Doling Park History Project Wants Your Memories

Gail Mitchell, Doling Park historian
Doling Park has been a cultural and societal landmark in Springfield, Missouri, for more than 130 years. Gail Mitchell’s family members owned some of the park rides when it was a celebrated amusement center. Her sister-in-law, June Roberts, played the organ at the skating rink.

“I took my children without having to pay the twenty-five cents per ride,” Gail says.

The park had a reputation for bringing lovers together.

“In the 1880s, names of who was dating whom and where they were seen at the park often landed in the Springfield News-Leader,” Gail says. “In 1916, my future father-in-law, George Mitchell, met his wife-to-be, Hyacinth, at the park.”

Gail is vice-president of Ozarks Genealogical Society. Researching the Mitchell family grew into a 400-page history of the park. The history is in three-ring binders at the Doling Museum as part of the 2016 celebration of the museum's ten-year anniversary. Read on to learn how you can add your memories.
 
The skating rink
Arguably, the most iconic feature of the park was the skating rink, enjoyed by military personnel from nearby Fort Leonard Wood, pre-schoolers, high school graduation celebrants, newbies, wannabe skating greats, and national and international champions. Among the champions was Chris Benda of Springfield, first-place winner in international figure skating in 1959 in New Zealand. She still lives in the Springfield area.

The original stone wall of the skating rink stands at the west end of the museum courtyard. A wrought-iron fence outlines the perimeter of the rink. Two original organs and the record player used at the rink are displayed in the museum, as are cars used in The Wild Mouse, Fun House, and Dodge-Um Cars rides; skating and other memorabilia; videos, photos, and news articles.

African-Americans and the park
African-Americans were part of Doling Park’s history at a time when newspapers used the term colored people. “They were welcome to attend the park,” Gail writes, “but from what I could determine, only for special picnics and reunions.” The Springfield Missouri Republican wrote on August 21, 1889, of one such event (with the article's capitalization):

“There will be a grand assembly and barbecue at Doling Park on Friday, in which all the colored people of Greene county will participate. The line of march will form at Music hall on Friday morning at 9 o’clock, and from there will march to the park, headed by the Springfield Coronet band. Upon arrival at the park there will be a barbecue, followed by speaking. Col. Wade, Hon. J. M. Doling and others will speak.”

An article published the day after the picnic estimated 1,000 people attended.

City turned down a free offer
The forty acres that became the park were purchased in 1852 from the federal government by Alexander Giboney for $60. He raised cattle and grew crops on the land and leased a cave for storing fresh foods. In 1882, he sold the land for $2,500 to James M. Doling who developed it as an amusement park, including creating three lakes (only one lake remains) from a spring in the cave. While clearing the cave to make trails for visitors, crews uncovered Indian artifacts and skeletons of three adults and a child. The skeletons were never identified. During winters, frozen lake water was cut and stored in an ice house in the park. The ice was sold for use in iceboxes and carried to homes and businesses in horse-drawn wagons.

Doling offered to give the park to the City of Springfield and was turned down. In 1907, he sold it to Springfield Amusement Company which added the skating rink and other attractions. Springfield Park Board bought the property in 1929 for $85,000. Terms were $5,000 down and $8,000 per year for ten years. Shortly after the purchase, the skating rink burned. Despite the Depression that hit October 8, 1929, the rink was rebuilt in 1930, and the board completed the contract terms.  

Something for everyone
At its height of popularity in the early 1900s, the park included a dance pavilion, live theater, movie theater, ice cream shop with Missouri’s first waffle cones, bowling alley, paddle boats, canoes, arcade, photo shop, bath houses for swimmers, swimsuits to rent, a roller coaster, merry-go-round, Tilt-a-Whirl, Shoot the Chute boat slide, two bandstands, an Indian Camp, and a baseball field. Map of Doling Park of Yesterday.

Interest in the park dwindled in the 1960s and 1970s, and rides and attractions gradually were removed. The skating rink closed in 1978 and was torn down in 2003.

Springfield-Greene County Park Board ended its annual Fourth of July fireworks display at the park in 1982. "Our concerns were pollution of the lake and traffic complaints from nearby residents," says Dan Kinney, park board director, 1971-2006.

Today, the park has walking trails; Giboney Cave with tours and educational programs by Park Board staff; Doling Family Center (membership required) with fitness and recreation programs and an indoor aquatic facility; the museum; and Northview Center with activities for persons fifty-five and older during weekdays and special events for all ages such as dances, classes, trips, and rentals.

Share your memories
What are your memories of Doling Park? You may add your experiences to the museum's history by writing or dictating. Stories will be archived and shared with visitors. Call Northview Center, 417-837-5808, to participate.  

Gail Mitchell retired after thirty years with the General Council of the Assemblies of God, processing millions of dollars raised by youth for vehicles and communication equipment. In retirement, she became passionate about research after attending a genealogy meeting to see what it was all about.

Photo: Wayne E. Groner

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