Article by Allyson Hoffman
Documentary by Joshua Briggs, Austin Garcia, Olivia Pilon, & Miriam Roth
Reverend Albertus C. Van Raalte originally set aside the land that is now Centennial Park, located at 10th Street and River Avenue, for a public market. However, after the fire of 1871, the land grew weedy and remained unused. In 1876, the park was named and created in honor of the nation’s centennial celebration and has since hosted many celebrations in Holland. The park was restored in 1985. Today, the 5.6 acre park houses a gazebo with public restrooms, a coral rock fountain, several benches, and dozens of different trees and plants.
Roots in the Past: A Documentary
A team of Mellon Scholars created this documentary for their Sophomore Seminar during the 2014-2015 school year. Centennial Park was born in the midst of a greenspace movement that emphasized quiet enjoyment of natural beauty. This movement originated in mid-nineteenth century western Europe, largely in response to the increasing industrialization of large cities. Over time, the movement spread to the United States, and eventually new motivations and cultural attitudes transformed parks from serene pockets of nature into spaces for recreational activity and community gatherings. Centennial Park, while reflective of this movement, also developed its own legacy and unique identity.
Establishing the Park
The land for Centennial Park was intended to become market square, much like traditional European markets. Central Avenue was originally called Market Street because of this vision. Van Raalte helped clear the area of trees, but after the fire of 1871, the charred area became weed-ridden.
In 1876, Mayor John Van Landegend proposed the market square be turned into a park, which he wished to call Centennial Park in honor of the centennial celebration of the country. On March 8, 1876, Van Landegend brought his plans, including a diagram, to a council meeting and proposed the following:
- Setting out a row of Lombardy Poplar trees around the outside of the Square.
- Grading and leveling of the square; removal of the present knoll in the center in the form of an ellipse at a height of about two feet in the center, and the laying out and excavating the walkways according to the diagram he submitted.
- Erecting a Centennial Pole in the center of the new ellipse.
- The planting by individuals of a variety of Centennial shade trees throughout the Square in accordance with the diagram.
On April 17, 1876, the flagpole was placed in the park. Instead of planting poplar trees, maple trees were placed in the park. On the afternoon of April 29, 1876, community volunteers planted the maple trees.
Introducing Squirrels to the Park
In addition to the many improvements, the idea for a squirrel cage was also suggested. A journalist for the Holland City News remarked on the friendliness of squirrels in Ann Arbor, Michigan and suggested that Holland’s Centennial Park could become a home for the friendly rodents. On August 28, 1913 the Holland City News reported:
The cunning little animals have been installed in their new home and the little boys and little girls as well as many older people have been making acquaintance with them. The four that have been put into the cage are to be followed by others which will be secure from time to time.
Soon after, the squirrels escaped but remained living in or near the park. Because the original plan allotted for the eventual release of the squirrels, attempts to recapture the animals quickly ended. Although the Park Commissioner requested that the squirrels not be bothered, he allowed people to continue feeding the squirrels.
Unfortunately for the city, citizens submitted several bills for the cost of nuts to feed the squirrels. In 1922, the squirrel cage was removed from the park.
The Coral Rock Fountain
In 1902, Tenuis Van Houten donated the coral rock fountain, a structure designed and built by Johannes Van Lente. The fountain stands 20 feet tall and is 12 feet in diameter. The fountain was stocked with fish. Citizens were encouraged to contribute their live catches from other locations to the fountain.
On occasion, mischievous children disturbed the fish by adding soap to the water or draining the fountain in order to retrieve the coins at the bottom. Local children were the presumed culprits responsible for the mysterious disappearance and return of 800 goldfish.
The City Council accepted a rock from the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) to commemorate those who served in the Civil War. in 1912, the rock was received. In 1953, the A. C. Van Raalte Relief Corps of Holland suggested a bronze plaque with the Gettysburg Address be placed in a stone near the G.A.R. rock. By 1977, the G.A.R. rock and the Gettysburg Address stone became part of the park’s veterans memorial. Other memorials include a rock and plaque honoring the Medal of Honor recipients and a rock and tablet honoring Spanish American War veterans.
Two Civil War era howitzers sat in the park for several decades, along with the cannonballs. However, in 1942, the cannons and cannonballs were donated by the city as scrap metal for the World War II effort. Another cannon, which was kept in the shed at the old townhouse on the property, was fired off at celebrations. In 1937, the Holland City News reported the cannon had blown apart.
Centennial Park at Christmas
In 1920, the tradition of having a lighted Christmas tree in Centennial Park was established. The tree was located in the southeast corner of the park so patients at Holland Hospital could see it. That year, the tree was 30 feet tall. The tree was lit on Christmas Eve. Community members gathered to watching the lighting and sing Christmas carols.
The next year, in 1921, the tree was larger and had an electric star at the top. In 1925, two pine trees were planted, which served as they the city’s Christmas trees each year. However, only one tree was lit in 1936, due to the death of the other pine. The tradition of singing carols around a tree was revived in 1996 as part of the Sinterklaas Parade.
Honoring Van Raalte
Every few decades, the suggestion arises that Centennial Park be renamed Van Raalte Park in honor of Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte. Although the park has not been renamed, in 1997 a statue of Van Raalte was erected in the park and remains there today.
In 1985, a movement was started to create pathways through Centennial Park that were handicap accessible. Bricks were chosen as a suitable surface for the pathways. Fundraisers to and donations for the Buy-A-Brick Campaign contributed to the creation of brick paths in the park.