Willow Creek Park

Location: Lamar
County: Prowers County
Date Constructed: 1934-1938
Built by: CWA, FERA, WPA

Description

Willow Creek Park is a long, rectilinear park, measuring 2382’ x 502. The roughly 28-acre park is bordered by Parkview Avenue on the west, Memorial Drive on the south, and Willow Valley Road on the east. The park was the work of three New Deal agencies: created by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) in 1933 to1934 and then further developed under Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects from 1934 to1938. The park is naturalistic in design, without any elaborate landscaping plans, reflecting the functionality of work done by New Deal agencies. Willow Creek cuts through the middle of the park from the northeast to the south, creating a large flood plain that divides the park. The New Deal projects in the park created a series of dams on the creek, creating a central water feature in the park, but these were destroyed in a flood in 1965. The circulation patterns on the west and east sides of the park are original, lined by stone walls constructed by the CWA and WPA. Historic features on the western side of the park include the “colonette” (a semi-circular stone seating area), the shelter house, and an outdoor fireplace. Historic features on the eastern side of the park include Pike’s Tower, the caretaker’s cottage, and the Boy Scout Kiva. Numerous large deciduous shade and evergreen trees are scattered along the lawns on the western and eastern edges of the park.

Located in the western section of the park, the shelter house was constructed during a CWA project that began in November 1933 and was completed in March 1934. The shelter house (measuring 16′ x 29′) is constructed of roughly finished, natural-faced sandstone blocks of varying sizes. Most the stones are laid in regular courses of varying heights but some sections feature square rubble masonry.

Constructed by the WPA in 1936, the caretaker’s house is located on the eastern edge of the park. It is set at an angle and faces northwest. The irregularly planned house has is single-story with a partially exposed basement; the levels of the front section are offset from the rear. It is in the Rustic Style, constructed of irregularly shaped and sized slab-rock masonry. The stones are multi-colored in red and brown hues and laid randomly. This stone is quite different from the blocks of tan sandstone used for the CWA structures in the park. The stonework is also more refined and skilled than the CWA stonework. The house also incorporates Pueblo Revival Style elements through its wood vigas. Park caretakers lived in the building until 1986. The building is currently used for Girl Scout meetings.

Pike’s Tower is located in the eastern section of the park and was constructed by the WPA. The tower was the idea of Lamar resident R.L. Christy, an amateur historian who prepared the initial plans for the park. Christy had studied Zebulon Pike’s trip across Colorado and designed the tower to commemorate Pike’s expedition. On November 13, 1806, Pike and his men camped on Willow Creek near the location of present-day Lamar. Christy placed the tower on what he believed was Pike’s camp site; however, no definitive proof of this claim has been found. The 40′ tall, Rustic Style observation tower, is located at the southeast entrance to the park. The structure is constructed of quarry-faced, randomly-sized ashlar blocks. The stone is regularly coursed, though the courses vary in height. The tower has a more finished or “dressed” appearance than the rest of the masonry work in Willow Creek Park.

Significance

Willow Creek Park meets Criterion A for its significance in the area of Social History for its association with President Franklin Roosevelt’s legislative agenda to rescue the United State from the Great Depression. This agenda included the creation of an unprecedented number of policies, programs, and agencies to provide relief, employment, conserve natural resources, and assist in construction of public works—all with the greater goal of stimulating the devastated economy. Constructed by the CWA, FERA, and WPA, Willow Creek Park presents an important record of the federal relief programs administered in Colorado’s eastern plains during the Great Depression. The park was constructed over six years, providing a source of employment in Lamar for much of the Great Depression. The New Deal construction programs emphasized projects providing civic, educational, and health benefits for a community, and a large number of projects were related to recreation, athletics, and health. During these difficult times, New Deal agencies also recognized the psychological benefits of recreational and cultural activities. Through several New Deal programs, life in Lamar was enhanced through the conversion of a barren field into a welcoming park that was a place of pride for the community. Willow Creek Park is also significant as Colorado’s first CWA project.

Willow Creek Park also meets Criterion A for its significance in the area of Entertainment/ Recreation as it was the first planned park in Lamar. The CWA application stated, “the park when completed will be of great benefit to the community as there is no other recreation center within a radius of twenty miles.” It provided a vital morale boost to a community suffering during the Depression. According to The WPA Worker:

Because of the parks and playgrounds built by the WPA, millions of people who can’t afford to belong to country clubs can now swim and play golf, tennis and other healthful outdoor games. . . . Eighty percent of the distressed people whom the WPA must employ are unskilled, yet suited to the building of recreational and sport facilities. That is why a large part of WPA’s effort now goes to building and improving parks and playgrounds, swimming pools, gymnasiums and amphitheatres.

From construction to the present, the park has provided a location for physical recreation as well as passive recreation such as picnics. The park remains a prominent feature of the city of Lamar.

The park meets Criterion C in the area of Architecture as an example of Rustic architecture as constructed by the CWA, FERA, and WPA. The buildings and stone features in Willow Creek Park are a good example of the Rustic Style as interpreted by New Deal agencies for park design. Rustic characteristics featured in the buildings include the use of native stone, traditional construction methods, evident hand craftsmanship, and simple, functional design. The Rustic Style originated with the National Park Service, which emphasized the use of native materials and adaptation of indigenous or frontier methods of construction. This design philosophy was an ideal fit with the CWA and WPA. The goal of these programs was employment, so the majority of costs were to be spent on labor. Native materials were used because they were usually the least expensive. Traditional construction methods were used to save the expensive of power tools and large machinery and because they were more labor intensive. Both rustic architecture and federal relief buildings were meant to be simple and functional. Willow Creek Park includes many of the features typically found in New Deal era parks including naturalistic landscaping, stone walls, stone fireplaces, scouting facilities, and caretaker housing. As the first CWA project in Colorado, the design of this project likely influenced the similar park features that can be found in other parks and cemeteries throughout eastern plains of Colorado. The development of masonry craftsmanship can be seen in the transition from the rougher work of the CWA structures to the more polished and skilled work seen in the WPA structures.

Historical Background

The development of Willow Creek Park began around 1920 when R. L. Christy was appointed chair of a Rotary Club committee to investigate possible park sites in Lamar. Christy sent questionnaires to over 50 cities to get ideas and did some rough sketches. Christy found that many local groups were interested in a park, but the project seemed impossible to fund and was put aside. In 1933, John Y. Brown, the mayor of Lamar, asked Christy if he had suggestions for a project that the city might submit to the newly forming CWA program. Organized in late 1933, the CWA was designed to be a public works program that could put people to work quickly, providing immediate relief to help people through the winter of President Roosevelt’s first year in office. Jobs were typically small, since the projects were intended to last only 90 days. Road improvements, flood control, and recreational facilities were popular projects in Colorado. Christy pulled out his sketches and proposed a park on Willow Creek. The mayor quickly submitted an application and Willow Creek Park became the first CWA project approved in Colorado. The work done by the CWA in Willow Creek Park, including landscaping and the construction of a stone building and many stone features was more elaborate than many CWA projects since the project was able to take advantage of the work already done by Christy.

The CWA project combined “beautiful landscaping and practical water control.” Flooding on Willow Creek had been a problem since the Lamar area was settled. It was hoped that the CWA project would end the “reign of damage.” Plans called for the construction of three dams on the creek: the first would be located three miles south of Lamar, the second at the south edge of the main park, and the third would be near the center of the park where the creek swings east. The third dam would create a quarter-mile long lake following the course of the creek bed. The lake would be 3 to 4 feet deep and surrounded by stone riprapping.

Work on Willow Creek Park began on November 27, 1933. The project planned to employ more than 200 men for 3 months, with each man working 130 hours per month. Unskilled labor was paid 45 cents per hour and skilled labor received $1.10 per hour. The CWA spent about $55,000 on the project; about 80% of the federal funds were spent on labor and 20% on materials. A local contribution of funds for the park construction was not required. Funds for purchase of the park land were raised by local citizens, who then donated the land to the City of Lamar. The community was very involved with the development of the park. Various tree plantings (including spruce, pine, and cedar) were donated by local clubs including the Rotary Club, Lions club, Rainbow Girls, and Lamar Women’s Club. The National Youth Administration (NYA), another New Deal agency, employed local teens on landscaping projects in the park. Established in 1935, the NYA provide work relief and employment programs for 16 to 25 year olds. The goal was to provide part-time employment that would provide youth with practical experience and encourage them to remain in school.

According to Christy, within days of the project’s approval, “several hundred, hitherto idle men, were working at the park site, building a canal and dike at the north end of the present park. With shovels, wheel-barrows, horses and slips they moved dirt in large quantities—the happiest bunch of workers anyone ever had seen. They had been out of work for a long time.” The CWA program ended in the spring of 1934. The CWA project file described the completed work as follows: “Work consisted of clearing and grubbing site of park and removing large cottonwood trees in channel. Work accomplished in park has consisted of building lake, roads, dam, planting trees, building shelter house, fireplaces, walks, bridges and ornamental rock fence.” The file said that there was further work to be accomplished on the dam and flood control as well as planting and beautifying to be completed at the park.

An island created by the CWA was destroyed by a flood shortly after construction. However, the earthen dike that was part of the CWA project was a success. In 1934 the Lamar Daily Democrat reported: “The great earthen dike recently constructed as a CWA project proved a life-saver for Lamar for the second time in as many months. The property damage to the citizens would undoubtedly have mounted to many thousands of dollars from the raging waters of Willow Creek if it had not been for the flood prevention project.”

After the CWA program ended, work continued at the park with FERA funds. FERA had been established in May 1933 to provide relief to the unemployed but was slow to get started. FERA was designed to work cooperatively with state governments, providing federal grants that could be used to provide work through a diverse variety of programs. When the CWA program shut down in March 1934, FERA continued and expanded many of the projects begun by the CWA. In May 1934 the Lamar Daily News reported that 24 men were working in the park under FERA. Work was still ongoing in September, with a crew working to improve the channel of Willow Creek as well as cleaning and attractively arranging the park grounds.

FERA was mandated to last two years. When it ended in May 1935, it was replaced by the WPA. The WPA absorbed the former FERA public works program, and modified and expanded work relief to become the major source of public jobs for the unemployed during the latter part of the thirties. The main goal of the WPA program was to put the unemployed back to work and off the relief rolls. “Small useful projects” were designed to provide employment for a maximum number of needy “employable” workers in the “shortest time possible.” In January 1936, a WPA project got underway in Willow Creek Park, with approximately 100 men assigned to the project. The project had a WPA budget of $21,500 with a local contribution of $8,500.The project included further flood control work and the construction of the caretaker’s house. The city planned to hire “a caretaker, versed in horticulture, to superintend the care of the beautiful Fairmount cemetery, the Riverside cemetery, the library park, the city playground and Willow Creek Park.” The new building would house the caretaker, thus “providing expert care on the premises for Lamar’s scenic beauty spots.” The Willow Creek Park project was highlighted in the August 1936 issue of The WPA Worker, and the caretaker’s residence was called out as “the most imposing building in the park. Red, brown, gray, white, and cream colored stone has been used at random in the building, so that a distinctive effect has resulted. There is a small conservatory in conjunction with the caretaker’s home for the cultivation and propagation of flowers and shrubs for the park.” The WPA project also included additional landscaping of the park: “In addition to its prime purpose of providing a suitable park for the community of 5,000 persons, the project is giving the town a measure of protection from sand and dust storms, which have been frequent in recent years.” Beyond the park itself, the city also obtained an easement on 280 acres of adjacent land where more than 4,000 cottonwood trees and 6,000 other plants were placed to stop shifting sands. Overall, The WPA Worker considered the park a great success:

There have been planted 400 shade trees, 800 shrubs, 500 evergreens and other foliage. All of the native sage in the area has been left untouched to give a natural effect to the park. The new park gives the city, which is 50 years old, its first easily accessible recreation ground. The municipal government has piped water to the park for irrigation. . . . As many as 100 cars a day visit the park, even though it is not yet complete. Fireplaces, shelters, and picnic facilities have been placed at numerous places in the park.”

On January 2, 1937, the Lamar Daily News summarized the work completed at the park so far:

There are two lily ponds, one 225 by 40 feet and the other 30 by 20 feet. A wading pool measures 30 by 40 feet. There is a chain of five pools with the falls between them and covering 3,000 square feet. Ten fireplaces are placed about Willow Creek Park for the convenience of picnickers. One large fireplace is to be found in the shelter house which is for inclement weather. A Boy Scout kiva has a large fireplace. There is a caretaker’s cottage, which has attracted a great deal of attention. A conservatory with the latest equipment is connected with it. (This refers to the green house attached to the caretaker’s house).

A second WPA project application was submitted in March 1937. It requested a total of $26,447 for additional park work, with $20,805 of the total coming from the WPA and the remainder from the city. Work to be carried out included masonry walls, irrigation, and transplanting saplings upstream from the park to prevent soil erosion and dust blowing into the park. 14,000 saplings were planted on a tract south of Lamar. This also seems to be the project under which Pike’s Tower was constructed (the WPA files for the work in the park are incomplete). In September 1938, the Lamar Daily News reported that the tower was nearly complete. The tower had been the idea of Christy. An amateur historian, Christy had investigated Pike’s journey through Colorado on his way to Pike’s Peak, and came to the conclusion that Pike camped on Willow Creek. Pike’s Tower was built to commemorate what Christy believed to be the location of his campgrounds.

The completion of the Pike’s Tower seems to have marked the completion of New Deal work in the Willow Creek Park. A September 25, 1938 article in the Denver Post reported that the state WPA director of operations had announced that the Lamar park project was virtually complete. The total cost of WPA improvements was placed at $53,493. The park remains a central feature of recreation in Lamar. According to Lamar, Colorado: Its First Hundred Years: 1886-1986, the park “is in use every pleasant day of the year.”

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