People packed their suppers and walked to this lovely spot long before it was designated as a park. Thousands have thrilled to the music of Marshall's Military Band. Some of us danced of a summer evening, in the old pavilion. And the boat rides. Row boats could be rented and a leisurely trip taken either up or down Soldier Creek, and there was no lack of romance on the waters of that famous little creek. It had its mysteries with it, wanderings and meanderings, its overhanging trees, and in some places strong currents and snags and logs to watch out for.
Or a ride could be taken by a little steam launch down to the mouth of the Soldier where it emptied into the Kaw, and some launches even went out into the Kaw westward toward the iron bridge at Kansas avenue, with a stop at Felitz's Island.
And some of you well remember those ice skating parties, during the winter months, when we could go after school and skate until dark, going east, downstream and under the Three Bridges. Our mothers would let us take wieners and buns, marshmallows and apples, on special occasions, so that we could eat our suppers by the huge bonfires which the boys always built.
There seems to be some mystery about the name of the little creek that runs through Garfield Park. It is a strange little creek, today merely a rippling stream running to the Kaw, tomorrow a raging torrent of muddy water fighting to get out of its high banks. Finding its head many miles away it winds its way through some of the most fertile farm land in the world.
Not the least remarkable thing about this creek is the source of its name. Of all of the creeks and streams in the state there are but two whose names came from unknown sources; they are the Soldier and the Solomon. It seems reasonable that some early trader gave the stream its name due to its erratic character -- when quiet it was called the Dead Soldier, and when running wild, merely the Soldier. Another suggestion -- it may have been named the Soldier because of the soldiers that used to camp on its banks when they passed from Leavenworth, down past Indian Creek, to Indianola and on to Fort Riley.
During the 1930s much work was done on the banks of the Soldier. Curves were straightened, trees and brush cleared out, dikes made higher, all to protect the houses and farms along its route from being flooded. Unfortunately this spoiled some of its natural beauty. And now a huge appropriation is to be spent on making a new bed for the Soldier -- it will be a large drainage ditch, running along at the bottom of the north bluffs of the river, just to the north of North Topeka, thus emptying the waters of the Soldier into the Kaw to the east of the city.
Back in the 1880s, the park was used for a more serious purpose, for meetings of the Chautauqua. The following account tells of the last Chautauqua to be held in Garfield, subsequent sessions were held in Oakland. The Capital of Sunday morning July 8, 1888, has this account:
"The fourth annual session of the Kansas Chautauqua assembly commences Tuesday evening of this week at Garfield Park. The attendance of former years promises to be greatly increased this season. Yesterday, over 300 tents were rented and the applications were still arriving in goodly numbers. Many Topekans will close their homes and tent on the ground, taking their meals there. "The park presents an inviting appearance with its hundreds of white tents spread Under the broad spreading branches of the elms and lindens. The luxuriant bluegrass is not at all dangerous and may be trod on as often as you wish without the harrowing injunction 'Keep off the Grass.' The birds softly sing their welcome to the coming throngs accompanied by the gentle ripple of the waters of Soldier Creek.
"The only ice cream and lemonade stand allowed on the grounds will be situated down by the boat landing and will be under the care of W.J. Davis. There will be one boarding house under the direction of the assembly, supplied with one of the best cooks in the city. The assembly store will keep a full supply of everything in the eating line that those camping will want to use, including ice and fresh milk. By this means the usual noise caused by a multiplicity of refreshment stands will be dispensed with and those who go there to study or rest will be undisturbed.
"The water supply is fine. There are a number of good wells and city hydrants in profusion. The streets will be sprinkled to keep the dust down and everything done to make a pleasant fortnight in the wood with the muses.
"The boating will be fine. A number of new boats have been placed on the water and excursionists may enjoy a ride by steam or be propelled by cars on the quiet waters of the Soldier or the turbulent Kaw.
"The park is connected with the city by telephone, by a double street railway track and by the fleet-footed messengers of the A.D.T.
"The tents are stretched along the avenues named as follows: Logan, Chautauqua, Wilder, Ninde, Young, DeMott, and Frysinger. The grounds are brilliantly lighted at night by Brush electric lights.
"Picnicking parties and persons who go over to spend the day will find a baggage room where they may stow their bundles and baskets during the day. ...
"Horton has 10 tents. Other towns represented are Grantville, Oskaloosa, Corning, Baldwin, Kansas City, Kansas, Phillipsburg, Silver Lake, Wamego, Kansas City, Mo., Chanute, Council Grove, Burlingame, Carbondale and others. ...
"An inquiry was received from Manhattan inquiring if Presbyterians were admitted. The answer returned was, 'Everybody admitted regardless of creed or profession, black or white, bond or free.'
"The session will open Tuesday evening, July 10, with the overture by Marshall's Military Band."
A large wooden building called the Casino, situated close to the creek bank, had a stage across the north end. This building was used for the Chautauqua programs, plays and various community gatherings.
J.W. Hartzell is sometimes referred to as the father of Garfield Park, for he conceived the idea of running buses from 10th and S. Kansas Avenue to the park area at ten cents a trip. This became such a popular ride that Hartzell decided a street railway would be a profitable business venture and, with financial backing, built the first line. There had been a mule-drawn street car previous to this time, the car pulled across the old iron bridge where the Melan now stands, but the end of the line was just one block north of the bridge. The new line built its own bridge for the cars to cross and had wires down the center of the streets, for the trolleys to cling to, giving the street cars the power to move along.
The end of the line in North Topeka was Garfield Park, where there was a loop of tracks, so that the ears could go around this loop and be headed back to the city. On warm summer evenings mischievous boys would lie in wait, and when a car started around the loop, slowing down of necessity, the boys would leap up and pull the rope that fell down at the back of the car and disengage the trolley from the wire. Of course, the car would stop immediately, and the conductor would get out and put the trolley back on the wire to the giggles of the not too well hidden small boys.
An amusement company put various "rides" in the park, but failed, and Marshall's band took possession and added to the amusements. A fine natatorium was built surrounded by a white board fence 10 feet high and with their old clothes, women with "Mother Hubbard" dresses and children with rather less on, would have marvelous swimming parties.
A large boat with a stage was built for a wonderful amateur production of "Pinafore." Many of the most attractive girls and the handsomest boys who could be found trained for weeks for the great event. The night came, the show started with beautiful music and songs, but at the crucial moment something went wrong. With a mighty heave and gurgle, the good ship sank, leaving the brave captain of the "Pinafore" and all of his crew and the accompanying ladies swimming and shrieking in the black waters of the Soldier. Their stage gone, their brilliant uniforms and dresses ruined, the players lost heart and the performance was never completed.