Q: My wife and I have something we are wondering about: Until recent years, Belleville schools had parades and picnics at the end of each school year. I recall during my childhood that each parade would go through downtown Belleville, followed by a picnic at the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds. However, my wife seems to think the public school picnic was, for a time, at Bellevue Park. Was this ever the case, and, if so, was the parade still downtown?
B.&D. A., of Belleville
A: I’m assuming you are Catholic and had to spend your picnics on the dusty, hot, rocky expanse of the Belle-Clair Fairgrounds.
But if you had been my classmate at Henry Raab and Central Junior High, you, too, could have enjoyed the Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and Mr. Softee trucks on the grassy, tree-lined grounds of Bellevue Park. (OK, it got a little muddy and slippery when it rained, but let’s not think about that.)
I haven’t been able to pin down exactly when District 118 moved the event there. As early as 1869 — decades before Bellevue Park was dedicated in 1922 — the district threw its “May Party” on Eimer Hill, which is near the present-day Roosevelt School.
By the time I entered kindergarten in 1957, however, the annual picnic was firmly entrenched at Bellevue Park. I still remember my mom making sure I was dressed in my best school duds before making my way to Franklin School for the march through downtown. It was an oval route, heading up Second to Main, around the Square and down to Church, over to B and then back to Franklin, where we excitedly would board chartered buses to the park for an afternoon of rides, games and food.
If I remember correctly, we each were given 10 or 20 tickets to use as mad money, as it were. These were the days when schools seemed to have ample money and could offer German classes from the third grade up, sports programs, a full orchestra and band with music instructions from the fourth grade on and a summer program for the gifted. So my classmates and I would while away the late spring day at the park until my dad or brother picked us up in the late afternoon.
At least twice — 1964 and 1975 — I found that the Catholic and public schools had a joint parade. Otherwise, Catholic students would gather at Cathedral Grade School, from where they march up First to Main, around the Square to High and then down High to the Fairgrounds.
But things began to change in the mid-1970s. The final public school picnic in Bellevue Park was in 1974 or 1975 (the BND story didn’t mention a site in 1975). In any case, by 1976, District 118 had moved its celebration to the fairgrounds, too. Eventually, both picnics would relocate to the more forgiving terrain at Hough Park on North Third Street.
That’s where they would have their last hurrahs. On May 21, 2008, the city’s Catholic schools had their 60th and final picnic.
“It’s something that was decided because of concerns over the children’s safety and rising insurance costs,” Joely Landreth, a member of the parade and picnic organizing committee, told us at the time.
The public schools soldiered on for nearly another decade, but they, too, faced rising costs coupled with declining interest. In 2015, for example, the district was sued for $50,000 after a student was hit in the head by a support pole from what was alleged to be a negligently constructed tent. It would also be the final year of the district picnic. Late that year, the district announced that it was scrapping the nearly 160-year tradition because student participation did not justify the expense.
Quite a change from my childhood days when 8,000 children marched through downtown Belleville one year. Here are a few more pieces of public school history you might find interesting:
▪ Jan. 14, 1860 — In response to a great number of tardy students, the board of education voted to require excuses for tardiness. Teachers were required to be in school 15 minutes before students arrived. All students were required to take German unless parents objected.
▪ Nov. 25, 1870 — Henry Niles was employed as the teacher of the “colored” school in the African Methodist Church. The district had 5,678 white students, 101 black. On May 31, 1873, black children had their own picnic.
▪ March 31, 1884 — Parents were informed that children between the ages of 8 and 14 were required to attend school at least 12 weeks each year. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union asked that alcohol not be sold at school picnics. The district agreed to a beer-only rule.
▪ 1887 — In response to the large number of school-age children who worked during the day in local industries, the board considered — and then rejected — the establishment of a night school.
▪ 1892 — Students were required to show proof of vaccinations.
▪ 1895 — Lavatories were installed in several schools.
▪ 1898 — Stereopticon and moving pictures were shown to students at school for 10 cents per student.
▪ 1922 — The first Field Day took place at the ball park at Cleveland and South Illinois
▪ 1944 — The board approved plowing a furrow at Union School to make a skating pond. Ice skating became a part of the physical education program.
Think of the Blues prospects we could have had.
Where was the biggest picnic in history — and just how big was it?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: On Aug. 13, 1942, the animated classic “Bambi” premiered in New York City. Perhaps to generate publicity, Walt Disney allowed the Forest Service to use Bambi in its public ads for fire prevention. But the agreement was only for one year, so on Aug. 9, 1944, the public saw the first poster featuring Smokey Bear, named after “Smokey” Joe Martin, a New York City Fire Department hero who had suffered burns and blindness during a 1922 rescue. The poster depicted Smokey wearing jeans and a hat pouring water on a campfire with the message, “Smokey says —Care will prevent 9 out of 10 forest fires!” The more familiar “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” debuted three years later.