Alex Anderson developed his dream nearly 100 years ago, and his name lives on
The Gosse property was a big open field that was bordered from Peru Street on Gosse Boulevard to Park Avenue West and west to the northeast entrance of Oakland Cemetery and north to West Peru Street next to the fairgrounds amphitheater. This 65-acre plot of ground was leased by George Staples until March 1, 1921.
Alex Anderson had an idea for an amusement park, where there would be adequate facilities for boating, bathing, baseball, football and all other forms of recreation available to Princeton folk. Mr. Anderson wanted to buy this property in 1920 and he wanted to start developing this idea as soon as possible, so Mr. Staples consented to Mr. Anderson’s plan and released his hold on the property, and Anderson bought it in 1920.
Alex Anderson began work on his idea of an amusement park in the fall of 1920 and worked until winter weather set in. Once Mr. Anderson started work, he didn’t want to be interrupted so that there wouldn’t be any delay once he got started. Along with a big recreation resort, he wanted a large lake, and the first feature to be developed WAS a large lake, which wound about in several ravines that extended through the property.
Mr. Anderson had a force of men working for some time on this project. First, he made a concrete base of a dam on the west edge of the property. Wheel scrapers scraped the bottom of the lake-to-be and filled over the concrete foundation for the dam.
The dam was constructed across the main ravine, at a point straight south from the fairgrounds amphitheater. It was about 300 feet long and 15 to 20 feet high and was wide enough to carry a road driveway from one side of the park to the other. The lake, when filled, was 250 feet wide and between 800 to 900 yards in length and from 13 feet to one foot in depth.
Water was supplied from many flowing springs that were found all along the bottom of the ravines.
The plan was to use the lake for swimming and boating. One part was thoroughly graveled, so that it would be convenient for bathers. When filled, the lake would extend from the south limits of the park on the (then) Wyanet-Princeton route 6 and 34 road to the dam, which was not far from the north limits of the park along Peru Street. Between three and four acres of land was submerged underwater altogether.
Mr. Anderson’s property included, in all, some 65 acres. More than half of this was in pasture and the balance along Gosse Boulevard was in corn.
When Anderson took over, it was seeded to grass for the next spring in 1921. The resulting property at that time, extended from Park Avenue West to Peru Street, and from Gosse Boulevard west to the cornfield north of Oakland Cemetery.
Natural conditions of the property were ideal for an amusement park. The land was rolling, with plenty of level stretches for a baseball diamond and the like. Indeed, there was an excellent place for a diamond with a row of large oak trees along the west border to shade the bleachers. As a matter of fact, there was an abundance of shade throughout the premises, as well developed oak trees were plentiful.
When Anderson started out on his amusement park venture, he had not fully decided upon the full plan for the development of the park, but that he expected to carry the improvements just as far as the public decided. He had the lake ready for use by spring of 1921 and added other features as he felt reasonably sure that they would be supported. Folks who lived in that section of town were pleased over the possibility of a good park.
In the late fall of 1920, plans were also formulated for the construction of a dance hall pavilion on the west side of the through roadway that would run from West Peru Street to Park Avenue West.
Construction began of the dance hall along with the concrete dam, and work was continued until winter weather set in, and was resumed the following spring.
The dance floor area was 50 feet by 80 feet in dimensions, and time and expense were not spared into making this one of the finest dance halls to be found anywhere in this part of the state.
The park that was constructed by Alex Anderson was also an ideal place for picnics, special gatherings and many other social functions. The originator of Alexander Park was Alex Anderson, and from him, the park got its name!
Speaking of picnics, in fact, the very first event in the opening of Alexander Park, especially the dance pavilion, was the fifth annual jubilee picnic of O.B. Harrauff, general Bureau County agent of the Franklin Life Policy Holders Insurance Company, which was held June 15, 1921.
Three thousand people attended that picnic, and it was one of the biggest affairs of the year in the county. A picnic dinner was served on the grounds at noon and was followed by speaking in the dance hall pavilion, and a program of sports followed.
It was the largest crowd ever to gather on a similar occasion in Princeton, and heaps of praise were showered upon the general agent of O.B. Harrauff who planned the picnic.
Mr. Harrauff even made a contract with a motion picture cameraman from Chicago and was on the grounds all that day filming the crowd and various events, individuals, groups, squads and activities. The movies were shown in all the theaters in the county.
Mr. Anderson, the genial owner of the new park, worked extra forces night and day to complete the park for this great event, and while he did not entirely have it completed in all details, everything was in good ship-shape to accommodate the picnickers. It was a beautiful park with plenty of shade and grass and the finest pavilion in the state.
Alec’s Blue Boys, the famous orchestra from Galesburg, played during the program in the afternoon and at the evening dance following the picnic and speeches. You could say, in fact, that THIS was the FIRST actual dance in the new dance hall pavilion — on Wednesday, June 15, 1921. The following Saturday and Sunday nights, Alec’s Blue boys played for the public, and the dance hall business was on its way!
Then, in the fall of 1921, the Alexander Park made facilities for a local semi-pro football team — the Princeton Tigers! A field was laid out with bleachers on the west side of the park facing east. The bleachers were lined up along a row of oak trees, and seats were available for several thousand people.
The Tigers played the Peru Independents, the Spring Valley Wildcats, the LaSalle Pony Express, Prophetstown, Kewanee, Sheffield Independents, American Legion from Mendota, and the Chicago Cardinals. Since it was a semi-professional team, they usually passed the hat or charged admission to see the games, which were played on Sunday afternoons as there were no lights at that time. They had big crowds.
The games were fiercely fought and the competition keen. Whenever the football was downed, no matter where it was located, the next play was at that exact place — even if it was right next to the sidelines, the ball was put into play at that spot. As you probably guessed, the players were all lined up along the sideline, and the ball had to be played toward the center of the field from that position, and not go out of bounds.
Princeton had a fantastic team and was well followed by spectators and followers. The lineup for a particular team game was Lafferty (right tackle), Clark (right end), C. Garman (right guard), Truskowski (center), Baird (left guard), Hayden (left tackle), Lapan (left end), Janes (quarterback), Smith (right halfback), Storey (left halfback), Fraser (fullback), Beyer, McColl, Schultz and Gross.
This lineup was when they played the Peru Independents on Oct. 13, 1921. The score was 6-0 after Peru made a touchdown in the first 3 minutes and that was the final score. Then, too, the players played both offensive and defensive football during the game, and needless to say, it was really rough!
The Princeton High School football team also practiced and played at Alexander Park. Al Moser and Doc Nance were the coach and assistant coach. They would dress at the high school and then jog out to the park, a distance of over a mile.
Nance and Moser usually rode bikes along with the boys jogging, so that no one “cheated” in getting to and from the park by hitch-hiking a ride.
PHS played at the park until Bryant Field was opened and dedicated on Nov. 11, 1930. Princeton High usually played on Saturday afternoons.
Note to readers: Bill Lamb, who died in 2013, wrote this story for his “Out of the Past” series with the Bureau County Republican in June 1997. It and the accompanying photos were retrieved from the archives of the Bureau County Historical Society, which granted its permission to republish them.