In 1927, Cedar Rapids had 22 parks covering 322 acres. The largest were Ellis and Bever, followed by Daniels, Riverside, Sinclair and Shaver. The rest were smaller.
In February 1926, Ralph Van Vechten and Harry Hedges talked about a beautiful 77-acre tract of land they owned in southeast Cedar Rapids. The area — south of Mount Vernon Road SE and west of Memorial Drive SE — was full of valleys and bluffs that would make a great park.
Hedges and his father, George T. Hedges, owned half of the land, John A. Reed and Van Vechten the other half. They agreed to give it to the city.
Shortly after Van Vechten died — he was the son of Ada Van Vechten, who was instrumental in opening the first public library in Cedar Rapids in 1897 — the land became the property of Cedar Rapids on Aug. 25. 1927.
The Gazette reported it was “the largest and most valuable donation ever made to the city of Cedar Rapids. It increases the park system by approximately one-fourth. It provides a site which landscape architects say can be made into one of the most beautiful parks in this part of America.”
The city hired Chicago landscape architects Swain Nelson & Sons Co. to suggest development of the land. Ideas included building a dam across the spring-fed creek in the valley to form a recreational lake and transforming one of the ravines into an outdoor amphitheater. None of that happened, likely because of the Great Depression.
PICKING A NAME
The donors didn’t want to name the park, suggesting the people who would use the park choose its name. The Evening Gazette and Republican initiated a naming contest. Ideas were directed to the park contest editor of The Gazette, and city commissioners were the judges.
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Mail poured in during the contest, which ran from Aug. 28 to Sept. 10. Some ideas reflected the topography, like “Riverview” and “Grandview,” while others tried to include all four land donors, “Reevanhedge.”
Barbara Binggren pointed out the site had been used for picnicking and berry picking for years. She suggested it keep the nickname locals had given it, “The Hills.”
Some 150 letters, with more than 300 suggested names, were received. The suggestions were turned over to the City Council and on the morning of Sept. 15, the name “Van Vechten Park” was chosen.
“The Department of Parks shall be directed to place at the main entrance of the park a native boulder with a bronze tablet giving the names of all the donors of the park,” the council ordered.
Seven people had suggested “Van Vechten Park,” among them famed local photographer William Baylis and the influential Sixteenth Avenue Commercial Club. “Grandview Park” came in second.
The site’s rugged qualities, viewed as beautiful by many, hampered its use for recreation.
When another tract of land near the junction of Prairie Creek and the Cedar River was considered for a park in 1928, detractors said the city did not need another park like Van Vechten with a terrain that was difficult to maintain.
The park’s beauty attracted at least one local artist. In 1931, Grant Wood sat on one of the park’s hills and painted an industrial landscape that included smokestacks, a water tower and the spire of St. Wenceslaus Church.
A dozen years later, the city was looking for a place to dump trash, and Van Vechten’s ravines seemed like a good place. Neighbors objected and stopped the burning of trash there, but the city intended to go ahead with dumping non-combustibles in a corner ravine.
The Gazette chimed in, saying, “Although it is less used than some of the other parks, Van Vechten is one of the beauty spots of Cedar Rapids. Its rugged promontories, gullies and fine views are unduplicated in the city.”
The dump idea was abandoned, but even the suggestion of that use had prompted truckers to start dumping loads in the park.
Beginning in July 1941, reserve officers used the park’s hills and ravines for military maneuvers until the United States entered World War II in December.
By 1943, very little of the master plan for the park had been accomplished. No fireplaces or picnic tables had been built. No toilet facilities were available.
The next year, a road and two fireplaces were added to Van Vechten, but not much else. A manpower shortage during the war years was blamed.
In 1946, the dump proposal resurfaced, with a ravine in the park’s southwest corner designated for trash.
By 1949, restrictions were put in place to stop any more burning there. Assistant City Health Officer Carl Smith said residents protested the rat, fly and smoke nuisance.
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In 1950, it was decided to close the dump permanently after a violent windstorm sent garbage flying across nearby neighborhoods and wind-fueled flames burned three acres of park grassland. Anyone dumping there after the ban was subject to prosecution.
The park apparently was still used as a dump until the summer of 1951 when more than 600 neighbors petitioned the City Council to close it. The city arranged with a private company to open a new dump outside the city limits.
In 1960, three softball diamonds with bleachers were installed at the park.
In 1964 one ravine was filled in to create a 2,400-foot roadway between 12th Avenue and McCarthy Drive SE. One of the council’s commissioners started the project, without informing his council colleagues. Despite that oversight, the road opened to traffic in November 1965.
The hillside in the southeast corner of the park was prepared as a picnic area and playground in September 1965. Three years later, a strip of 40 acres was acquired from the North Western railroad for $11,400 and added to the park.
Future football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner played Kids League baseball on the Van Vechten diamonds in the 1980s.
The park today — 133 acres — offers three ball diamonds, a pavilion, playground and picnic areas. The majority still is wilderness.
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