For years, children of all ages have found Memorial Park in Spirit Lake a favorite place to relax and have fun. Today, on any hot, summer day, you will find boys and girls running through the streams of water at the popular splash pad or playing on the nearby, colorful playground equipment. In years’ past, the park was used year-round for community band concerts, little league games, and the popular winter toboggan run.
May 1939 was the first mention of the proposed park at the east entrance of Spirit Lake and alongside East Lake Okoboji. A special dedication for the park's completion took place on July 18, 1940. East Park quickly became a popular place for kids to wander the trails along the water or to cheer on the local baseball teams.
The opening night of celebration brought people in from all over the area. The Spirit Lake Commercial Club, injunction with the Park Board, purchased 24,000-watt lights to line the park and fields. “Members of the sports committee of the club, working with the members of the park board have successfully put over this worthy project and are giving a fine recreation center to the people of this territory,” was written in the Spirit Lake Beacon. “Mr. McCoy had the cooperation of his committee consisting of W.B. Bedell, Tedd Lynn, L.K. Bennett and C. F. Flemming.”
At the time, the park included a kittenball (baseball) field, as well as playground equipment for smaller children and a tennis court.
At the dedication, a team composed of members from the commercial club and Park Board took on officers and board members from the Dickinson County Farm Bureau in a game of kittenball. Following the game, the Spirit Lake band marched from the business district to the park where they gave a 30-minute concert for the entertainment of the crowd.
During summer months, baseball games brought many to East Park, and in the winter, the toboggan slide drew in crowds. Ice skaters would enjoy the lake’s ice while sledders would fly down the curves onto the ice and play shadow tag.
On May 6, 1954, American Legion Auxiliary made a request via letter to the Spirit Lake Park Board of W.L. Arneson, W.B. Bedell and Blaine Hoien to change the park’s name to Memorial Park, “in memory of all those who died in World War I, World War II and the Korean conflict.” The name change was made, and a bronze name plaque was placed at the Memorial Park Gate at the Lake Street entrance on November 4, 1954.
Fond Childhood Memories at Memorial Park
Sue Haburn grew up with Memorial Park in her backyard. In the mid-1950’s, her brothers and her would run across the alley and onto their childhood playground. Whether it was fishing, going down the metal slide, or watching the men’s softball league, the park was always busy.
“I have so many memories at the park, and we had so much fun,” Sue shared. “We would go back and forth from the park to our house all the time. Memorial Park was a gathering spot for our community.”
Sue’s father coached a men’s softball team and was influential in starting little league in Spirit Lake.
“There wasn’t baseball at school at the time, so this was where a lot of balls were hit,” she said.
The field faced the lake and there wasn’t a fence; it wasn’t uncommon for long balls to roll down the hill towards the lake. There was one bleacher with four steps that Sue would often sit and watch her dad play and later her brother. Foul balls would go over the bleacher and into the alley.
“The team wore wool gray uniforms and other towns would come to play them,” Sue explained. “As time went on, they added a scoreboard and a light pole for the games. I spent a lot of time on that bleacher cheering on the teams.”
Playground equipment for Sue and her friends consisted of a large metal slide, which she said got really hot during the summer months. There was also a wooden teeter-totter, metal Merry Go Round, and leather swings to enjoy. In later years, new equipment like a wooden barrel was added similarly to the one found at Arnolds Park Amusement Park, and a shelter house was built on the park’s north section.
Another popular summer activity took place on Wednesday evenings, where the area’s Municipal Band performed on a raised platform on the south side of the park. People would park along the nearby streets and would get out their lawn chairs near their friends and enjoy the music.
“It was where the horseshoe pits were later placed. The band was made up of music teachers and high school students, between 10-25 on a given night,” Sue reminisced. “I later played when I was older; it was a lot of fun!”
Sue also remembers fishing with a cane pole and a string held on by a safety pin. “I don’t think I ever really caught anything, but I’d go sit down near the bridge and listen to the cars going by.”
When it was really hot, the kids would wander down to Lake Street Station.
“It was a gas station where the three sailboat flags are now located. We’d go and get a popsicle and wander back to the park,” she said. “The park was always busy, and there was a lot of kids who lived in the neighborhood.”
For many years, Memorial Park was the place to go for everyone who loved winter fun. In 1960, the Spirit Lake Kiwanis Club built a large wooden toboggan slide. The Building Superintendent for the project was Ted Lynn, who was a boat builder for Hafer Boat Works and known for his carpenter skills.
There was a little warming house down by the lake, with an attendant and a wood-burning stove. Sue said there was always a long line to go down the slide and many would play shadow tag with the ice skaters when they came flying down.
“I heard that sometimes they’d bring the radar gun by and clock the sledders going down, and on the big slide, kids could get up to 60 mph,” Sue recalled. “You would shoot across the lake and the best part was when you’d fall off the back of the slid and spin around on the ice. Then you’d have to make the long trek back up the hill and to the start.”
The city decided to remove the toboggan run in the 1970's, with the increased popularity in snowmobiles, as they’d come flying from underneath the bridge and the danger to the tobogganers was deemed too great.
Now, Sue has gotten to enjoy Memorial Park with her grandsons. In 2012, the city of Spirit Lake and numerous organizations came together to renovate the popular family attraction and added a splash pad and updated the playground with colorful equipment ideal for smaller children and older kids. A beautiful new shelter was built facing the lake to the east, including updated bathrooms. There remains a large green space for pick-up football games, baseball and frisbee golf.
82 years later, Memorial Park remains a special place for young and old to gather.
Historical Information provided by local historian Jonathan Reed