Tiny, but full of history
Although it is one of Petaluma’s oldest and earliest parks, many residents don’t realize that downtown Petaluma’s Center Park is, in fact, a park.
Or that it began its existence as a hitching post.
Which is not so different from what it is today.
The miniscule patch of brick, dirt and trees that stands between the Mystic Theatre and Petaluma Boulevard, tightly cradled by parking spaces, has been officially known as Center Park for nearly 100 years, though there is no marker identifying it as such.
It’s just there.
And has been for generations.
It’s “amenities” include a trio of redwoods (including a small replacement after one of the older trees was removed in 2013) now surrounded by a rustic wooden fence. The other piece of the park is a brick patio dotted by a handful of smaller trees and shrubs, six metal benches facing each other three by three, a small interpretative display describing the ironfront buildings that line the boulevard (written by “Petaluma’s Past” columnist Skip Sommer), and a metal bell on a curving metal pole.
To the majority of Petalumans, the spot is merely a nicely designed walkway through which to pass on one’s way to or from the Mystic Theatre and McNear’s Saloon, or the LanMart Building.
Some remember it as the former home of the annual Light Up Life hospice holiday memorial gatherings. That beloved event has since moved to Walnut Park. But there was a time when, in early December, hundreds would gather around those three trees, filling the parking area and the sidewalks, to remember those who’d passed away that year, and to watch the lighting of the arboreal giants to kick off the holiday season.
To others, it’s just a median strip near the place they like to park, or a place to lean or stand while watching the annual (except for this year, sadly) Butter & Eggs Cowchip Throwing Contest.
But make no mistake.
It is a park.
On the city’s official ?map listing all 46 city-?maintained parks, Center Park is No. 7. According to that map, it takes up 0.1-acres of space.
What the map doesn’t say is that this itty-bitty scrap of real estate is, along with Penry Park (originally Hill Plaza) to the north, Oak Hill Park to the northwest, and Walnut Park just two blocks to the south, one of Petaluma’s four original pleasure spots.
It’s also proof that a thing need not be large to be big enough to fight over.
Center Park began as little more than a treeless space at which to hitch one’s horses and leave one’s wagons when visiting Petaluma’s downtown area. An early postcard shows what appear to be deciduous trees encircled by horses and buggies. Many are the postcards and photos, from the turn of the century and beyond, depicting dozens of equine-associated conveyances clustered together at that spot. The more recent the photo, the more redwoods it seems to show. One such photo shows a single three there.
And many, many people having a picnic.
The place was ceremoniously elevated to official park status right around 1921, setting off decades of consternation with local merchants who’d have strongly preferred the spot be dedicated fully to parking, given the dearth of parking space downtown. The compromise that was eventually arrived at was to fully surround the strip with parking spots, leaving Center Park - literally in the center of the boulevard - as an attractive miniature island of calm and history in the midst of Petaluma’s bustling shopping zone.
It was the late Petaluma historian Hoppy Hopkins who laid claim to having named the place Center Park, when he was a member of the Parks Commission. But according to a newspaper article from July of 1921, the area came dangerously close to being named Mainway Park. Petaluma National Bank sponsored a contest that summer to name the spot, resulting in a first place win for Miss Bettie McNally, who submitted “Mainway Park,” followed by a second place win for Hogan Park, with Center Park, submitted by four local residents, taking the third place prize.
One theory is that, prizes aside, Mr. Hopkins himself preferred Center Park, and used it so much that others began calling it that as well.
The bell that hangs silently on high near the eastern edge of the patio, its iconic form welded securely into unmovable place, was reportedly presented to commemorate Petaluma’s place on El Camino Real, the series of missions that stretched up California from San Diego to Sonoma. It is an authentic mission bell from that historic period. Though Petaluma technically never had a mission, reports indicate that Father Altamira did visit Petaluma in search of a place to establish the state’s northernmost mission, ultimately selecting Sonoma.
But Petaluma came close.
Thus the bell.
A gift of the Redwood Empire Association, the bell was installed in 1977, though acquisition of the artifact was evidently an effort of Petaluma’s Bicentennial committee, marking the bicentennial of the US in 1976.
That Petaluma’s oldest “pocket park” ended up being the location of the historic item is a testament to the significance of Petaluma’s small but much used landmark.
In 2014, by the way, the park was made even tinier with the addition of a motorcycle parking lot, further carving down the overall square footage of the place. In many ways, though, having prominent space for motorcycles seems fully appropriate for a park that started out as a place to hitch ones horse on the way to the saloon.