The Legacy of Memorial Park
Athens Historian Volume 1 (1998)
By Marie Hodgson Koenig
In Memorial Park, the American flag flies above a plaque listing 140 names of servicemen from Clarke County who lost their lives in World War II and 21 who died in World War I.
The plaque, on a granite stone, was placed beside the flagpole by the Athens Historical Society 50 years after the creation of the park. It is the result of a drive started in 1994 by then Historical Society President Goodloe Y. Erwin to identify and commemorate as many local persons as possible who died in the two world wars.
Memorial Park has an interesting, colorful history. It is filled with memories of men and women who over the last half century have been devoted to the idea that as many Clarke County girls and boys as possible should have a chance for healthy physical development and an appreciation of nature.
The park is the “brainchild” of local businessman W.H. Benson. In 1945 Clarke County offered 54 and one-half wooded acres for sale south of Athens, at that time well outside the city limits.
The site had been the county’s Fairhaven Tuberculosis Sanitarium. It was closed in the 1930s when the state of Georgia opened a new sanitarium in Alto.
One afternoon in 1945, Benson invited Madison G. Nicholson, secretary of the Clarke County commissioners, to drive out with him and assess the land. “Why don’t I buy this property and give it to the city for a park?” Benson proposed.
Benson said it was “terrible” for a town the size of Athens to have no place for children to play. The University of Georgia’s Botanical Garden was the chief playground of Athens from 1830 until it was sold in 1857.
From then until 1938, the town made no real attempt to provide parks for children. In 1938 the Athens Recreational Park Department was established as a coordinate part of the city government. But the greatest development in park and recreational facilities awaited the inspiration of W.H. Benson.
Nicholson suggested that Benson ask the county commissioners to donate the acreage to Athens for the city’s first real recreational center and that Benson spend his time and money developing it. The three commissioners agreed to the proposal when Benson appeared before them.
But the Athens City Council rejected the gift because state law prohibited it from accepting land outside the city limits. Not giving up, Benson attended the county commissioners’ next meeting. “Let me incorporate and take charge of the property until further developments,” he suggested. They agreed.
He sent out letters and made phone calls. “I’ll give $500 as a beginning,” Benson said. “What can you do?”
“The same,” answered six others.
They became the board of directors with Benson as chairman. They were Carter Daniel, Harry Hodgson, Sr., John Stiles, W.G. Thornton, Ed Wier and Paul Williams. Athens Memorial Park, Inc., was organized to hold title to the land.
The general public was then invited to give financial support. Thousands of dollars were donated to develop the park, existing buildings were renovated, new roads were constructed. The board decided that the facility would be a “permanent expression of a community’s gratefulness to young men and women who have served their nation in two terrible world wars.”
Memorial Park was the first park in the country to ask for war relics. National radio and the Atlanta Journal featured stories about the idea. The U.S. Government offered equipment free, but shipping charges had to be carefully considered.
A B-29, “The City of Athens,” was offered. It was the bomber in which Hugh Fowler of Athens had made 24 missions as a gunner over Japan. Shipment was too costly. Fowler says the plane stayed in Guam “until the shooting stopped and then ended up in a Middle West graveyard.”
Finally placed on display were five warplanes, three field guns and a 15-ton tank.
After a new state law was enacted, a deed delivering the title to the property of Athens Memorial Park was signed and given to the Mayor of Athens and the city council on February 27, 1950, for the sum of $200.
But the park was already well underway.
Wayne Shields, who worked during World War II in the American Red Cross personnel office, met Betsy Powell of Athens, who also worked in Red Cross services. She persuaded him to visit Athens and be interviewed by a committee whose task was to form a Department of Recreation: Mildred Rhodes, Mary Ella Soule, W. H. Benson, and Harry Hodgson, Sr.
Shields, who had a Master’s degree in recreation from New York University, was hired as director. He and his wife Virginia and children arrived in Athens in February 1946 from Washington, D.C. Here, in Virginia Shields’ words, is what their pioneer time at the park was like:
“We were taken immediately to the old tuberculosis sanitarium property. There was a small white cottage which HI was the proposed residence for our family. A real problem existed: There was no road into the property. The road had washed out and was simply a deep ditch.
“We refused the cottage, for it would be an impossible place for three small children.
“Wayne’s office was in the old Young Women’s Christian Association building on Hancock Avenue.
“Mr. Benson found for us an apartment in a house he owned on Franklin Street. The house was divided into four apartments. Franklin was a dirt street. A bootlegger lived in the apartment above us. There was at that time no rental housing.
“Wayne’s primary job was to develop what is now Memorial Park into a recreational area. The road, of course, was the first problem. I remember that he worked closely with the city engineer.
“The main building at the park was cleaned and painted. Betty Paris was hired as an interior decorator to turn it into an inviting Teen Canteen.
“E.T. Foreman, who had operated a riding school at the University of Georgia, moved his horses into Memorial Park, where a paddock was built. He taught riding lessons and operated a recreational riding stable.
“Al Short was hired to help with the park development. He and his wife Jackie did move into the white cottage at the park after the road was built.
“In the summer of 1946, I started a day camp for about 20 children, who were picked up by a city bus. They came from the housing projects, which were built only a short time before we came to Athens. I planned my own program.
“The granite shelf by the small creek served as our central base. We had ‘story hour’ each morning, followed by an excursion into the forest that was part of the park.
“We had ‘fashion shows’ with all materials coming from nature – leaves and flowers. We cut down a huge tree and carved a totem pole. We borrowed the firemen’s black pot and each student would bring a vegetable from home. We cooked tasty stews.
“I think it was Mr. Harry Hodgson’s idea to name the park in honor of World War II soldiers. He had raised the money for Memorial Hall on the University campus.”
Dan Quillian remembers well the beginning of the zoo at Memorial Park and some historic contributions made there, including development of the tranquilizer gun for animals. He was a University of Georgia student when the park was developing.
Here are some excerpts from his memoirs:
“Gardner Gidley and I had built a backyard collection of reptiles, mammals, and birds, and they had outgrown their homes.
“We first approached Wayne Shields with the idea of starting a native animal zoo at Memorial Park; and then, with his backing, we went before the city council, offering our animal collection and our volunteer help.
“There was immediate public acceptance, and the Veterinary Medicine School at the University of Georgia volunteered medical care for the animals. Bell’s Grocery Stores donated a large portion of the food for the animals. … Harrold’s Hatchery donated cull chickens that provided a balanced diet for the predators, such as birds of prey, bobcats, foxes, etc.
“Mr. Howard Benson, that grand old man, came in with the necessities that we did not have the money for.
“In the mid-1950s, I became Recreation Department Director. Our total budget, including salaries, was $15,000, and that covered the Lyndon House, all the playgrounds, and two swimming pools.
“Almost everything was done on a volunteer basis, and Memorial Park became a true community center. The native zoo became a regional attraction. The animals’ cages were rustic and blended with the landscape. Each animal’s cage had a plaque identifying and explaining how that animal fit into our local environment.
“The zoo often made the national news wire services. One incident I remember particularly was of a big old redtail hawk who had a Rhode Island red rooster for his roosting mate. This caused a sensation. Another time was the golden eagle that we resurrected after he had been hit near Bogart by a beer truck. This eagle was later returned to the wild. These events, and others that hit the national news, helped put Athens and Memorial Park on the map.
“Among the dozens of organizations that we formed at Memorial Park was the Clarke County Sportsmen’s Club. The original president of the club was my father, D.D. Quillian. … This group still exists, although it operates separately from the park today.
“Because there were no deer this side of the North Georgia mountains, the Clarke County Sportsmen’s Club built a 10-acre pen with an 11-foot high fence, plus one foot underground, for both a natural exhibit and to raise deer to be released into this area.
“This project has had both statewide and worldwide ramifications. We raised and released 33 deer from the pen and demonstrated that the public would support the game laws when we publicized the release of the deer and got the public involved.
“Later, because we had the deer pen, and in cooperation with Dr. Frank Hayes of the Southeastern Wildlife Disease Study; Dr. Jim Jenkins, professor of wildlife management; Dr. Malcolm Fort of the Pharmacy School; Jack Crockford, then Chief of Game Management of the Game and Fish Commission; the tranquilizer gun was developed that has been so important to wildlife as well as to domestic animals.
“We maintained an excellent relationship with the Game and Fish Commission. We furnished them animals for educational exhibits all over the state. They, in turn, worked very closely with us in supplying what animals we needed, such as the black bear.
“We had requested an orphan bear, if one became available. One day they called and said that a beehive-robbing bear had been trapped on the edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp and that a cub had been trapped with it. …
“My wife, Sue, and I took the cub into our home, bottle fed it, nursed it, and played with it until it got too big to handle. This bear was known as Booger, and he grew to the 600-pound range and outlived the normal lifespan of a wild bear. He was clearly loved by the children.
“The cage Booger lived in was an antique wagon cage that was originally used to haul chain gang inmates out to work on the roads. It made a pretty good bear cage; and later, when our bears had cubs, the cubs were able to go into and out of the cage and roam around the park. Six cubs were born in captivity and successfully raised during the time I was head of the Recreation Department.
“The zoo, in general, made huge educational contributions to the environment and the study of wildlife.
“The staff at Memorial Park organized recreational groups, some of which still exist. Among these are the Athens Radio Club, which had its first transmitter in the park building. The Square Dance Club still exists. The Town and Gown Players was formed as a club group at Memorial Park.
“The Archery Club had both a field range and an Olympic-style range at Memorial Park. Instructions were held for both adults and children. Regional and state tournaments were held at Memorial Park. Many trophies were brought home by our students.”
Memorial Park now covers 72 acres of undeveloped, wooded acres and 18 acres of developed land which includes a lake, picnic shelters, the Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail, swimming, fishing, play fields, a native animal zoo, and a recreation center.
In the early 1980s, Athenians supported the idea of rebuilding the zoo. A federal grant was secured to match locally raised funds for the construction.
In 1985 the name Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail was adopted to reflect a change in mission, operation and philosophy. The decision was made that the new 6.5-acre facility would contain only non-releasable native wildlife which were housed in habitat exhibits.
Construction of the new facility started in 1985, and in May 1987 the grand opening was held.