Michiana residents work to save a historic Mishawaka landmark

Battell Park has been around for years, in fact, it's Mishawaka's oldest park.

The Princess City landmark is known for many things, especially the Civil War Soldier’s Monument, the bandshell, and the rock garden.

To understand Battell Park's transition you need to focus on two decades, the 1880's and the 1930's.

That's when the park got started and when the federal government kicked in some cash to help make what some specialists say, is the most outstanding field stonework throughout the United States.

If the trees in Battell Park could talk, oh the stories they could tell.

“You have to think that at least some of these trees that are in Battell Park today are the same trees that the Battell family paid to have planted in 1880,” says Mishawaka Historian, Pete DeKever.

The Battell family, originally from Connecticut, became big investors in land around Mishawaka and deeded this land to the city in 1880.

The monuments came first with the Civil War Soldiers Monument being built in 1884.

“There were a lot of communities, almost every community had some kind of Civil War monument and Mishawaka was a little late because they had done fundraising to have a monument earlier, but somebody stole the money, and so they had to do all of the fundraising again,” adds DeKever.

Then, after another major war, came the bandshell, built in 1927 and dedicated May 30, 1928, Memorial Day.

“WWI was a powerful event in the lives of Mishwakians and around the country, and so, I think in their minds they thought well, we should do something to honor the dead and honor those men who served in WWI, and so, the Bandshell was kind of dedicated in honor of all of the people from Mishawaka who died in any of the country's wars,” says DeKever.

The rock garden came next, but not right away. Originally, where it is today, was a natural ravine or washout. Water would flow right into the St. Joseph River but with a concern of erosion, the plan was to plant grass and bushes to hold the ravine in place.

Now, fast-forward about 50 years. This takes us to The Great Depression and New Deal programs, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), that put thousands of people to work.

“The WPA and St. Joseph County was extremely active. In fact, I think in some of our papers, there was a record that in our area we did more work with the WPA and those other government organizations back then, than many other places in the whole state,” says Mishawaka Penn-Harris Public Library Director, David Eisen.

Some of that work includes the rock garden in Battell Park.

“Somebody got the idea that you know, they should do something here with Battell Park, and so all of the stone walls that you see lining the river and especially here in this rock garden. That was done by the WPA, done in 1937, so they really solidified the sides of this ravine by using stone and concrete so there hasn't been any erosion problems here since 1930’s, but more importantly its just visually one of the most attractive places in Mishawaka,” adds DeKever, “I know that the WPA, they got a lot of these stones either from the river, dredging them out of the river, or from local farm land so its literally field stone, and then the government would help them with the concrete and beyond that, its manual labor ,stone, and concrete and creativity. That's what produces this”.

“The joke is that at the end of the depression that farms had no more rocks in their fields because somebody has come along and needed rocks for some project,” says Eisen.

With the help of city, state and federal government, the rock garden took only a year to build and was finished in 1937.

Now, the WPA itself didn't last very long either, only about six years. Some say its peak was 1937.

“It had a distinct purpose, but it really ended because of WWII. When WWII came, the factories all geared up for war production and frankly, unemployment was no longer an issue” explains Eisen, “so, it was highly important. I really wonder what would have happened to the United States if such a system had not been devised”.

“The WPA is an example that if you build it well, and they built well, they built with good materials, good workmanship and if you maintain it in the subsequent generation, these WPA items will last forever and there's not too many things that we build today, you know, public buildings or public works, that we can say that about,” says DeKever.

The WPA and other New Deal programs used the same rocks as those used to line the St. Joesph River in Battell Park.

The lining of the river started around 1933, but because the program sometimes was short on money, sometimes short on rock, it wasn't finished until around 1938.

Tune in Tuesday to hear from a local group trying to save this rock garden in Battell Park.

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