A walk around Petaluma’s Wickersham and McNear Parks
Connected by a half-mile strip of G Street, Petaluma’s McNear and Wickersham Parks represent two different visions from Petaluma’s past, one that viewed parks as a place for recreation, play and sports, the other as a place for quiet reflection and relaxation among trees and flowers.
“These two parks definitely show divergent ideas about what a park can or should be,” says historian Katherine Rinehart, recently retired after years as manager of the Sonoma County Library’s History and Genealogy collection.
On a sunny Tuesday morning, McNear Park - a historic ?2.9-acre splash of green, with a large playground and an assortment of sports facilities at the corner of G Street and Eighth Street - is hosting a fair number of visitors, even though school is in session and attendance is light when compared to the average weekend. The tennis courts are fully occupied, half-a-dozen dogs and their humans are at play on the lawn, a solitary book-lover is reading in the shade at a picnic table under a cluster of trees, and couple of dozen kids, with stroller-pushing guardians, are gleefully shrieking and whooping in and out of the playgrounds’ various jungle gyms, slides and swing sets.
“It’s one of Petaluma’s nicest parks,” notes Rinehart, “but I think a lot of people don’t really know very much about its history. Obviously, to me, the historical part is the interesting thing about this place, and Wickersham Park, which really is a very different kind of park.”
Presented by George McNear as a gift to the city in 1929, McNear Park - named for his father John A. McNear - was established as a celebration of the younger McNear’s 50th year in business. That milestone was marked by a pair of articles in the Argus-Courier, one of which officially announced McNear’s intention of donating the parcel of land to the city. According to another article, the following day, the announcement inspired large numbers of residents to flock to the then-undeveloped slab of ground for a spontaneous celebration of the park-to-be.
“One citizen,” the paper stated, “who has lived here for years was heard to say that he had always regarded the two blocks as among the finest property in this city owing to their splendid location and he expressed the opinion that a finer spot for a recreation ground and playground could not be found. There are no railroad tracks or river to cross, and it is away from the through traffic of the highways. It is sheltered by the hills which form a splendid background and it seems as if nature had laid the land down at that spot, just for the purpose for which it will now be used.”
“I love that quote,” says Rinehart. “It really says a lot about how people saw this property, and how special it was that it would become a place for the people of Petaluma to gather together.”
At the time, she points out, the park was viewed as being way out on the south edge of town. Being essentially a vacant lot, it was occasionally employed as grounds for a travelling circuses, tent revivals and “camp meetings.” The famous horticulturalist Joh McLaren, superintendent of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was brought to Petaluma to consult on plans for McNear Park, though according to Rinehart, exactly what his recommendations were are not known today.
From the beginning, McNear Park was viewed as a place for sports and other recreational activities. Its baseball stadium was once among Petaluma’s primary entertainment spots. Petaluma-born baseball player Mickey Shader - a minor league pitcher and major league scout - played some of his first games there, and was honored with a plaque and a public ceremony at the park in June of 1953, shortly after his death in March of that year. Shader started out in what was called the Sonoma Sunday League, playing in Petaluma and around the county from 1911 to 1913, eventually becoming a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, the New York Giants and the San Francisco Seals.
“His plaque is still there,” says Rinehart, leading a walk across the lawn to where the somewhat besoiled metal monument rests near the high barn-like back wall of the baseball stadium. “Mickey Shader was a very big deal,” she says, offering her hopes that some local citizen might take it upon themselves to give the plaque a fresh scrubbing.
The six-block walk from McNear Park to Wickersham Park, at G Street and Fourth Street, brings its own pleasures to those who keep their eyes open.
“I love that,” says Rinehart, pointing out a charmingly diminutive door next to one house’s back entrance, the small doorway marked with a milk bottle emblem suggesting that milk deliveries took place there, the dairy worker slipping fresh bottles inside after collecting the waiting empties. “There are things like that all over town if you look for them,” Rinehart says.
Wickersham Park, unlike its companion to the west, has no play equipment, no sports fields, nothing but grass, pathways and flowerbeds, trees, benches and rose trellises.
“The property was left to the city in the will of Mrs. Thomas Maclay, 1932, with the stipulation that it only be used as a place for contemplation and quiet,” says Rinehart. “Over the years, there have been the occasional noise made, suggesting some small bit of a playground or playing area be squeezed in. But the city has remained pretty committed to keeping Wickersham Park the way it was always intended.”
Though donated to the city just three years after George McNear donated McNear Park, the ever-charming Wickersham Park - named for Maclay’s parents, was not officially opened to the public until 1939. The park was designed by Wallace Mann, and built by Walter Singleton. Volunteers from the Petaluma Garden Club tend to the park’s signature rose bushes, which in the spring turn the 20 scattered bench-and-trellis resting spots into gorgeously aromatic places to rest and enjoy the beauty of one of Petaluma’s most unique and distinctly old-fashioned landmarks.
Rinehart calls attention to another news clipping, with yet another memorable declaration. In the Argus-Courier, just after Maclay’s will was read, and the announcement of her gift to the city was made known, an unnamed writer stated, “It will make Petaluma more than ever a city of parks, probably unexcelled for a city of this size in the United States.”
“Parks mean different things to different people,” says Rinehart, “but one thing they all tend to represent is a place to step away from the world for a moment. I think these two parks are great examples of that.”
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