Answer Man

Here is the history behind South Side Park in Belleville

In this BND file photo, 3-year-old Pedro Martinez gets help casting from his mother, Dana Martinez, of Belleville, as 4-year-old Maddex Hankins checks his line, May 21, 2012, at South Side Park in Belleville.
In this BND file photo, 3-year-old Pedro Martinez gets help casting from his mother, Dana Martinez, of Belleville, as 4-year-old Maddex Hankins checks his line, May 21, 2012, at South Side Park in Belleville. dholtmann@bnd.com

Q: While watching them raze the old clubhouse at South Side Park in Belleville, I began to wonder about the park’s history. How did it start? Who has jurisdiction over it today? The city? Lindenwood University? And what happened to the trophies, etc., won by all those great City Softball League teams that were kept inside the clubhouse?

Bob, of Belleville

A: Belleville residents were just recovering from ringing in 1924 when this small item greeted them on the front page of the Jan. 4 Daily Advocate: A new civic organization calling itself the South Side Improvement Association had met for the first time the previous evening with the goal of boosting the south end of the city.

Led by President Herb Baum, John Dintelmann and Joe Tenenbaum, the group, which boasted 24 charter members, was granted its not-for-profit incorporation status from the state within a month. Over the next 90-plus years, it would involve itself in projects ranging from lobbying for new sidewalks and bridges over Richland Creek to treating area gourmands to its classic turtle soup.

But for its first major project, it began working to turn what had become a derelict tract of land into what is today a scenic recreation area.

In the 1880s, South Side Park was the site of the Waugh Nail/Steel Mill and the home of the Waugh Mill, Union and O.K. baseball clubs. When the plant closed, the land reverted to the city, but although the ground was tilled periodically after that, “its chief fruits were weeds and brush,” according to the July 31, 1925, Daily Advocate.

The association quickly began to turn the dump into a park the city could be proud of. First, it asked that the land be placed under the city park board’s jurisdiction, pledging both labor and financial support for the reclamation project. Volunteers began clearing out the vegetation. In August 1924, city leaders, including Mayor Joseph Anton, and other civic organizations raised $162 ($2,300 today) to further clear a part of the tract so that a crude baseball diamond could be put in.

Just three weeks later, area residents were invited to watch the South Side Married Men take on the Belleville Orioles during the field’s inaugural baseball game at 9 a.m. Aug. 24. The Daily Advocate expected the Married Men to hit the sack early the night before so the South Siders could give their foes “a good trimming” in the meeting “of some of the best baseball timber in the city.”

The association, however, was just getting started. With a $550 grant from the city’s park board to complete the diamond, the association invited city residents back the following Aug. 2 for the dedication of the city’s new 61/2-acre park. Speeches and, of course, a baseball game between Stookey Township and Side Side topped the activities followed by the association’s second annual picnic nearby on what was commonly known as Eimer’s Hill.

Two years later, the association was at it again when 20 volunteers poured the concrete foundation for what would become a neighborhood fixture — the meeting hall. Although the building, like the park, was technically city property, the association, for its sweat equity, was granted its use as a team clubhouse. On Jan. 29, the public was invited in for the first time to see the new structure and try their hand at a game of euchre or pinochle. The following July 22, a large crowd turned out for a parade, baseball game and other festivities to officially dedicate the new building.

“As a boy, I well remember when this whole section was covered with high weeds and was shunned by everybody,” H.C.G. Schrader, chairman of the city’s park board, told the crowd. “Do you realize that it was the good fellowship and co-operation of you men and women, spurred with a desire to do something for your community and imbued with the proper public spirit to make this a better place to live, that has given you this beautiful park?”

In the ’60s, I frequently would bike to the park to watch those hotly contested City Softball League matches, for which fans would fill the bleachers and line South 6th Street in their lawn chairs. As you note, the teams’ trophies piled up inside the clubhouse.

But the city league has been gone since 2003, and, now, the clubhouse is history, too. The days when the late softball wizard Eddie “the King” Feigner would hold court with his traveling four-man team are but a memory. Fortunately, all of that treasured hardware from those many years has presumably found good homes.

“Each team was notified,” Terry Conard, who heads the league’s Hall of Fame Committee, told me. “Most of the awards in there were from the Fairview Merchants, the South Side team and the Eager Beavers. So it all went to the guys whom we contacted with each team, and whatever they did with them, I have no idea.”

In addition, the two plaques which list the City Softball League Hall of Fame’s current 63 inductees — including such standouts as Rick Sieben, Ron Steen and Mike Hopkins — are now on permanent display at the downtown Papa Vito’s. Conard currently is planning this year’s hall of fame induction ceremony and reunion in May, but knows next year may be the last because the league has been defunct so long. He says he intends to keep the league’s reunions going (“the stories get longer and better,” he jokes) and is glad the Lindenwood women now are making use of the city park’s field, but he obviously is still grieving the death of the once thriving league.

“It’s just a sad, sad thing, because we had some very competitive teams,” Conard said. “It was the best form of cheap entertainment. You could go inside of the South Side hall and have a refreshment. It was great entertainment, but unfortunately it came to an end.”

Today’s trivia

Where would you go to see what is often called the “Kentucky Derby of Bicycle Racing”?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Out of 172 countries ranked for most traffic fatalities per 100,000 population, Iran tops the list with 43.54 per year, followed by Iraq, Venezuela, Guyana and Libya, according to 2014 statistics by the World Health Organization. Russia came in 92nd at 16.42 while the U.S. showed up at 131 with 9.99. Norway and Sweden were 170 and 171 (no wonder President Trump wants more Scandinavians coming here) while the Maldives came in last (or first, depending on your perspective) at 1.05 — or just four deaths based on a population of about 380,000.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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