The Magic Of Allen Park

Photos by Sandy Robison

Even in mid-March, the earth laden white and the shadows of branches interwoven in the snow, Allen Park is a magical place. I stood there taking photos, and as I did, I became a child again, breathing in the pine and hemlock, entranced by the deep ravine and its little brook, awash in memories.

My Granny Johnson was there, covering one of the wooden picnic tables with her green and white checkered oilcloth; placing the plates, cups and plastic silverware with care; learning over her task under the boughs of giant evergreens. My mother was there in her yellow checkered Bermuda shorts and matching top, a white handkerchief stylishly around her brunette curls, wearing a pair of black sunglasses as she walked towards the table with a glass bowl of potato salad. She called out to my grandmother, something I could not hear. They waved at one another. Granny paused for a moment to step back and assess her table. She nodded. She was dressed in her dark blue suit. Her pretty Finnish face with its high cheekbones, its deep set eyes, was half covered by a little veil from her tam that sat jauntily on her head. She wore heels and stockings. Her “pocketbook” was on the bench. My grandmother was a formal person who rarely left home. When she did, she wore her suit and her heels and hose, even to a picnic in the park.

My grandfather would be somewhere nearby in this memory of Allen Park, on some high spot, looking down, his favorite place to be in any outing. My grinning father would be ferrying wooden picnic baskets to and from the car to the table. My sister Vicky was small, only two, so she had no memory of this picnic, but I remember her, sitting on a pale blue blanket, placed next to the tables. Her curls gold in the sun; she smiled at everyone and everything. These are the kinds of memories Allen Park calls up.

Historically speaking, the 35 acres was donated by a woman named Virginia Allen, no doubt for whom both West Virginia and East Virginia Boulevards are named. As the historic marker says, “the serene beauty of the natural ravine has provided citizens of all ages an environment in which to enjoy cultural and sports activities since 1908.” Just as it did half a century back when I was a child, the park today offers a fine playground and walking trails, outdoor grills and pavilions with wooden picnic tables, a soccer field, a basketball court. The concert area is located at the bottom of the slope where I skied as a child, and offers a band shell for open-air concerts, usually free.

We lived but a few blocks from Allen Park on Ivy Street when I was a child from ages 4-9. In the summers I rode the ponies round and round, hoping they would trot. I liked all of them, but particularly the two brown and white pintos. The ponies were tied under an awning shed, and someone would lead a child around the ring. I think the price was one quarter for two times around. I know many people in Jamestown must recall those kind ponies, ever gentle with the noisy children, always tolerant of little riders who lacked balance and who unwittingly yanked on the reins.

My mother never did allow me to swim there because it was the era of polio. The empty pool now sits at the bottom of the ravine, a jumble of stone and concrete, almost a part of the woodland now. She did love to take me to the playground though. On regular visits when I was small, Mother would push me on the swings, sit on the other corner of the see-saw and smile at me as I went round and round on one of two merry go rounds.

By myself, I often ran through the gulley, splashing in the water, cooling off, a little scared of the long tunnel where no one really dared go. My cousin Martha Jean Larson and I rode our bikes and spent many a sun-filled summer day there, playing in the cool ravine, moving in and out of the sunlight amidst the tall trees. It was a magical place; we were in another world when we played there, a world where everyone was a child, no one was hungry or sick or worried, where everything was beautiful and fun.

In winters, after the age of 7, I would put on my red skis and, alone, ski over to the small hill where children still slide today. I would ski into the twilight until I was alone under the pale streetlights, the snow wafting down. I could taste the snow in the air, and I loved the utter silence of it.

So many people I spoke to about Allen Park had great memories to share. Marilyn Nelson, a classmate of mine at Fletcher School in our childhoods, and a noted local horsewoman, told me those ponies gave her a love of horses that has lasted throughout her life. “I’ve loved horses since I was very small,” she remarked. “Ike and Mike were the two mouse colored Norwegian Fiords. Emperor was the tiny Shetland. I tried to buy him after the ponies were sold off.”

Paula Lawrence recalls, “We used to ride the ponies. Round and round. My mom grew up on Cole Avenue, so (she) was very familiar with Allen Park, and we would meet our Colander cousins at the park.”

Bruce Swanson, class of ’67 at Maple Grove, recalled “… our family was born on the South side near Allen Park at the corner of Newland and Linwood. My mom was born on Elam Ave and my dad on South Foote Ave. We played, picnicked, sledded, (and) rode the ponies … later, after we moved to Fluvanna, we would go down Friday nights or Saturday to skate. Got my first set of racers and loved getting yelled at for skating too fast!”

Author and retired youth program specialist Cindy Carlson, another member of the Maple Grove class of ’67, remembers she and her sister Coni used to ice skate there in winters, and her grandfather, Seth Fagerstrom, enjoyed skating there too. “He was quite the star in the center of the rink doing his figure 8s while everyone whirred around him!” Cindy said.

Jane Anderson Jones, who grew up at 138 W. Virginia Blvd., was later my colleague in the Department of English at the State College of Florida, Venice. Jane grew up right across the street from Allen Park. She recalls a list of things she loved about the park: “… Sledding and tobogganing at night! The city’s Parks Department lit a floodlight at the top of the hill and stationed a man there to watch over the kids. He was always very nice, and the lights were kept on until 8 p.m. When I was in high school, (I recall) going ice skating almost every night at the rink across the street from the playground. Walking home from Rodgers School through the lower part of the park … Wading in the creek in summer (barefoot) and in winter (with boots on). Daring to go through the tunnel under the road that connected the lower park with the upper park … Concerts every week during the summer.”

Even now, the ground still covered with wet, icy snow, the cold still chilling, the park is enchanting as ever. The shadows swirl on the crisp white snow; the giant trees sway in the breeze, smelling of evergreen, the pretty little brook still flows from one end of the park to the other. The old swimming pool now long out of use looks like a secret garden with its old stone construction. The pavilions beckon. The playgrounds empty now call to children who will soon shout with joy there as the weather warms.

Just last summer, I took my four-year-old granddaughter Cassidy there to spend idyllic hours. Those wonderful ponies are gone now, as are some other things, but it’s still a serene place to spend the day. Cassidy enjoyed the swings and the basketball hoop and our walks through the park just as thousands of area children have done through the years. We went home refreshed, body and spirit, our faces tanned and warm.

Bruce Swanson’s parents LaVerne Swanson and Dorothy Engstrom, 1944, at Allen Park before LaVerne shipped out to Iwo Jima.

A good city park removes us from the hustle and bustle of daily life, gives us trees and grass and fresh air, flowing water, safe playgrounds and sports fields, maybe a place to swim or picnic, a respite from real life. Allen Park is such a place, both in our memories and in our lives.

Coni and Cindy spend time with one of the Allen Park ponies. Photo courtesy of Marcia Lundsten

The open air skating rink at Allen Park in 1957, showing area skaters, including Cindy Carlson’s grandfather, Seth Fagerstrom. Photo courtesy of Carlson family archives