Walnut Park Deep History
Professor Edward S. Lippitt’s 1876 plan for Walnut Park was quite ambitious and included trees, flowers, and shrubs; diagonal 10’ graveled pathways, as well as generous, sixteen-foot deep flower borders edged by 8’ gravel walks. A fountain surrounded by palm trees adorned the center of the park. Eucalyptus trees were proposed to line the parking strips between the sidewalks and the streets. According to the newspaper article describing the new park landscape, 76 trees were purchased.
In 1878 the author of a letter to the newspaper complained about the condition of the park. The author referred to the picket fence around the park and a few trees; this may have been the extent of the improvements. (A later article refers to pruning the eucalyptus around the park perimeter.) The letter-writer suggests that introducing water to the park would make a big difference. It’s easy to imagine how many plants would have been lost, and how rough a park would look if it wasn’t watered regularly, especially with an expectation of an Eastern or English landscape, complete flowers and lawn. It’s clear that there is no plan in place to care for the plaza. An article from 1886 claims that 100 walnut trees have been planted in the park.
On May 28, 1896, the Ladies’ Improvement Club was formed with the express purpose of improving the two forlorn plazas in town, with a hope that they can be made presentable for Independence Day celebrations. The Ladies leaped into action, getting a promise from the city for irrigation pipes and a gardener and they planned several fundraisers. In reading the minutes from the club, it’s is interesting to see how very quickly they pulled together various fundraisers. Within a month of being formed the group held its first fundraiser, which included flag drills and recitations, lemonade and ice cream sales, and fortune telling. Immediately the funds were tapped to cut grass at the plazas. From here on the club takes on or heavily subsidizes the maintenance costs for the two plazas, as well as the expense of improving the parks. Before the end of the club’s first year they have christened the plaza Walnut Park.
Mrs. H.H. Atwater, a resourceful and influential woman, took charge of the workers in Walnut Park. Soon the park had been organized, planted, and furnished with benches. By May of 1897 the women considered the park finished and requested that the City Trustees to take responsibility for the parks, but the request must have been denied since the club minutes continue to show money being raised and then spent to maintain both Hill Plaza and Walnut Park. The city did subsidize the club in its efforts. It’s not clear how long the club was responsible for maintaining the parks, but a parks director was not appointed until 1911.
Minutes of the Ladies Improvement Club for February 1, 1898 reference the completion of another planting at the park, this time date palms and magnolias (magnolias were called Umbrella Trees). Mr. Isaac G. Wickersham also donated four iron benches for the park, and the excitement in town over the emergence of a lovely park is apparent in the club’s minutes and in newspaper accounts.
The need for water required that a well be dug, and a tank house and windmill were authorized by the City Trustees in 1899 on the E Street side of the park. It was expected that excess water could be sold, thereby recouping the cost of the well. The lower portion of the tank house was enclosed and used as a tool shed.
The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had a hand in this park, as it did other parks around the country, donating parts for a fountain in Walnut Park (California Ladies' Magazine). An elaborate fountain can be seen at the edge of one old photo which appears to match an elaborate fountain that was once located at Western and Main (Petaluma Boulevard). The fountain was removed sometime prior to 1960.
(A similar fountain is in Roseburg, Oregon. A replica of the original, it holds a plaque that states that the original “Hebe Fountain” in Roseburg represents one of many that the WCTU provided throughout the United States. Molds were cast from a figure by Bertel Thovaldsen, a Danish sculptor, and Petaluma’s may have been similarly cast.)
1941 the tank house and windmill was replaced by the existing restrooms, which was designed by Brainerd Jones, complete with a squirrel bas-relief. Original plans for this building, estimated to cost $4,100.00, show a pump house and boys and girls bathrooms. There was also a small indoor playroom, reflecting the idea in that era that parks should provide many kinds of activities for children, including supervised craft and games.
Brainerd Jones plan elevations. Courtesy of the Sonoma County Library.
According to Petaluman John Pedroni, a woman was paid by the city to work with kids in the summer at the park. This may have been as early as the 1930s, and the practice continued for a decade or more. This is consistent with national ideas that became prominent in the 1920s that children required supervised play to realize their physical and social potential.
When the Lions Club took on the construction of the gazebo, they were responsible for everything but the paint. Lions member Walter Singleton designed and constructed the structure, Will Sylva poured the concrete, and Van Bebber Bros. did the iron work. The concealed electric lights were a novelty. During the opening ceremony, tribute was paid to the Ladies’ Improvement Club, and particularly Miss Rena Shattuck and Mrs. H. H. Atwater. Camp fire girls planted a “splendid “sycamore to mark the occasion. (That sycamore was replaced in 2005 to mark the occasion of the retirement of Ed Anchordoguy from his position as city parks and landscape manager.)
Several decaying walnut trees, the sorry recipients of poor pruning practices in years past, were replaced in 2005. Activities that currently take place in the park are the summertime Farmer’s Market on Saturday afternoons, art fairs, and political gatherings.