Crane Park and Lyman Park are among the most common sites for large public gatherings, but St. Helenans also cherish their neighborhood parks as peaceful places to relax, play or enjoy a picnic.
In this article, Mariam Hansen, research director for the St. Helena Historical Society, looks back at the origins of three of those parks and at the people who made them happen.
Lewis Station Park
Lewis Station Park came about as a community project with land offered by Rosa Lee Lewis next to her home on Church Street.
Rosa Lee was born in South Carolina in 1894. She moved to St. Helena in 1962 and bought her property on Church Street from Lavant Wood. The St. Helena Chamber of Commerce Beautification Committee wanted to add more parks to our town. The effort was led by Jean Michels.
The City Council approved the proposed new park in March 1971 after the Chamber offered to create the park and maintain it for two years. Ken Granger appeared before the council and said Lewis had offered the land for beautification. Norm Manzer introduced Ms. Lewis at the Chamber of Commerce dinner in January 1974, saying that she wanted her land to be a park. Southern Pacific Railroad donated an odd sliver of land.
The park was funded by the contributions from residents. Landscape architect Jack Chandler designed and donated the plans. Donations of labor and materials contributed to making the project a true citizen’s park: such as Gene Graff, who did the plumbing. At last the community work party was held on April 3, 1975. Under the leadership of Nell Neil and Jean Michels, volunteers built the park, including the Rutherford 4H, Dr. George Clark and Doyle Taylor. Jack Porterfield donated an antique railroad track switch.
At a dedication ceremony in October 1975, Lewis cut the ribbon, opening the park with the help of Jean Michels. Councilman Mel Varrelman accepted the park on behalf of the city as Mayor Greta Ericson could not attend. A few years later, carver Bob Zagar created a beautiful wood sign for the park saying “Lewis Station Park,” which is no longer there. Sadly, the park has a well-worn look today.
Lewis sold her home to the Lopez family in 1989 and moved to Oakland,where she died a year later. She is buried in St. Helena Cemetery.
Starr Baldwin Park
Many people pass by the passive pocket park on Spring Street with hardly a notice. There is no sign.
The park is named for longtime St. Helena Star editor Edward Starr Baldwin. He began working for his mother, Lola, who was publisher/editor of the Star, in 1934. He inherited the paper in 1963 and continued until his death in 1984. Baldwin was synonymous with the Star — omnipresent at all community events with his camera.
In 1980 developer Edward Wallis bought a previous owner’s housing project on Mitchell Drive. Wallis’ St. Helena Park project included 120 units, of which 36 were in the initial phase. The project included space for a park dedicated to the city, but built and maintained for a time by the developer. The project’s second phase required the developer to build the park or pay a park fee.
The St. Helena Planning Commission chose the name “Starr Baldwin Park” in 1980 before the park was built. Completion was delayed when the original developer went bankrupt and Noyer Wally Real Estate Development of Corte Madera bought the land from the bank. Noyer Wally proposed to develop a turnkey park with landscaping, benches and trees. The city asked for specific information on the types of trees and ground cover.
In March 1989 the Planning Commission approved the park plans. Neighbors were concerned about nighttime lighting shining on their homes. They also wanted crushed granite pathways to deter skateboarders and wanted the park design to consider possible Spring Creek flooding. Picnic tables were banned because they could attract tourists, but a drinking fountain and benches were included.
Just as the City Council was to approve the park, some residents petitioned the council to include a toddler playground. This sent the plans back to the Planning Commission for more hearings. The Parks and Recreation Commission decided not to include a toddler playground because it would be noisy and the park was to be a passive park. A sandbox was nixed due to feral cats. Noyer Wally agreed to pay into the city’s recreation fund instead.
The council finally approved Starr Baldwin Park in October 1989 and the park opened on Nov. 4, 1989, with a ribbon-cutting by Mayor John Aquila.
Today Starr Baldwin Park is a quiet passive park. The St. Helena Beautification Foundation planted many of the trees. There are picnic tables with nary a tourist in sight. The paths are asphalt and several memorial benches line them.
Mary Elizabeth Fryer Park
Mary Elizabeth Fryer was the chairman (a term she insisted on) of the St. Helena Planning Commission from 1978 to 1994. Fryer was legendary for her blunt comments and compelling personality. She brought a wealth of experience to zoning and city issues to her post.
In April 1991 the council approved a 40-home development on Mitchell Drive. The homes could not be occupied until a signal was built at the intersection of Main, Mitchell and Pope. The future park was part of this plan.
In March 1993 some residents claimed the playground at the park would be too dangerous because it was under a power line. At the time electromagnetic fields were feared to cause cancer. After being told the field was less than that of an electric can opener, the council proceeded.
Construction of the houses began in December 1992. St. Helena entered a period of low rainfall and by fall 1994 had to cut back on the lawns at the Wallis park and Starr Baldwin Park.
In October 1994 the City Council voted to name the park after Fryer in appreciation of her years as member and chairman of the Planning Commission. She held that office during the entire Wallis development process.
On July 3, 1995, Mary Elizabeth Fryer Park on Mitchell Drive was dedicated and given to the city. Fryer promised, in her usual no-nonsense way, to make the formal part of the event “short and sweet.”
Edward and Marilyn Wallis placed a bronze plaque at the entrance to the park. It reads, “Mary Elizabeth Fryer Park — Donated to the City of St. Helena by Marilyn and Edward Wallis and the families of Ann Milton Wallis December 1994.”
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Mariam Hansen is research director at St. Helena Historical Society. She can be reached at [email protected]
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