Pioneer Park bandstand celebrates a century

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iIt seems like she’s been there forever.

Watching the sycamores grow from saplings. Condoning squirrels scampering on her roof.

Presiding over the ponds, the fountain, the Civil War-era cannon.

Providing a venue for countless concerts, dances — and children who have climbed aboard for a bird’s-eye view of ducks, geese and swans.

The Pioneer Park bandstand has been a grand old lady for 100 years.

So a week from today, the city of Walla Walla and the Kirkman House Museum will host quite a bash for the honoree.

Just as what must have occurred a century ago, residents will gather for an ice cream social and listen to the music of John Philip Sousa — whose band actually came to Walla Walla to perform during the era.

The actual month construction was completed isn’t known, but it’s believed to have been in late summer or early fall. Which is one reason Aug. 23 was chosen as the date for the centennial celebration, said city Parks and Recreation Director Jim Dumont.

The roots of Pioneer Park — known as City Park for its first three decades — date back to 1901 when the City Council set aside the land that once was used as a municipal water source. The 40-acre expanse marked by springs and streams was buried in weeds and grass.

But led by the Park Commission, a high-profile fund-raising campaign and scores of soiled, calloused hands, the property was transformed a few years later into the city’s first park, complete with the northwest hill, trees, flowers and driveways. City Park officially opened in 1908.

Among improvements the following year were a fountain, a small zoo, playground equipment ...

And the bandstand.

It was built by J.F. McLean for $1,250 raised by the Women’s Park Club. (Think $30,000 today.) Author Robert Bennett wrote in one of his Walla Walla history books that the lyre atop the roof of the building was "studded with colored electric lights." The current lyre is a steel replica of the original.

Initially access to the "stage" area was by steps or a ladder through a trapdoor in the floor. In the mid-1900s, the enclosed, ground-level portion — which at one point contained windows — was the office of the city’s parks superintendent.

The bandstand floor has been upgraded and the roof has been reshingled at least once.

But aside from those renovations, repairs due to a fire that damaged the bandstand’s base decades ago, coats of paint added over the years and the addition of the perimeter staircase, the octagonal structure remains virtually as it was constructed.

"It’s got such wonderful craftsmanship," Dumont observed, referring specifically to the dome and shaked sides. "It’s just an amazing facility."

One that held the likes of President William Howard Taft as he spoke to about 12,000 people at a gathering in 1911.

One that survived the threat of demolition in the mid-1940s.

And one that will be saluted next week, and likely to be prized for another hundred years and beyond.

"(Residents) have a wonderful jewel of a park, including the bandstand," Dumont said.

"And I hope it will be remembered well."

If you go
The Pioneer Park bandstand centennial celebration Aug. 23.

3 p.m.
— Performance by the Walla Walla Valley Bands featuring music that would traditionally have been played by music ensembles in 1909, perhaps in the bandstand itself.

Selections will include the "Notre Dame Victory March," which premiered in 1909; "The Fairest of the Fair" that John Philip Sousa composed in 1908 for the Boston Food Fair; "National Emblem March," which was published in 1906 by E.E. Bagley and was Sousa’s favorite march outside of his collection; and "Themes Like Old Times," a medley of popular songs from 1909.

The Kirkman House Museum board of directors will sell homemade ice cream grabbers (ice cream sandwiches made with homemade cookies) to raise funds for the museum’s programs.

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