BLOOMINGTON — “How pleasant it is,” mused The Pantagraph of June 26, 1857, “immediately after the noontide hour of a hot summer’s day, to stroll away from the dusty streets of a noisy city, and spend an hour or two in sauntering through a shady park, or in reclining on a soft grassy carpet in the immediate neighborhood of a fountain of clear water.”
The “shady park” in question was Bloomington’s Franklin Square, though in its early years it was far from the verdant leisure ground pictured by that hopeful Pantagraph scribe. Today, Franklin Park (it was first called a square, and over the years “park” and “square” have been used interchangeably) offers one of Bloomington’s most picturesque scenes, but back in the 19th century it often was a bedraggled sight, with neglected, stick-like trees, little grass, muddy open spaces and walkways forever in disrepair.
The park dates to April 26, 1856 when city fathers Judge David Davis, William Allin and William Flagg deeded to the city a 591-by-330 foot undeveloped parcel “as a place of public resort, pastime and recreation, for citizens and strangers forever.” The trio placed several conditions on the donation, such as prohibiting the erection of permanent buildings on the grounds. Most importantly, they required the city to “ornament” and maintain the grounds, with failure to do so resulting in the forfeiture of the land back to the donors or their heirs.
The city, though, dragged its feet when it came to necessary improvements, thus setting the tone for what would become a half century or more of municipal indifference toward Franklin Park. In late August 1857, The Pantagraph ran an open letter signed “Medicus” urging action before title to the land fell back to the donors. “An ounce of ‘caution’ is worth a pound of cure,” noted the frustrated Medicus. “Does anyone take the hint?”
Franklin Park was Bloomington’s first, beating runner-up Miller Park (established in 1887) by 31 years. Located seven blocks northeast of the old county courthouse (now the McLean County Museum of History) and bordered by what would become McLean, Chestnut, Prairie and Walnut streets, some contemporaries believed the park was inconveniently located too far north of town! Interestingly, the park was named for Bloomington Mayor Franklin Price, though why it wasn’t called Price Park instead is unknown.
At the Aug. 24, 1883 city council meeting, a petition headed by Judge Davis and signed by more than 100 of the “wealthiest and best citizens” called for renewed attention to the park. The Pantagraph wholeheartedly concurred, noting the grounds had been “shamefully neglected” over the years, and “in many spots the weeds have overpowered the grass, and the trees have become shaggy and broken.”
Despite the park’s often-ragged condition, some of the city’s leading citizens, including Illinois Gov. Joseph “Private Joe” Fifer and U.S. Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson I, built or moved into stately residences lining the “square.” And members of the Funk family had four homes constructed on its south side. Many of the houses date to the Victorian Era and represent a wide variety of styles, including Italianate, Queen Anne and Georgian Revival. Furthermore, Franklin Park quickly became an invaluable public space for recreational, social and political activities, ranging from church picnics to electioneering torchlight parades.
In early April 1890, W.L. Evans, one of the three park commissioners, acknowledged the less-than-ideal appearance of the grounds. Evans said the park “has been left in the rough since it was laid out and now bears the marks of neglect.” He called for $1,000 to $1,500 in long-overdue improvements, though likely knowing he’d be lucky to get half that amount given the city council’s miserly ways.
A month later, The Pantagraph cheered a $400 city appropriation, most of which was for the laying of brick walkways so one could take a stroll “without destroying the turf.” As it was, the park grounds had become little more than a “sea of mud.”
Fortunately better days lay ahead. In 1976 the park and the nearby residences were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and three years later the neighborhood was designated a local historic district. In the spring of 1989 the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission and the State of Illinois erected a marker to Franklin Square on the park’s north side.
Today, the park is known for its mature trees and simple beauty, unadorned as it is without much of the brick-a-brac (such as brightly colored plastic playground equipment) common to newer parks. Franklin Park still retains much if its 19th century character, minus, thankfully, the “sea of mud.”