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Rediscovering Roeding Park
(This article appeared in The Fresno Bee's Imagine Fresno magazine. There are two accompanying videos below)
If you've visited Roeding Park in the last few years, chances are it was to go to the Chaffee Zoo, Playland or Storyland. While going to those places is a wonderful thing to do, what about the rest of the park? How much time, if any, did you spend wandering through the remainder of the park's lush acreage, its mature shade trees, ponds and meandering pathways? Aside from the obvious charm of the zoo, Playland and Storyland, Roeding Park has some pretty interesting aspects to it — some of which may soon be gone forever.
To understand the significance of these items, you need to go back to the early days of the park's history. German-born Frederic Christian Roeding was a merchant in Chile who left his business in 1849 to head to San Francisco during the height of the gold rush. He became the organizer of a group of German-born San Franciscans who owned 80,000 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley. The group sold some land to the railroad that established Fresno Station in 1872. In just two years time, Fresno (as it was then called) replaced Millerton as the county seat and the township grew and grew. The German group had been selling off land little by little to enable the town to grow and prosper. Eventually the group divided up the remaining property proportional to their investments. Roeding received 7,000 acres. In 1889, Roeding moved to Fresno, deciding to develop his land. As the city grew, the need for a park became apparent. In 1903, Roeding donated the first 72 acres to the city for use as a public park and Roeding Park was born. Altogether, 159 acres of Roeding's land was eventually transformed into what was to become a favorite community gathering place.
Roeding Park under construction Photo: Fresno Historical Society
In the park today, you can find a large boulder with a bronze plaque on it honoring the gift of the park to the city from Roeding and his wife, dated May 2, 1903. Roeding's son, George C. Roeding, was a horticulturist. He was responsible for the creation of the Calimyrna fig that helped to make Fresno's fig production one of the top in the world at that time. George Roeding's knowledge of plants and love of trees is evident throughout the park. Although Johannes Reimers was the park's landscape artist and the look of the park can be attributed to him, George Roeding directed much of the planning and planting and supplied many of the various trees, shrubs and other plants that were used throughout the park. You can find a bust of George C. Roeding tucked back from the road in a cluster of ivy, next to the Chaffee Zoo office.
Back in the early part of the last century, Roeding Park hosted public concerts, a community Christmas tree, Easter egg hunts, Mother's Day pageants, dances and other public events.
“In the olden days, they used to give boat rides,” says Pete Rocco, park manager. “There used to be a bouncing bridge. It's solid now, but it used to be a cable bridge then.”
The pergola — the vine-covered columned walkway that now seems strangely out of place in the middle of the park — once led visitors to the park's streetcar stop. The Roeding-Fulton line ran people to and from the park from 1912 to 1939 until the proliferation of automobiles made the streetcars obsolete. Today, in the approximate location of the original waiting area stands the Streetcar Shelter picnic area. A marker behind the structure details its history.
The pergola back in the day. Photo: Fresno Historical Society
In 1932, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of our first president, George Washington, Lake Washington was added to the park. This was in the midst of the Depression and the project was funded under Franklin Delano Roosevelt's “New Deal” program, the Works Progress Administration. At the same time, school children raised money for the trees surrounding the lake. The lake was altered when Highway 99 went through, cutting off a large portion of the park — down to 147 acres. There is still a monument with a bust of Washington in front of the lake that has been there since the dedication ceremony in 1932.
The long-lost Japanese Tea House and Gardens were opened on an island in the ponds on the southeast side of the park in 1930 and were accessible by a large curved Japanese-style bridge. A large stone Japanese lantern was imported from Japan and presented to the city by local Japanese-Americans as a symbol of the friendship and cooperation that existed between Japan and the United States in 1939. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the lantern was vandalized and the tea house was eventually demolished.
The long-lost Japanese Tea House Photo: Pop Laval Collection
However, on May 30, 1950, a memorial was unveiled honoring the Japanese-Americans who had served in World War II and given their lives. Names of those Japanese-Americans who served and died in Korea and Vietnam were also added later. The memorial sits in a grove of trees on the far edge of the park near the Golden State Highway about midway through the park. Except for a ceremony every Memorial Day, it seems to be mostly forgotten among the trees.
Similar to the tea house, there are many things that are no longer in the park. There used to be a rose garden southwest of the tennis courts and the Homer E. Wilson Camellia Garden used to border Olive Avenue. The blockhouse from Fort Miller, the military base near the town of Millerton used to sit where the zoo office is today. It was moved to the park in 1944 when the Friant Dam was being constructed. Millerton Lake covers the area the town of Millerton used to be. Next to the blockhouse was a Sherman tank that was used in a Veteran's Day parade in the 1950s and then driven straight to the park, where it sat for years. Both have been moved to other locations.
The 1918 locomotive that sits near Playland was donated by the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1956. Next to it was a boxcar from the historic Merci Train sent by France as a thank-you to the American people for the assistance we gave to them after World War II. The boxcar was often vandalized and was frequently a temporary home to vagrants. Eventually it was moved and restored, and now sits at the American Legion Post 509 at First and Dayton streets.
Playland, Storyland and Chaffee Zoo
This file photo shows Playland as it looked not long after opening. The giant mushrooms are noticeably absent today.
Playland, a child-sized amusement park, opened in 1955 at a cost of $100,000. The rides were 10 cents each and the park was a smashing success. While the core rides have remained the same throughout the years, improvements have been made and more are coming.
“Playland is getting new attractions a yearly basis,” says Barry Falke, executive director of Rotary Storyland and Playland. “Last year we completed nearly $400,000 in projects at Rotary Playland and the largest was adding our 3,500-square-foot splash park, Splash Junction. This year, we will begin construction on a new train station for the park. We are also adding a new birthday pavilion called Baxter Pavilion to take the place of where the teacups once were.”
Storyland debuted in 1962. The enchanting park is where children, with the help of a magic key and a talking story box, can hear short versions of classic fairy tales while riding down slides, wandering through mazes or sitting on the throne of their favorite storybook characters.
“Rotary Storyland exists both to provide affordable entertainment to the Central Valley and to promote literacy among the youth of the Valley,” Falke says. “Storyland is an imaginary world where stories can come to life. This allows children to see that reading can be fun and interactive. In California, prison beds are determined by third-grade reading levels. We are working hard to show children how important reading and literacy are while making it fun, too.”
The attractions in Storyland have remained basically the same for many years, but improvements and changes have been made. Humpty Dumpty and the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe are some of the newer stories children can experience.
The beloved Jack and the Beanstalk slide has been closed for years out of safety concerns. An updated, safer version is in the planning stages.
Storyland's entrance has also received a facelift along the way. No longer do children enter the world of fairy tales by walking through stacks of giant books.
This file photo shows Storyland as it looked not long after opening. The giant books that you "walked into" at the entrance have been replaced by a fairytale-looking town facade.
Instead they are instantly greeted by a fairytale village. And more changes are on the horizon, according to Falke. “We are working hard to make the park more culturally relevant,” he says. “In the master plan, we have a new Native American Village planned and we would like to see more stories added to the park that represent the wonderful mix of ethnicities that we have here in the Central Valley.”
There has been a zoo in Roeding Park since at least the 1920s. One of the earliest surviving records detailing the zoo is from 1923 showing that the city of Placerville wanted to present “Roeding Park Zoo” with two bears. While early reports of the zoo detail it as containing unwanted pets and a few exotic animals, by 1929 it had more than 1,000 animals including many birds, bears, deer, elk, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes and two buffalo.
In 1949 the entire city helped to raise money for a baby elephant. Thousands of children sent in dimes, nickels and pennies. On Sept. 11, 1949, Nosey the elephant made her debut. Nosey was a favorite at the zoo until her death at age 47 in 1993. The zoo was always called Roeding Park Zoo until its name was officially changed to The Fresno Zoo in 1985. Following the death of the zoo's director, Dr. Paul Chaffee, the name was changed to Chaffee Zoological Gardens in 1990. Today, it is simply The Chaffee Zoo. No longer supported by the city, the zoo is now a nonprofit organization.
But it has continued to grow, expand and offer a first-class zoo-going experience. The exhibits and animal areas have been slowly evolving over the years. The Sunda Forest was opened in 2001 and gave the old zoo a whole new look. The former Lisenby Bandstand, built in 1934 but mostly unused for decades, is now home to the zoo's Winged Wonder Bird Show. The Maddis House in the Tropical Rainforest section has been closed for years, but will soon be opening its doors again.
“We've gone in and remodeled,” says Patty Peters, director of marketing and development. “It will be reopening March 7.”
Also returning March 7 through the summer season will be the popular temporary exhibit Stingray Bay. The zoo has plans to grow. Thanks to local voters who approved Measure Z, a small percentage of the local sales tax goes towards the betterment of the zoo.
The master plan for Roeding Park has Playland and Storyland expanding along Lake Washington and into some of the grassy area just north of Storyland. This is an interesting prospect.
“The idea of Storyland and Playland growing in acreage and adding new attractions will only allow us to serve the community in better ways,” Falke says. “Obviously as a nonprofit, the challenge is always to find the money to make it a reality. Most people in our community think that the money for Measure Z comes to Storyland and Playand as well. That is not true. We see zero from the county measure, so any improvements we make must be raised from the community.”
Master plan for Storyland and Playland shows growth for both parks. Much of Playland's growth will be along the bank of Lake Washington.
The master plan has Chaffee Zoo expanding as well. The finalized plans show the zoo moving from its current boundaries all of the way east to Golden State. A new grand entrance to the park will be added on Golden State and additional parking will be installed.
The expansion will also give a place for large animals to openly roam. The implementation of these plans was delayed a bit due to the current economic conditions as well as waiting for the environmental impact results.
The master plan for the zoo shows considerable expansion eastward, a new entrance on Golden State and more parking areas.
“We're at least a year behind,” Peters says.
Another snag is a lawsuit filed by the Roeding heirs. When he initially gave his land to the city for use as a park, Roeding stipulated that the land was to be used solely as a public park and that the property would revert to his heirs if the city failed to maintain it as specified or sold it. With the zoo's expansion, a good portion of the now-public areas would be closed off from public access.
With the exceptions of Playland, Storyland and the zoo, it is true that Roeding Park is underutilized. As the city has grown more and more to the north, Woodward Park has become the recreational and community playground of choice. Things like the horseshoe pits that once welcomed state and national competitions are now rarely used. The physical fitness par course fixtures just sit there. The fishing pond for those aged 13 and under sees few fishermen. The lush trees, ponds, fountain and picnic areas along the south part of the park are not enjoyed as they once were. All of these things will be removed from public access when the zoo's enlargement is complete.
Another feature in the park is the dog area that was opened in 2007. The dog area has proven fairly popular. Mary Yohn and Karen McCafferty are just two of many people who bring their dogs to Roeding Park to play. They are part of a larger group that usually shows up most mornings around 7:30 a.m.
“We like the idea of a dog park where we know most of the people and can trust their dogs,” McCafferty says.
“They get much better exercise here,” Yohn says. “Then they go home and sleep.”
The dog park could be a victim of the zoo expansion. The park does need to be utilized more than it is. Proponents of the expansion hope that the new zoo additions will bring more visitors to the city and the park. Opponents say the park should be left open, as it is, for the people. Like the Japanese Tea House, Fort Miller, the tank, camellia garden and other things, part of the wonder of Roeding Park may be forever altered. If you can, take the time to rediscover Roeding Park. You may find it has far more going for it than you ever realized.
Rediscovering Roeding Park Part 1:
Rediscovering Roeding Park Part 2:
Some photos in the videos from the Pop Laval Collection.