When Parks Were a New Idea

Amy Nesbit at Cushman Park, four miles west of Lincoln, 1895. RG716-21-8

Should cities and states set aside some land for public recreation? Today that seems like an obvious amenity, but 19th century Nebraskans had to be talked into it. Parks don’t seem necessary when you’re living on the frontier. The growing emphasis on parks showed how Nebraska was changing—and not just in the cities.

On August 2, 1888, the Lincoln Daily Call called for the formation of a “state park,” which would be maintained by state funds: “The Call believes that the suggestion made by a thoughtful and widely informed citizen of Lincoln, that Nebraska secure and improve a state park is a good one. Kings and emperors and even wealthy private citizens have their parks. Cities have their parks. The United States has its national park [Yellowstone]. If these are good investments, why should not a fine park owned and maintained by the state be a credit to Nebraska and an object of pride and satisfaction to her citizens?

“Such a park would furnish the means of preserving specimens of the natural products of the state in both the vegetable and animal kingdoms. It would furnish a magnificent place of resort for the people who love to look nature in the face when she has laid aside her utilitarian guise and adorned herself in the garments of beauty and repose. There is too little of rest and too much of rush and worry in the great west. There is too much cultivation of the basely profitable and too little development of the higher phases of life. The state could make no better investment than to purchase about four sections of picturesque bluff land in some suitable location….”

Today it seems quaint that the Call thought that a single state park would do the job, but such a limited request shows how radical the idea was at the time. Many taxpayers would not want to pay for such luxury.

Historically, public parks are a relatively new idea, and they became a bigger deal as the Industrial Revolution led to ever-larger cities and transformed landscapes. In 1899 the Omaha Board of Park Commissioners sought advice from a professional named H. W. S. Cleveland, the designer of Minneapolis’s park-and-boulevard system. The Omaha Bee published Cleveland’s report. He advised Omahans to think ahead: “With free access to open fields and woods within a mile or two, we think of parks only as luxuries, but when the distance is so increased that a day must be devoted to the journey in order to secure the boon of green fields and fresh air, the sense of confinement becomes stifling and we mourn the folly which prevented us from foreseeing and providing for the certain want.”

Like good schools and libraries, good parks became points of civic pride in large and small towns alike. But the notion of state parks took time to catch on. Nebraska’s first state park is Chadron State Park, founded in 1921.

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