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The log cabin at City County Park dries off after a rain-storm that passed over that day. This log cabin was rebuilt as a replica of the cabin built for the park by Richard Brown and several crew members. NewsTribune photo/Lee Strubinger
PRINCETON — A fresh breeze blows through from the south, swirling the scent of fresh budding maple leaves. Park district crews mow the grass, picnic tables get arranged from their winter placement and the soaking wet ground attempts to dry itself — after a long winter, it finally feels like spring.
This was the setting of City County Park a few days after a torrential downpour of rain in North Central Illinois. City County Park is nestled along Route 26, just north of Princeton.
The more than 65-acre park boasts towering oak trees, a gentle weave of gravel and asphalt walkways and several picnic tables.
Anyone who walks through City County Park can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the land, but might not know the history of how the park came to be and who actually takes care of the land.
History Plans for City County Park date back to the 1930s during the Great Depression. According to a historical document written by Eleanor Bauer, it all started when the state highway department required the county highway department to acquire a right of way for state highways.
“When the Princeton-Dixon Road, now known as Route 26, was being built, Robert Shoenberger, County Superintendent of Highways, acquired land for the county along the new route,” the article stated. “The former Princeton-Dixon Road had been on the Red Covered Bridge route but the design called for cutting east of that.”
It was then that Shoenberger began acquiring land for the county necessary to build a road across Bureau Creek at the desired point. He purchased two lots from A.D.F. Simon while the City of Princeton acquired a lot from Marion Matson, all purchased before Dec. 13, 1933. The city and county had a total of 21.5 acres to work with and plenty left over after the bridge was built.
On Dec. 13, the county board passed a resolution directing the leftover property east of the highway be developed into a public park. The resolution authorized the appointment of a five-member committee to work with Princeton City Council to develop the park. Richard M. Brown, city engineer at the time, was given the task of directing development of the park. Brown often is credited for the vision and development of City County Park, a bronze plaque embedded in a rock at the upper level entrance memorializes his efforts. Brown passed away in 1966. When building the park, Brown used materials found on site, creating a log cabin from leftover trees.
“Because these were Depression times, and ‘made work’ was the alternative to... relief handouts, the civil works administration was in operation and the lower level and some of the upper level of the park were equipped with rustic tables, railings and so on through labor paid by the federal government,” the article stated. “The city and county cooperated on development of roads.”
During the park’s first summer, 1934, a survey found the park drew in 1,200 people each week, including large crowds of picnickers every Sunday. This was even before the upper level of the park had been developed.
Roughly 10 years later the park began deteriorating because neither the city nor county supplied funds or maintenance for upkeep. This was due in large part to World War II. Voters approved a proposition in 1946 for the formation of a park district.
Today During the first 25 years of its existence, the park more than doubled in size. From land left over after the right-of-way deal, the acreage has been expanded to 55, of which about 32 acres was gathered by the city and county, and just over 23 had been acquired by Princeton Park District.
City County Park is jointly owned and operated. The Princeton Park District handles redundant upkeep, with both the city and county recognizing their efforts and helping in any way needed.
According to an earlier NewsTribune article, the original log cabin at City County Park was constructed in the mid 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Due to deterioration, the Princeton Park District tore down the cabin in 1998 and completed construction of a new cabin in 1999. Although dedication for the new cabin took place in the fall of 2000, construction was not fully complete.
There were not enough funds to replicate the stone fireplace inside the original cabin. In February 2004, the Princeton Park District Foundation assisted in the construction of a new fireplace by donating funds raised from a second annual wine tasting event — which paid the remaining $4,480 needed for the project.
The park hosts many events, including an organized men’s soccer league and a Civil War re-enactment every October. Jeff Freeman, Princeton Civil War committee member, said the park is the perfect place for the re-enactment.
“If you’ve ever been to this park during that time of year, it is absolutely beautiful. But along with the beauty of this park, there is history,” Freeman said. “Bureau County is rich with Civil War history, and this park is no exception. It is awesome to watch the transformation of this park go from 2013 back to the 1860’s. It’s a very cool experience that I’m proud to be a part of.”
City County Park has quite the story of how it came to be, but the most simple explanation for the park comes from Eleanor Bauer. It’s called City County Park — “because that’s the name of the place, and it would be difficult to find a more descriptive name.”
Lee Strubinger can be reached at (815) 879-5200 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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