When I was a youngster, about 11 or 12, the families who lived in the Elzea Addition area of Hannibal, Missouri, gathered together to turn an overgrown field west of Lindell Avenue at Clark Street into a neighborhood park named Camery Field.
The firebrand behind the project was Mildred “Mickey” McGowan, sister to my Uncle, Joe Hoffman. Or, maybe I just thought she was the firebrand because I admired her so much. Many neighbors were key to its successful launch, including her husband, J.D.McGowan, a man with many helpful connections.
But, Mickey was our back door neighbor. Our back yards were just across the alley, and sometimes she would come to the fence and offer me and my siblings a sweet snack she seemed to have “too much of, and thought maybe we could help her out.” That made her special, and a lifetime heart-warming memory.
In those days Hannibal’s only parks were Riverview, Central, Nipper, and playgrounds at each of the grade schools. There was no playground equipment at the city parks and there were no other neighborhood parks. Clippings from the Hannibal Courier Post newspaper, and photos taken by Mickey and J.D. McGowan (provided by their son, Wes McGowan of Hannibal) give us a glimpse into the lifetime of the playground.
Elzea Addition Association
Concerned that Elzea Addition children had to cross three sets of busy railroad tracks to play on the nearest playground at Eugene Field School, a mile away, the neighbors joined together to create a playground in their own neighborhood. Their efforts resulted in a park that served Hannibal for nearly 20 years, and was widely used by companies and organizations throughout Hannibal for picnics and socials.
In 1956 the community playground was created by the Elzea Addition Playground Association. Mrs. Mildred McGowan, Carl Jurgens, Mrs. John Honson, and Mrs Helen Rupp were the first officers. The playground was created on land directly across the street from “Mickey” and J.D. McGowan’s house on Lindell Avenue.
Mary Camery Spence
The land was the site of the former Camery Coal Yard, and owned by Mary Camery Spence. Mrs Spence leased the land to the Playground Association for $10 for a ten year lease (which she donated back to the Association).
In part, the lease agreement read, “It is agreed by the parties hereto that said second party may continue to use said lands without any rental charge, therefore, that the parties of the second part shall keep said premises in a clean condition, free from weeds, filth or any nuisance and comply with all city regulations and orders affecting said premises.”
Clearing the Land
Fourteen families met in January, 1956 to begin clearing brush and small trees.
The neighbors started gathering on weekends to clear the large area of trees and brush, and it was decided to completely clear the lot next to Lindell Avenue, and leave the trees on the acreage bordering Mills Creek to keep it as a wooded picnic area.
Easter 1956 – Egg Hunt in the partially cleared wooded area near the rear of Camery Field paralleling Mills creek. The trees would later be whitewashed to “brighten” them.
A concrete pad was poured on a small part of the picnic area, and a large concrete block fireplace was built. Several large skillets and stock pots could be heated at the same time. Picnic tables were scattered under the canopied and white-washed trees nearby.
On Saturdays, when our extended family of Eugene and Marjorie Vaughn, Joe and Betty Hoffman, Wallace and Nellie White, Tony and Nona White, and all the children, gathered to work, my great-grandmother Nona “Mom” White would cook up whatever food the families brought with them for lunch.
So, the meal was usually a combination of breakfast and lunch food that kept us coming back whenever we needed a break, to snack, or visit with all the neighbors. It was also the site of my first cup of coffee. “Mom” White slipped me a cup of my own on one chilly morning while my parents were busy elsewhere. It was probably mostly cream and sugar, but I felt really special. I didn’t mind working hard all day along with the other “men.” Thanks, Mom White!
A Park Evolves
The first swings were installed on a framework built with bridge ties donated by CB&Q Railroad. The structure is in the center of the photo.
Colorized from left: Pamela Vaughn and Chris Hoffman
A 1923 American-LaFrance fire truck was given to the playground association by the city, which was proudly displayed toward the front of the park, and ten of the neighborhood men donated their time to build a shelter for it. The fire truck was used as an attraction in many Hannibal parades, with a celebrity riding in the passenger seat. Notice the antiquated wooden spoked wheels.
Playground equipment eventually included monkey bars, swings, a merry-go-round, slides, a swinging gate, May pole, and sandbox. Other features included a volleyball court, ping pong tables, tether ball, badminton and basketball courts and a softball diamond.
Colorized from left: Pamela Vaughn, Chris Hoffman and Lawrence Vaughn on the seesaw, and Betty Hoffman.
Pamela Sue Vaughn at swing rings & Christopher Hoffman on the seesaw
Soon, the playground was also equipped with a great flat area for playing marbles. Sometimes there would be a dozen of us all crowded around a huge circle that required us to use our heaviest shooters to have any chance to knock a marble out!
Officials at the Dedication Service were (L-R) Mildred McGowan, J.D. McGowan, Rev. Billy Heriford, John Johnson, and Floyd Webster
Rev. Billy Heriford led the attendees in a reverent moment of gratitude for the blessing this playground was becoming and would be for many years.
Clamshells and Caretakers
I also remember a railroad spur that ended within a few feet of the playground. Formerly a spur of the St. Louis & Hannibal Railroad, it was then operated by CB&Q RR. Often there was a railroad hopper spotted there that was loaded with thousands of clam shells. The hoppers sometimes smelled to high Heaven with the odor of rotting fish. Fortunately, the hot summer sun made quick work of neutralizing the offending stench.
The shells were for a local button maker, Joe Vaughn, who had turned his garage into a small button factory. The creek behind the garage was splendidly appealing to us boys because of the shiny clamshells with button holes punched in them. A really exciting find was one that had errors where the punch didn’t go all the way through.
The siding, where his railcar was spotted, used to have a scale and scale house in years past, a small shed on the other side of the track, and the ground underfoot crunched as you walked over millions of tiny bits of coal. There was a scary old German man we called Sharkey that lived in the little two-room scale house who ran us back into the playground when we ventured too far and tried to play on the railroad car. It seems the only time he was outside that little shack was when we were in trouble.
We didn’t know anyone who knew him, but we were pretty sure we shouldn’t mess with him. I always kept a wary eye on that shack as I scooted along the sidewalk to and from school. I learned, years later, that he was Mrs. Spence’s caretaker and was allowed to live in the scale house as part of his compensation. Eventually, the track was taken up, and the lot cleared off.
Colorized L-R: Chris Hoffman, Betty Hoffman, J.D. McGowan
A Camery Christmas
The park became the site of elaborate Christmas displays and Easter egg hunts, as well as company and church picnics. To mark the Christmas season, members of the Playground Association erected a life-like Nativity scene. it featured life-size mannequins pieced together from donations by local merchants. Native lumber slabs formed the stable and manger, and a star was placed in the background above the stable.
Full size nativity scene, using mannequins. Photos contributed by Bruce Hoffman
The members also decorated a 30-foot tree with more than 200 colored lights. A replica of Santa also traditionally smiled at passers-by from beneath the shelter house. Another Christmas feature included letters from Santa. A mailbox was placed on the playground near the Nativity scene, and all letters addressed to Santa were answered by members of the Association.
The·equipment was dismantled in the mld-1970s due to a lack of interest in maintaining the park, since the city of Hannibal had starting developing their own neighborhood parks. The fire truck was returned to the city. The playground and field is now occupied by an eyesore commercial building, by comparison, with heavy equipment scattered around the dusty gravelled lot. The area back by the creek is once again overgrown with brush.
It is sad when those things that gave us such precious memories fade away, but, the memories are precious enough to be passed on. And, the folks who made Camery Field possible leave behind the legacy that became city sponsored playgrounds in neighborhoods where children can safely learn through playing, and just be kids.