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Genealogy In The Park

While it is tradition to gather for family reunions in park pavilions, we rarely think of the park itself as a genealogical tool. American parks tend to be named either for significant historical figures, such as presidents -- or self-named by a land donor who leaves behind a trail that defines a family beyond the realm of census returns and marriage licenses.


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During the Western Expansion, parks were often part of the town plan and the developer set aside a section of land as a public park. As a family history researcher, look for parks bearing surnames you are researching. You'll likely find the donor was included in local histories. There might be a write-up in the local paper. And there might be other documents commemorating a park dedication or other events that took place there.

If the land was donated to the public, there will be a city or county record of the gift and often some additional reason for the donation. Such donations are typically accompanied by a ribbon-cutting ceremony that would have been documented by local news accounts. Depending on the circumstances, there might have been a commemorative pamphlet or other mementos distributed.

Many of these parks have a plaque bearing the name and date of the park's creation. Sometimes they will give further background about why the park was created. But either way, a plaque will provide a point in history where research can begin other than the beginning and end of a person's existence.

Philanthropic individuals are likely to have been involved with other local ventures. As a result, they have left behind an imprint of who the family was. Their donation may reflect the education and politics or religion of their relatives. They left a profile of their family for generations of researchers who know the key to "reading a park."

Parks with a family history exist in communities all across the nation and reveal so much more than the names and dates on an entrance gate. Kitchell Park in Pana, Illinois, is one such example.

Pana is not a large metropolitan area, and never has been. Tucked away on Illinois State Highway 51 south of Decatur, the population is only about 5,600. It's the kind of town where you expect everyone to know everyone - and everything about them.

But probably few local residents could tell you what the genealogist in you wants to know. Who was Kitchell and why did he give his neighbors a park?

According to local history, John Kitchell had seen greatness and he had seen family sorrow. He chose not to volunteer to fight in the Civil War because of his mother's illness, although he was in Springfield to wave farewell to Abraham Lincoln as left for Washington, D. C., in 1861.

Kitchell was living in Hillsboro, Illinois, at the time and he became a newspaper editor instead of joining up. The newspaper was pro-Union: it was Kitchell's way of participating and keeping his neighbors informed, while attempting to help the cause of Mr. Lincoln's war.

According to military records, when Kitchell was drafted, three years later in 1864, he served a traditional stint in the military. The next time he saw Abraham Lincoln was when Kitchell was assigned as one of the body guards for Lincoln's coffin.

If you visit the Kitchells' gravesite in Rosamond Grove Cemetery, you're likely to guess there might have been some sort of connection to the Great Emancipator. There is a large statue of Abraham Lincoln. Kitchell commissioned Charles J. Mulligan, a student of Lorado Taft, to create this bronze Lincoln statue situated not far from where Kitchell and his wife are buried. It was one of his half-million dollars worth of donations to this little town in the heart of Illinois farmland.

To get to the cemetery just south of Pana, follow the Robert Little Road. A local newspaper account covered the dedication of this four-mile stretch or road. It was built by the Kitchells as the first brick-paved highway in the area. It was named in honor of Col. Robert Little, Mrs. Mary (Little) Kitchell's father.

Research local business ventures and you'll find that after the Civil War, Kitchell amassed a fortune in the Penwell-Kitchell Coal and Mining Co. and Springside Coal Co. Kitchell's land donations did not begin until after 1900, when there was an attempt to break the coal mine unions, pitting local residents against one another.

But all this still leaves unanswered the question as to why Kitchell donated a park in Pana, rather than his native Hillsboro. In simple terms, he moved to Pana in 1866, after marrying, and made his lifelong home.

A more complicated answer could be that perhaps Kitchell was atoning for the strife caused by the strike. He donated the park site eight years after the strike, to the workers and the managers of that historic event. He gave a public park to those who made a living off the farms and mines, both of which were brought him wealth.

Today the aging pavilion in the midst of Kitchell Park conjures visions of chautauquans strolling the grounds and listening raptly to the likes of William Jennings Bryant. The image is not misleading: the park was founded by local resident, John Kitchell, for the express purpose of housing the annual chautauquas of the late 1800's.

Residents pitched their tents in the park and spent their days and evenings reveling in the rare experience of live entertainment. Ephemera collectors still search for postcards bearing ink drawings of the tent encampments in the heart of Kitchell Park during chautauqua season.

Kitchell was an attorney and valued education, so it was only natural that he joined with local residents to form the Pana Chautauqua Association. These "summer schools" for adults complemented the one-room schoolhouse where most of his contemporaries spent less than half of each year they had even attended as children. The rest of their lives had been devoted to working on the farm or in the mines.

When Kitchell donated the land for Kitchell Park to the city of Pana it carried with it the legal stipulation that the chautauqua entrance fee was the only charge that would ever be assessed to those enjoying his park. A large stone and wrought iron gate adorns the entrance, but there are no fences and the park is open and welcoming from all four directions.

Search for chautauqua bulletins still in existence and you will find a number of surnames listed. It took a village to sponsor a chautauqua when the local vicinity would swell with perhaps a thousand or more visitors.

Local residents would open vending booths, offer carriage rides, and serve in the chautauqua kitchen. It provided new revenue in the pockets of the neighbors who relaxed in the park the remaining fifty weeks of the year.

Their names appear in the daily chautauqua bulletins. Also check the local newspapers where they may have advertised services or housing during the events that often ran for a couple of weeks at a time.

It was tradition to send postcards and letters from chautauqua encampments to friends and family at home. Look for correspondence and diaries, often mentioning friends who attended as well as lecturers and entertainers.

Reading a park from a genealogist's point of view is much different than looking at a road map. But there are signposts along the way that offer a treasure of family history - not only of the donor but of visitors over the years.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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