September 5, 2013

A Fun-ful History at Riverside Park

  • By: Katherine Flynn
One of two “tall” slides on the Riverside playground manufactured in the early 1900s by the Fun-ful Company. Credit: Michael Bates, batesline.com
One of two “tall” slides on the Riverside playground manufactured in the early 1900s by the Fun-ful Company.

When Riverside Park’s insurance company told park staff that they needed to remove two playground slides dating from the early 1900s for safety reasons, Barbara Beurskens, director of the Independence, Kan. park, knew that she and her team had to find a solution that would keep the metal playscapes in place.

"These are so important to the community," says park staffer Rachel Lyon of the tall slides manufactured by the now-defunct FUN-FUL company.

An antique fire engine, which playground patrons can climb on. Credit: Michael Bates, batesline.com
An antique fire engine, which playground patrons can climb on.

At the time, the slides had nothing underneath them to break potential falls except sand. With help from a Waste Tire Grant from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, as well as manpower from local street crews, Lyon and four others succeeded in shoveling 55 tons of gravel and 26 tons of rubber mulch onto the space beneath the slides.

Aside from the new rubber carpet, Riverside staff have done other work over the years to bring the equipment up to modern-day safety standards, including adding and upgrading safety railings and filling in wide spaces in between the slide steps, easy for a small child to slip through.

Another Fun-ful structure at the park. Credit: Michael Bates, batesline.com
Another Fun-ful structure at the park.

This equipment, though much-loved, makes up just one small part of the historic park. Originally designed by renowned landscape architect George Kessler and built at intervals starting in 1914, Riverside Park eventually gained a monkey island, built by Works Progress Administration workers in the 1930s, as well as a zoo, duck pond, coin-operated carousel and train ride, and band shell. Lyon points out that the zoo has animals from nearly every continent except Antarctica -- including wallabies, emus, macaws, pythons and bobcats -- and that the monkey island houses Capuchin monkeys, known to be more friendly than the Rhesus monkeys that it was originally built for. (The monkey island also features a sign commemorating it as the birthplace of Miss Able, one of the first monkeys in space.)

A ride on the park’s miniature train costs 25 cents. Credit: Michael Bates, batesline.com
A ride on the park’s miniature train costs 25 cents.

“Our goal is to preserve what makes us really special, but still progress and update and stay with the times,” says Lyon. The park and zoo are city-owned and city-run with taxpayer money. An organization called FORPAZ, or Friends of Riverside Park and Zoo, handles outside donations, mostly for additions and renovations. Riverside is constantly teeming with activity, including a summertime Germanfest and 4H Fair, and community concerts in the band shell.

FORPAZ and park staff are always looking for ways to improve the park, including a restructuring and reconfiguring of the playground equipment planned for this spring. The slide units, though, won’t be leaving the playground anytime soon. “We’re keeping those two slide units because they are that special,” Lyon says. “We would be run out on a rail if we tried to get rid of them.”

Katherine Flynn is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

@kateallthetime

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