Kankakee, like many smaller cities across the country, became a “boom town” in the mid-to-late 1940s. Soldiers returning from duty in World War II married and started families, creating a demand for new housing. Industrial firms relocated here, and some local industries and businesses expanded, providing job opportunities.
One effect of the “boom” was an increase in the need for new recreational facilities, such as baseball and softball diamonds, playgrounds, and a public swimming pool. The Kankakee Park Board responded to that need by hiring Harland, Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis to develop a plan for expanding the park system and determining how to finance it.
The plan was unveiled at a meeting of civic, business, and labor leaders on February 12, 1948. Edward P. Drolet, Secretary of the Park Board, told the group, “It is evident that Kankakee has grown a lot in the past few years and will continue to experience growth. That is why the park board thought it necessary to let the public know what these expert city planners think should be done. Now that they have presented their report, it is up to the people to decide what they want to do. The park commissioners will neither delay nor hasten any changes unless the public expresses such an opinion through its votes.”
The opinion of the public would be sought in the form of a referendum on a $650,000 bond issue. If approved, the bond issue would allow the greatest expansion of facilities since the Park Board had been created in 1925.
As reported in the February 13 edition of the Kankakee Daily Journal, the most dramatic of the suggested improvements was “Construction of a municipal swimming pool on the site of the Legion park, located along the east bank of the Kankakee River, just south of Station street.” The community had been without a public swimming facility since 1931, when the Bird Park quarry swimming beach was ordered closed by the state Health Department.
Russell Riley, a representative of the St. Louis firm, told the community leaders at the meeting that the proposed Olympic-sized pool would be large enough to accommodate 1,200 people. He noted that the swimming pool site “was chosen because it was closest to the center of population and was most accessible to the greatest number of people.”
Other projects that would be made possible by funds from the bond issue included a boat harbor at Waterman (now Beckman) Park, completion and equipping of the already-planned Civic Auditorium at Small Memorial Park, development of new parks in the Brookmont, North Side, Hobbie Heights, and Aroma Park areas, and the addition of playgrounds, ballfields, picnic areas, and other features at existing parks.
On Saturday, April 3, voters approved the $650,000 bond issue, and an accompanying increase in the park board’s tax levy, by a 2-to-1 margin. The newspaper account of the voting results noted that the turnout was “the second largest vote ever recorded for a bond issue election here.” (The largest turnout had come in 1947, for a School District 111 bond issue referendum.)
Stanley McBroom, President of the Park Board, issued a statement that “the board will proceed without delay to carry out the work proposed in the park plan.” Slightly more than two years later, on July 18, 1950, the first swimmers dove into Kankakee’s new pool. Three weeks earlier, on June 25, a four-hour celebration on the Kankakee River had marked the opening of the new boat harbor at what is now Beckman Park.
Another major park event was the September 24, 1950, dedication of the Civic Auditorium. That facility was paid for by a combination of private and government funding: more than $75,000 of the building’s $114,400 cost had been raised by the Kankakee Woman’s Club and a public fund drive; the balance was paid with funds from the Park Board bond issue.
In addition to passing the referendum and tax rate increase, the Park Board recorded two other notable events in 1948: expansion of the district’s boundaries to include all of Kankakee and Aroma Townships, and the opening of the Historical and Arts Building (today, the Kankakee County Museum) in Small Memorial Park.
The history of Kankakee’s park system can be traced all the way back to 1900, when the city government acquired its first park, located in the Riverview neighborhood, from landowner Emory Cobb. Originally known as City Park, then Riverview Park, that property is known today as Cobb Park. Over the next dozen years, the city developed several park properties, including West Side (now Alpiner) Park and South Side (now Jeffers) Park.
In 1925, Kankakee voters approved creation of a separate park district with an elected five-member Park Board. The new organization soon expanded its facilities. Pioneer Park on Kankakee’s North Side and Washington Park (a filled-in quarry) were added, and in 1926, the Park Board accepted a 30-acre property donated by businessman Worth W. Bird. In 1931, the former Electric Park amusement grounds located at the eastern end of Cobb Boulevard was acquired and repurposed as Waterman Park.
After completing the major projects made possible by the 1948 bond issue, the Park Board (now Kankakee Valley Park District) continued to expand its holdings. Today, the district operates 33 parks, playgrounds, and “open space” facilities, a downtown “Rec Center” (the former National Guard Armory), the Splash Valley Aquatic Center, the Ice Valley Centre ice arena, a dog park, and a campground.