Once Upon a Fairy Night

Imagine a fairyland of delights only a trolley’s ride away from the center of the city’s downtown,  a welcome escape from the heat, dust and smells of summer in a crowded river city. Imagine families picnicking in the cool shade underneath old-growth trees as live music plays from a nearby pavilion. Young couples wait in line for amusement rides while those bearing the marks of passing years tell stories of their childhood homes and first loves.  

It sounds almost too good to be true, but it existed once in Davenport.

Schuetzen Park, twenty-two acres of paradise, was dedicated on June 12, 1870 by the Davenport Schuetzen Gesellschaft in northwest Davenport.  Founded by German immigrants, the Schuetzen Gesellschaft was a target shooting club with local origins dating from around 1862, when it was known as the Davenport Schuetzen Verein.  It became the Davenport Schuetzen Gesellschaft from 1868 to 1890 when it the name was changed again to the Davenport Shooting Association.  Despite the official name changes, the club was commonly known as the Schuetzen Verein.   A tradition brought over from Germany by Davenport’s early immigrants, the Schuetzen Verein combined target shooting, target shooting festivals, and socializing. 

Schuetzen Park was created in celebration of all three. 

On opening day, the park featured natural woodland, drives, walkways lined with hedges and flowers, a dining hall, coffee and lunch houses, shooting gallery, refreshment stand, music area, and even a prize temple.  An estimated 5,000 people arrived to help celebrate the park’s dedication.

Not only were members of the Schuetzen Verein at the opening, but also members of the local Turner’s Societies, other German organizations, and local officials.  Speeches were made, music was played, songs were sung (most likely in German and English), and refreshments consumed on that Sunday afternoon.  Why Sunday?  As most individuals still worked a six day a week work week; Sunday was considered not only a day for religion or rest, but also a day for socializing with friends and family. 

Over time, an inn, trolley station, athletic field, music pavilion and small amusement area that featured a four-story roller coaster were added to the park.   It truly was worth the price of admission, based on the reports that up to 12,000 people a day would attend special events.

Fortunes changed for Schuetzen Park with the advent of World War I.  Even an overwhelming German population could not escape anti-German sentiments and the call for patriotism in every part of life.  Early in the war, Schuetzen Park was renamed Forest Park.*  German songs and traditions were replaced by Red Cross and war bond fundraisers at the park.  Economically,  people were not able to spend money on large events simply for entertainment’s sake.  Galas and large picnics slowly faded away during the war years, and did not return.

A World War changed the fate of Schuetzen Park, but the war against alcohol may have affected the park as well.  On July 1, 1917 Iowa became one of 23 dry states.  This was a big change for a park that thrived on German traditions, including the tradition of beer drinking, and profits from its sale.

Negative feelings toward German-related traditions, state prohibition (plus the coming of the 18th Amendment in January 1920), decreased revenue, and economic hard times hitting both patrons and the park—insurance was costly for a roller coaster that tended to have accidents—eventually led to the closing of Schuetzen/Forest Park after 45 years.  

Schuetzen Park was sold in 1923 to the Chiropractic Psychopathic Sanitarium for $35,000, with the understanding that the public could still use what remained of the park and the shooting society could use their shooting range until the final payment was made.  That final payment occurred in 1938 and the shooting club moved to a new location in Princeton, Iowa.  Slowly, woods and hospital expansion erased the beauty that was Schuetzen Park.   The only remaining landmark is the trolley pavilion, which became a local historic landmark in 1998. 

In 1960, the Good Samaritan Society bought the property from the Sanitarium to use as a nursing home and assisted living residence.  However, Schuetzen Park was not forgotten and in the early 1990’s, the Schuetzen Park Gilde was formed to help preserve what remained of the original park. 

Now, through the Gilde’s efforts, Schuetzen Park is once again a twenty-two acre nature park with a picnic shelter and area for bands to play.  Music programs, a Schuetzen Verein-style (wooden) bird shoot, and other outdoor events have been held during warmer months.

Why not venture out sometime?  Maybe amongst the sounds of nature one can still hear the laughter and music of the past.

As I began work on this blog I realized that 2010 is the 140th anniversary of the founding of Schuetzen Park.  Then I spotted a news release that Schuetzen Park Gilde is planning to celebrate the momentous event on, of all days, June 12, 2010.  Please visit http://www.schuetzenpark.info/ for more information.  The park is located at 700 Waverly Road, Davenport, Iowa.

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* Tellingly, the Davenport Democrat and Leader, which had many readers of German descent, still called the park Schuetzen Park, while the Davenport Daily Times referred to it as Forest Park. 

(posted by Amy D.)

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