come.