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Original opening of Palmer Park was a big event

| Thursday, March 1, 2012

Much has been said and written recently about Palmer Park in Donora, especially in light of the upgrade and beautification of the main entrance to the spacious recreation facility off Route 837, by the Donora Downtown Committee.

Palmer Park will mark its 92nd anniversary this year and as R. Mitchell Steen Jr. wrote in his Backward Glances essay on Dec, 9, 1967, "... Donora's playground still stands. It has seen some busy and popular days but never anything like the day it opened."

Steen, longtime managing editor of The Valley Independent and respected historian in this Mid-Mon Valley, borrowed a report of that inaugural from a copy of The Donora Works News. The latter was a publication for employees at American Steel & Wire Company in Donora and the story was written in the style of the day. To wit:

"On Saturday, August 21, 1920, the employees of the Donora Works of the American Steel & Wire Company held their first basket picnic at the new park grounds situated about one mile west of Donora.

"These grounds are ideally located near Donora and will compare in beauty with those near the famous Yosemite Valley. The park is situated in a natural basin and contains one of the most perfect natural baseball fields in the state, with many beautiful shade trees forming a fringe around it."

The unidentified author of the newsletter account of the opening said that, when one enters the main entrance, the first thing that attracts attention is the "beautiful white flagpole and Old Glory proudly floating in the breeze."

The original entrance to the park was located further north on Route 837 toward Monongahela. The current entrance is closer to Donora. Construction the park, located on property owned by American Steel & Wire at the time, had begun in 1919.

The Donora Works News report continued this way:

"The morning of this momentous event dawned with an overcast sky and rain was threatening, but that did not deter the ardorous spirit of the picnickers who worked their way to the park. After sprinkling a little, the sky cleared up and the sun came out to cheer up those who had misgivings as to the kind of day it would be.

"The management had provided suitable amusements for their guests and many elderly persons, both men and women, took advantage of the occasion to surprise their younger friends in their athletic achievements.

"The married women had set aside their household cares and entered into the spirit of the occasion with a zest that surprised even themselves, and many a husband will hear his wife relate with pride of how she won the trophy.

"The kiddies too enjoyed themselves. Did you see them at the penny and peanut scrambles?

"And ice cream cones• There were 40,000 of them and they were not all taken care of by the children. And lemonade! There were 1,500 gallons consumed.

"Ask Miles Wareham if he is tired. Miles claims he wore out three knives slicing lemons and only received relief when darkness set it. Ben Ammon and Jake Booker were just as tired from dishing out coffee. They handed out about 500 gallons."

At 2 p.m., the reported recalled, a band composed entirely of mill workers and consisting of some 50 members, formed a procession and marched to the hall grounds where workmen had raised a large sign reading "American Steel & Wire Company - Palmer Park."

"While the strains of our National Anthem were being played the park was officially dedicated, being named after William P. Palmer, president of the American Steel & wire Company," the story said.

"The park opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 7 p.m. And attendance exceeded 12,000.

"The amusements, refreshments and athletic events were free to all and there was not a single incident to mar the efficiency with which the large number of people were taken care of."

That, Steen wrote, ended the official report of Donora Works News regarding the opening of Palmer Park. But myriad chapters were written in its long and colorful history in the ensuing years.

One of the first major sports events at Palmer Park took place Saturday, October 29, 1921 when Donora and Monessen met in a long-anticipated scholastic football game.

"All roads lead to Palmer Park this afternoon ... Monessen and Donora are clashing in what is expected to be the gridiron classic of the season," a Page One story in The Monessen Daily Independent proclaimed. "Both teams are confident of victory and interest was high, especially in Donora where the showing of their team so far this season has support of their followers to the belief that this is their year ... for once they will be able to take the measure of their bitter rival, Monessen."

The story noted that the "newly organized (Monessen) high school band went to the game in a body, dressed in black and white, with little black and white skull caps and with the Donora goat as their mascot."

Monessen won the game 19-0 on touchdowns by Miller, J. Pilette and Veschio and an extra point by Myford.

Another football game of note took place on Thsnksgiving Day, November 29, 1928, when Donora and Monongahela battled to a scoreless tie. Donora later claimed the Mon Valley schoolboy championship because of a similar deadlock between Monessen and Charleroi on the same day. Donora posted a 2-0-1 record in conference play while Charleroi finished at 1-0-2 against the same opponents.

Palmer Park has served as the site of varied events over the years. These include but are not limited to community, school, church and family picnics; sports (high school and semi-professional football, baseball, softball, track and field, tennis, horseshoes, professional and amateur boxing, soccer); political rallied; dancing to the music of such noted bands as Guy Lombardo and vocalists like Perry Como; ethnic festivals; Boy Scout camporees and outings for Girl Scouts, and auto racing.

Donora's request for federal funds for a swimming pool, wading pool, sand beach, dressing pavilion, filer, road lighting, sidewalks and landscaping were put on hold November 10, 1935 by the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works. The borough was seeking $100,000 but the federal agency denied the request and suggested the matter be put on a referendum to let the public decide.

Palmer Park was proposed as the site for a new air field in 1944 because of its "excellent topography, height, etc." This pitch was made because the old Monessen Municipal Airport at Allen's Crossroads in Rostraver Township had closed and officials in the Mon Valley said "the area needs an airport."

Professional sports car (hill-climb) competition was introduced to the Mon Valley on October 27, 1958 at Palmer Park. Some 3,000 people were on hand to watch the action described by The Monessen Daily Independent as "speed against sticks on hair-pin curves" at the new road leading to the park.

The event was sponsored by the Donora Catholic War Veterans and featured competitors from the Steel City Region of the Sports Car Club of America.

The silver trophy for first place went to Millard Rippley of Ithaca, N.Y., who drove an Elva powered by a Coventry Climax Engine. He covered the twisting uphill course in 41.34 second, not far ahead of runnerup Allen Patterson of Mckeesport (41.66 seconds), who drove an Allard powered by a Chrysler engine. Don Yenko of Finleyville finished third at 45.02 seconds in his Corvette.

The physical appearance of the park has changed many times.

Fire destroyed the main pavilion at the site on Wednesday, September 24, 1969. The 50-year-old structure was gutted in the blaze that broke out around 3 a.m. Arson was believed to have been the cause but no arrests were made.

Officials estimated damage to the contents of the building, which had been used for storage, at $15,000 Equipment lost in the fire included a tow mower, three riding lawnmower, bleachers for baseball and softball games, three refrigerators and other items.

Reporter Fred Hevia of The Valley Independent wrote that the pavilion had been used for dances in the 1930s and 1940s that featured such bands as those led by Guy Lombardo, Blue Baron, Barronn Elliott, Bobby Dale, Tommy Carlyn and Lee Kelton and Lombardi's Night Club Orchestra.

A new pavilion was constructed at Palmer Park and the layout, considered by many as one of the most attractive community recreation facilities in the region, now includes: Picnic pavilions, soccer fields for adult and youth games, youth baseball fields, rest rooms, water fountains, benches, playground equipment for children, tennis courts that also can be used for Dek Hockey, a launch and landing area for model plane enthusiasts, a scenic, paved walking trail.

The thousands who utilize the facilities perpetuate a legacy that began nearly 92 years ago.

And those who participate in events at the park can take pride in adding their names to the list of winners of initial competition on August 20, 1921. As recognized by the Donora Works News, they were:

• Potato race, girls under 12, elizabeth Matyn; three-legged race for boys, Andy Sukel and John Krovaly; fat woman's race, Mrs. J.O. Neville; necktie race for couples, Charles Luce and Josephine Corbett; 100-yard dash, men, Henry Schmitt;

• 75-yard dash, single women, Caroline Clendanial; big man's race, Stanley Kapton; pie-eating contest, Malolar Kovalak; 50-yard dash, women, ruth White; skipping rope race, boys, Joe Greco; greased pig race, Frank Irey; 50-yard dash, men, Mike Orient; bag blowing contest, Annie Natali.

Families enjoying a community picnic at Palmer Park (circa 1921) are featured in this picture by the late photographer Bruce Dreisbach that is part of the extensive archives of the Donora Historical Society. Dreisbach also was a longtime employee of the former American Steel & Wire Company in Donora.

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