Time Machine

Groves along Prairie Creek once hosted thousands on Labor Day in Cedar Rapids

Time Machine: Union Park on Prairie Creek

This postcard shows Prairie Creek at Union Park in Cedar Rapids. Union Park existed along the interurban rail line from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids from 1904 to 1917. It was a popular spot for picnics and celebrations, especially for union members. The land was owned by Joseph Koutny.
This postcard shows Prairie Creek at Union Park in Cedar Rapids. Union Park existed along the interurban rail line from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids from 1904 to 1917. It was a popular spot for picnics and celebrations, especially for union members. The land was owned by Joseph Koutny.
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The Gazette’s archives don’t go back far enough to date the actual beginning of Cedar Rapids’ Union Park on Prairie Creek.

Its exact location is not known though it was along Prairie Creek in southwest Cedar Rapids, most likely about halfway between the present-day Hawkeye Downs and the General Mills plant.

The park was on land owned first by pioneer Abel Evans and then Joseph Koutny. Evans farmed the 160 acres of prairie and 40 acres of timber along the creek for 40 years before selling to Koutny in 1887.

The Koutny family didn’t seem to mind that people enjoyed spending summer days on their land near the creek. The beautiful area, with its blackberry patches, was a popular picnic spot with the Bohemian community, as documented in 1876.

When the Dows-Smith interurban line was being built between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in 1903, Union Park was on Col. William Dows’ list of places where the railway cars would stop.

LABOR DAY PICNIC

As Labor Day 1904 rolled around, the Cedar Rapids Federation of Labor wanted to celebrate the holiday — which became a national holiday in 1894 — by doing something different.

The federation moved the celebration to Union Park.

“There will be no parade in the city, as the entertainment features will be confined within the park, and further, the celebration will be more in the nature of a delightful outing in the woods away from the heat and dust of the city, than a demonstration,” The Gazette reported.

With interurban trains running every two hours, more than 2,000 people had arrived at the park by noon, with another 1,000 to 2,000 coming in the afternoon.

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Big tents covered refreshment stands, a merry-go-round and amusements like a shooting gallery and a “fat lady” weighing 750 pounds.

The railways and interurbans made it possible for people from up to a hundred miles away to join the celebration. The Iowa City unions set out for Union Park as soon as their local parades were done. Others arrived from Oelwein, Anamosa and Marion.

Entertainment included vaudeville acts, baseball games, a tug of war between union teams, races and a greased pig contest. A Mill Workers No. 20 women’s drill team performed, followed by a concert by the Citizens Band and dancing to music from the Koenigsmark Orchestra, both members of the musicians union.

“Beneath skies that were serene and smiling, ... in the cool, refreshing shade of the groves at Union Park on the interurban, the Cedar Rapids Federation of Labor celebrated Labor Day in a way that will ever be pleasantly remembered by every participant,” The Gazette reported.

IMPROVEMENTS ADDED

That first major event at Union Park was such a success that the federation decided to lease the park in 1905 and add a picnic ground.

In 1909, the interurban company took out a five-year lease on the park and began making improvements, including walkways, a pedestrian bridge across Prairie Creek and picnic stoves. The park was comprised of “20 acres of shady dells, beautiful knolls, thousands of shade trees, and is reached by cars over the interurban,” said The Gazette.

The rail cars ran every 15 minutes on Labor Day; a round-trip fare was 20 cents.

The 1909 event offered boxing matches, one of which ended in a free-for-all. When the referee called the match a draw, Kid Taylor of Chicago, who thought he was a better boxer than his opponent, Cedar Rapids’ Frank Whitney, hit the ref in the face. The audience broke through the ropes to attack the ref and then to fight among themselves, breaking chairs and destroying the arena.

LIGHTS AND BERRIES

In the spring of 1910, the Interurban Railway Co. added 200 electric lights to the park. In the fall, a woman strolling through the park in mid-October collected a large bunch of violets on one of the park’s hills. Some homegrown strawberries also made an appearance in the fall farmers market.

In 1911, a bandstand and refreshment stand were added to the park, adding to the enjoyment of those who came to see the Myers Military Band on July 15. Less than two weeks later, the children of the Bohemian school and their families attended a picnic at the park, followed soon after by the Printers Union annual event and the Brotherhood of Railway Engineers annual picnic.

By the 1912 Fourth of July picnic for the Cedar Chapter 184 Order of Eastern Star, automobiles had been added to the transportation options. Long speeches, which always had been forbidden at the bucolic spot, were still off limits.

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The Federation of Labor again planned a Labor Day picnic in the park, featuring Frank Whitney, the “Fighting Carpenter,” in an exhibition match.

PARK CLOSES

The Federation picnics fell off after the organization suffered losses in years when the weather didn’t cooperate.

After 13 years of public picnicking at Union Park, on Aug. 8, 1917, this notice appeared in The Gazette: “Notice is hereby given that Union park is no longer a public park. No trespassing is allowed by order of the owner, and any one entering the place shall be dealt with according to law. Joseph Koutny.”

While that appeared to be the end of the park’s public use, a Labor Day union outing was still planned by the Building Laborers union. Tickets were required. However, almost as an example of why the big picnics were a financial risk, rain canceled the event that 2,000 people had planned to attend.

Small gatherings continued to get permission to picnic at the private park, by then simply called the “Koutny farm.”

Then, in 1926, the Koutnys sold 10 acres along Prairie Creek — a half-mile from Union Park — to Waconia Sorghum Mills. The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway Co. announced it would establish a new station by the mill.

After that, Union Park ceased to exist.

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