THE HISTORY of Spaulding Park, and its namesake, Homer B. Spaulding, involves looking at several different sources of information to get a clear picture. It is interesting to note some of the events in the very early days of the development of Muskogee.
In 1872, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad built its lines through the section of Indian Territory near the confluence of three rivers – the Verdigris, the Grand (sometimes called the Neosho), and the Arkansas. The town sprang up and a number of merchants, ranchers and businessmen settled in to make their living. Among those was Homer B. Spaulding.
H.B. Spaulding was born in February 1862 in Tennessee. He moved to Sulphur Springs, Texas in 1880, where he lived for four years. Here he met and married the daughter of the Hon. S.B. Callahan, of the Creek Nation.
Coming to Muskogee in 1884, he began working as a carpenter but soonentered the merchant business with J.A. Patterson & Co. He remained in this position for four years, then went into the ranching business for himself, buying the cattle and improvements on Patterson’s leased ranch on Cloud Creek, sixteen miles west of Checotah.
He also built ranches on the Creek allotment lands his wife was entitle to, and by 1899, owned some forty thousand acres and sixteen to twenty thousand head of cattle. In partnership with W.S. Harsha, there was a large mercantile as well as a thriving cotton gin named for the pair – Harsha and Spaulding – both in Muskogee and Checotah.
Spaulding and his wife were staunch Methodists and were always supportive of the functions of their church. In March 1878, a few Methodist residents of Muskogee had asked the Creek chief for permission to build a church. In November 1879, permission was given and the building, known afterwards as the “Rock Church,” was built on the southwest corner of Cherokee Street (then called the Texas Road) and Okmulgee Avenue.
Rev. Theodore F. Brewer, pastor, and his sister, Mrs. M.E. Locke, offered to provide school facilities for the children, and in 1879, classes began in the church building and another building a short distance east of the church. By 1881, a high school building was needed and Harrell Institute was established in 1882, and named for Rev. John Harrell, a famous missionary who had died in 1867 and who had served at Asbury Mission near what later became Eufaula.
By 1884, two two-story buildings, one frame and one brick, were constructed east of Rock Church. These buildings were subsequently destroyed by fire on September 25, 1899.
H.B. Spaulding had contributed $5,000 to fund several substantial improvements to the school, including a steam-heating system and electric lighting, and the name of the institution had been changed to Spaulding Institute.
The morning after the fire, H.B. Spaulding was again ready to help finance the rebuilding of the school on an eleven acre site near the fairgrounds (not the same location as the current fairground).
The school operated until Christmas of 1905, and due to financial difficulties ceased to exist as a school. Around 1908, after it had been used as a boarding and rooming house for a short time, it became Muskogee General Hospital at 518 Baltimore.
After the fire that devastated much of downtown Muskogee in February 1899, a Townsite Commission was formed to plat and design the town in an orderly fashion, so property deeds could be conveyed.
According to the plat map that the Commission presented in 1900, the eleven-acre tract where Spaulding Institute stood was bordered by Okmulgee Avenue, G Street, Park Drive (a widened extension of Cincinnati Street) and Spaulding Boulevard.
The area directly southeast of this tract, designated on the map only as “Park,” was bounded by Okmulgee Avenue, K Street, Dorchester, Spaulding Boulevard, Park Drive and G Street. It was an irregular tract with a curved street through it named Park Drive, numbered Lots 376 and 378.
Across part of Lot 378, there is a dotted line marked “South fence of the Old Fairgrounds.” This refers to the location of a fairgrounds used many years before. The Indian International Fair Association was organized in Muskogee, Indian Territory in 1875. The first fair was held that year under a large tent at the corner of what is now Cherokee and Cincinnati Streets.
Over the next few years, the fair grew to the extent that the location had to be moved farther east to where the Muskogee General Hospital (Spaulding Institute) stood. A long barn-like plank building was erected and the entire grounds, including the race track, was enclosed with a high board fence.
As horse racing had always been a popular amusement among all Indians, that was one of the chief attractions for the fair. The mile race track, located where Spaulding Park is now, was always put in perfect condition for the occasion.
Many tribes came from all over the Territory, as well as the western tribes. The Indians brought their own tents and tepees and set them up inside the enclosure. They were a picturesque group with their different blankets and headdress.
The fair exhibits included all varieties of farm produce and livestock. In the women’s department could be found exhibits of preserves, jellies, pickles, cakes and bread. Needlework of all kinds and a special department for children was included.
After a year or so, a more convenient building was erected at the same location. It was a round two-story structure with four entrances and was called the Dinner Bucket. Large posts supported the upper floor throughout the building.
A stomp dance was held each night by the Indians, on the second floor of the main building. A United States flag floated from atop the building and could be seen across the prairie for miles.
The exhibits were tastefully arranged, the women’s department occupying one quarter of the space. Salesmen from adjoining states came and displayed their wares.
It was in the early 1880’s that the first merry-go-round made its appearance at the Fair. It was a funny thing, operated by little mules that went round in a circle. At first the children were afraid, but soon took to it.
There were bands that played music all day and into the evening from a bandstand near the race track. Everyone in town participated, and as the distance of what is now five blocks from town to the fairgrounds was too great to walk, the livery barn operated regular taxi lines to the fair, charging 25 cents a trip.
The fair was held in the latter part of September and people’s relatives always planned a visit during that time.
Just after statehood in 1907, the Oklahoma Free State Fair was organized and the grounds moved to its present site on South Cherokee Street. In 1909, the famous racehorse, Dan Patch, was featured there. Charles Lindbergh landed at Hatbox Field in October, 1927 and was a large attraction at the Fair that year. Vice President Charles Curtis attended in 1932.
When the fairgrounds moved further south, Spaulding Park was more fully developed. The “lake” (pond) was dragged and dug, beginning April 1, 1909. Plantings and structures were also designed and built.
The gazebo in the middle of the pond was connected to land by a walkway and it was completed by 1910. There were fish to be caught from the pond and picnics were a popular past time. Another popular past time was send picture postcards and Spaulding Park was the subject of difference scenes, mostly in the period between 1910 and 1920.
June 21, 1928, the Girl Scouts dedicated their “Little House” in the park. It had formerly been the Kiwanis tourist house. On October 13, 1938, the band shell was dedicated. It provided a place for open-air band concerts, often conducted by Tony Goetz, that were enjoyed for many years. It was also the platform used in 1948 when Harry S. Truman came to Muskogee. It survived until 1975 when it was finally torn down.
A June 18, 1939 issue of the Muskogee Phoenix tells of the popularity of the new swimming pool at Spaulding Park. In the late 1940’s, the local Boy Scouts raised money and purchased a scaled down version of the Statue of Liberty, made of bronze. The Statue was placed on an island pedestal in the middle of the pond.
During the years, renovations have taken place several times. In 1982, then Parks and Recreation director, Henry Bresser, and a crew took the Statue of Liberty, which had been vandalized in 1978, and welded her right arm back in position. The pond was emptied, cleaned, restocked with fish, and the Statue was reinstated in her rightful place in the center.
In 1995, new playground equipment in the shape of a dinosaur, and basketball courts were added. In 1996, a new shelter, to be used for picnics and gatherings was dedicated. On that occasion, Mayor Jim Bushnell and Park Superintendent Mark Wilkerson presented a plaque with the following message: “This structure funded in part by friends and employees of Robert N. Yaffe in appreciation of his many years of leadership and service to our community.”
As recently as 2001, the swimming pool was completely refurbished and remodeled, with new bath houses and fencing added.
These are just a few memories of Spaulding Park, part of Muskogee for over 100 years.