Answer Man

How the ups and downs of 1900s Belleville park was its undoing

At one point in its history, Priester’s Park in west Belleville had popular fishing lakes for visitors to use.
At one point in its history, Priester’s Park in west Belleville had popular fishing lakes for visitors to use.

Q. The centennial observance of the horrendous 1917 East St. Louis race riot occurs (this) year. The alibi defense of the principal African-American charged in the aftermath involved his transport of several people from East St. Louis to a place called “White City, formerly called Priester’s Park” in west Belleville. My questions: The National Amusement Park Historical Association website lists the park as “blacks only/nothing known.” Why? Also, the site lists 27 other White City amusement parks in 17 states, apparently originating from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Was Chicago once referred to as White City? If so, why was the nickname switched to Windy City?

Milton Wharton, of Belleville

A: With apologies to Samuel Coleridge: In 1899, did Frank M. Priester a stately pleasure park decree. Situated on 88 acres near what today is roughly 6000 W. Main St., it was perhaps envisioned as Belleville’s answer to Forest Park in St. Louis, a relaxing escape for city residents.

But the good times were short-lived. Within 15 years, Priester had tried a number of approaches to make the park a thriving enterprise, all ultimately failing despite a race track, roller coaster and movie theater. In 1914 he threw in the towel and sold out to East St. Louis investors, who struggled for a couple of more years before the Catholic church took it off their hands in 1919. What was envisioned as a pastoral retreat for fun seekers would become the home of pastoral training at the now long-defunct St. Henry’s Prep Seminary.

As to why the NAPHA site would list it as “blacks only,” I cannot say. Organization members I’ve contacted haven’t a clue, and area historians say nothing could be farther from reality. Perhaps someone noted the East St. Louis connection, even though the city was about 85 percent white in 1917.

“Absolutely, it was not blacks only,” Belleville Historical Society historian Bob Brunkow told me. “My references only refer to white people and groups attending.”

I doubt Priester, a 46-year-old German immigrant, had envisioned it any other way when he announced plans for the park in January 1899. At that time, the area was situated in Lenz Station, four miles west of Belleville proper. The sprawling tract would have baseball, football, golf, tennis and cricket fields along with gymnastic apparatus, bowling alleys, dancing pavilion, rifle range, and a restaurant.

“Everything calculated to make the park the most thoroughly equipped and pleasant resort in St. Clair County has been provided for, including a large lake for fishing and boating,” according to a front-page story in the Jan. 20, 1899, Belleville Daily Advocate. “The entire place will be lighted with electric lights (powered by an on-site generator). Belleville societies and clubs will be royally entertained whenever they go there.”

The serenity did not last long. In 1902, a bolt of lightning sparked a fire that destroyed a barn, bowling alleys and pavilion. Tragedy struck again three years later when two St. Louis men drowned.

By the fall of 1905, Priester already was eager to try something different, so on Nov. 3, he announced his plan to turn the amusement park into Priester’s Park Driving and Country Club open to members only. In addition to all of the previous attractions, Priester spent another $20,000 to build a half-mile driving track for horse and auto races. The idea was to make the club, valued at $100,000 (perhaps $3 million in today’s money), a “popular place for gentlemen who appreciate true sportsmanship” while also providing special days for women and children. By the following spring, memberships numbered 650 with another 212 offered.

The new concept had its informal opening on May 12, 1906.

“A tour of the park and inspection of the buildings will be a pleasant surprise to the admirers of comfort, nature and all that goes to make life worth the living,” the Advocate gushed.

The bar, for example, featured an extensive buffet served in elegant surroundings with 16th century trappings. Also new were private club rooms for both men and women, four private dining rooms in Priester’s own on-site home — and a hotel.

“There can be no question but that the preserves of the club are the most spacious, up-to-date and finest equipped in the Central West,” the Advocate writer concluded.

But all the gold and glitter could not buy the club’s success. In the fall of 1907, another fire left $45,000 in damage, prompting another change of plans for Priester. On April 8, 1908, several thousand people enjoyed riding the 2,000-foot roller coaster at what was now called Priester’s White City, where admission was 10 cents to all. Tickets included the lastest rage — a motion picture theater.

As you noted in your email, White City had become a popular name for amusement parks in not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom and Australia. It was inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which attracted some 26 million visitors. Founders of the fair pictured it as the beginning of a classical renaissance with its white stucco buildings lit by street lamps, prompting those who saw it to dub it “White City.” When new amusement parks became the rage at the turn of the century, many were called White City in tribute. I don’t think, however, Chicago itself was ever known as White City. As early as 1876, Chicago newspapers often referred to the “Windy City” in headlines, long before the world’s fair.

Neither the new name nor new events like motorcycle races could save Priester’s dream. By 1913, he was embroiled in lawsuits with Star Brewery, from whom he leased land for the park. Priester eventually was awarded roughly $10,000 in damages in two suits. He soon sold the park, but it had even less success in the hands of Peter Schwartz. In July 1917, Belleville ordered the park closed when a sheriff’s deputy was slugged while trying to calm an unruly patron. The closure was rescinded the next month, but the city ordered that while liquor and music would be allowed, dancing would be verboten, adding to the park’s miseries.

For a time in 1916, Belleville discussed buying the place for its first city park, and organizations began donating money. But the West Side Improvement Association claimed it was too far from town and would turn into a costly boondoggle, so the idea died. Finally in 1919, the park’s roller coaster history came to an end when Bishop Henry Althoff bought the park for educational purposes. To celebrate New Year’s Day 1925, Althoff announced that the Oblate Fathers of Mary would establish a Misson and Retreat House on the property. On Oct. 4, 1926, St. Henry Prep Seminary welcomed 13 students through its doors, the first of nearly 3,000 who would study there until it, too, closed in May 1984.

Today’s trivia

According to a new study, how much space do pandas prefer having in the wild?

Answer to Sunday’s trivia: In 1962, jousting became the first official state sport of Maryland, cementing a tradition that dates back to the state’s earliest days. Even today, the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association continues to thrive (marylandjousting.com).

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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