Doling Park’s dance pavilion is pictured in an undated postcard. (Courtesy of the Doling Park Museum)
Few, if any, people today remember Doling Park’s earliest days as Springfield’s top leisure locale. Back in the late 1800s, things like cave tours, the “Shoot-a-Chute” and Sundays spent lakeside drew visitors from Springfield’s polluted city limits.
Far more recall the days of the Doling Amusement Company’s rides, Fourth of July fireworks shows and school picnics. And yet, the largest number probably identify the park in terms of its longtime skating rink, one of the first in Springfield.
But regardless of what one remembers best about Doling Park, the fact remains that memories were made there.
Doling Park became a reality due to the generosity of James M. Doling. A local businessman and state representative, Mr. Doling was a defining influencer in several crucial areas of Springfield’s development. He became enthralled with the land after tracking down one of his cows, which caused him to stumble across the park’s cave. He was so impressed by the land that he decided to buy it, which he did in 1882, and vowed to turn it into some kind of a nature preserve.
He stayed true to his word.
Within the next few years, Mr. Doling and his son, Robert, created three spring-fed lakes on the land, and dreamed up the famous “Shoot- the-Chutes” splash-down ride. Later they added a pavilion, bandstand, a theater and a picnic area.
When Doling Park began, Commercial Street was basically the edge of town. “So this was really out in the country,” says Gail Mitchell, a historian and volunteer at the Doling Museum. She notes that when Doling Park began, Springfield didn’t have any city parks. “This was a place they could come that had a lake, it was cool down by the cave. They could walk and it was quiet and they could walk with your friends and it didn’t cost to get in.” Streetcars – at first pulled by mules and horses, later powered by electricity – transported visitors to the park. Later, entrance carried a 10-cent charge.
One of the earliest attractions was Giboney Cave, named for the land’s previous owner. Legend states that the deep cavern extends all the way to Park Central Square—but nobody knows if it does for sure. “That’s amazing, with all the technology that we have, we should be able to figure out how far (it goes),” says Gail. What’s her take? “I think Commercial Street’s it.”
Perhaps back then, visitors were too distracted by the amazing cool air emerging from the cave’s entrance to go searching. “When you start walking up to the coolness (…) it feels delightful,” says Gail. When you put it in proper context, it’s no wonder the cave was such a great attraction. “Especially when they were wearing long dresses. All the clothes they wore at the turn of the century.”
In 1907, the land was purchased by a group of three businessmen – Charles Brooks, William H. Jezzard and Ben E. Meyer – under the name of The Springfield Amusement Company for $50,000. Their ownership helped define the park even further as a sought-after destination for Springfieldians. “The other parks then were for picnics and families,” says Gail. “This was for major activities.” These activities and attractions included rental boats, a dance hall, a penny arcade and 19 amusement park rides. There were even ice cream cones (a recent invention at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis) and a field for a professional baseball team.
A benefit of Doling Park was its sheer size. “You had 40 acres to roam on,” says Gail. For many years, swimming was also a popular pastime at the park – and never fear if you forgot your suit. “In the bathhouse, they rented the swimsuits,” says Gail. “I can’t imagine wearing a swim suit that somebody else wore, but then those swimsuits were like dresses.”
Mr. Jezzard eventually got controlling interest in the park, which he sold to the City of Springfield in April 1929 for $85,000 – a huge chunk of money for the time, and just a mere six months before Black Tuesday. “There was no indication of any Depression,” says Gail of the April sale. “Then, in October, I’m sure the City Park Board was eating their words because they had a 10-page splash in the newspaper about why this was such a great idea.”
The change in ownership brought some changes to the park. The “Shoot-the-Chutes” was deemed unprofitable in 1929 and was removed. Cave tours had been going on for years, but the park board added a new way to see the cavern: by boat. The city’s first fireworks displays drew crowds on the Fourth of July (but ultimately polluted the lake and were stopped). End-of-school trips, as well as picnics by various clubs and organizations, continued to grow in popularity.
Peggy Denney Mahan, the museum’s curator, remembers those trips firsthand. “This was the highlight of the last day of school,” she says, who came on such trips as a child. “Of course, most of the time, it was not unusual to see 25 buses out here. You did the rides first, and then you skated. That was the routine you had to do. There weren’t enough teachers out there and here (to watch everyone).”
That skating rink Peggy referred to was added in 1930. As one of the first rinks in Springfield, the 80-by-200 foot floor quickly took the parks’ guests by storm. Illuminated by light from 72 giant windows, skaters took to the floor to show off their skills, often serenaded by live organ music. While that might seem unusual in today’s world, such music wasn’t in the past – especially if one notes the orchestras and bands found in other cities’ skating rinks. Ultimately, Doling Park’s rink produced some high-caliber skaters, including Chris Benda, who became the world skating champion in 1959.
The rink also offered a unique way to meet other like-minded individuals. “‘Oh, yes I went to Doling Park. I used to roller skate there. I went on dates there. I met my boyfriend there,’” says Gail, listing off some of the stories she’s heard from the skating rink’s heyday. “So many couples met on that skating floor or in the park or on school picnics. Love at Doling—it happened.”
“So many couples met on that skating floor or in the park or on school picnics. Love at Doling—it happened.”
Yet, time marches on. The skating rink was quickly deteriorating because there was always a fight about who was responsible to maintain it. At the same time, competition began to increase.
“People started having other roller skating rinks in Springfield because they had grown up roller skating here and it was such a great idea,” says Gail. And as transportation to other places became easier – not to mention the introduction of nearby theme parks – the park’s rides began to lose their novelty.
Then there were people issues. Although the park board officially owned Doling Park, they leased it to others who maintained it. One of those individuals was Art Roberts, who was primarily responsible for keeping the rides in working order. “Art Roberts was a genius when it came to machinery,” says Gail. “He kept the rides going, he kept them safe.” But eventually he was unable to maintain them adequately due to illness.
Two of the park’s other longtime fixtures – simply Mr. and Mrs. Morrison, who had the contract for the park’s operation with the city – were getting older and unable to keep up as they once had been. And besides, the park wasn’t making a great deal of money, especially since the park board required a 35 percent commission on all sales. “There were just a lot of things,” says Gail.
The rides were removed and the skating rink closed in the 1970s. The swimming pool—constructed after swimming in the lake ceased—was also torn down and Giboney Cave was closed to the public because of vandalism. While the park’s activities changed, however, there was still activity there. The Northview Senior Center, formerly located on Commercial Street, took up residence in the skating rink where it remained through the late ‘90s. By that time, however, the building was in bad repair and something had to be done.
After some evaluation, it was decided that the skating rink couldn’t be saved. Its destruction caused such uproar that a compromise was reached: A museum would be constructed to preserve the park’s history. Built adjacent to the skating rink’s site, the Doling Museum was dedicated in 2006. Today it contains a plethora of information on the park’s past, including costumes from some of the skaters, newspaper articles, photos and even the organs that played at the skating rink so long ago.
“It’s good that the city is able to keep that history for those who can be interested and maybe had a family connection,” says Gail of the museum. “Maybe Grandma roller skated. You never know.”
Want to learn more?
Doling Musuem (301 E. Talmage, Springfield; 417-837-5808) is open April to October on Tuesdays from 1 to 5 p.m., Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Entrance is free, although donations are accepted.
But what about the rest of the park? “They’ve still got activities,” says Gail. “They’ve got the hiking trails. You still have picnics, you still have cave tours. That part, (what) it was doing in 1900, is what it’s doing today.”