If yesteryear’s recreational trailblazers could see what the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department has accomplished, they likely would be shocked.
Parks and Recreation celebrates its remarkable 75 years of serving citizens this month, marking the occasion with a public celebration noon-2 p.m. on Saturday, May 18 at Memorial Park Community Center. Candyland Carnival will offer old-fashioned games, rock climbing, face painting, a candy station, 75th birthday cupcakes, a magician and balloon artist, entertainment and inflatables.
The Parks and Recreation Board was established on May 18, 1944, when city leaders approved an ordinance to organize recreation activities and programs being held on makeshift playing fields and in warehouses.
Today, that purpose and commitment to the community remains rock solid and continues to blossom. The department now provides a growing number of widely recognized and award-winning facilities and programs, and the journey is constantly in motion.
“It is truly amazing to see how our park system and program offerings have grown over the past 75 years,” Parks and Recreation Director James Ellis said. “This growth has occurred due to the countless number of volunteers, civic groups and the tremendous support from city management and our elected officials. Whether it be active or passive recreation, it is extremely important to our citizens and park patrons.
“Our department strives to stay abreast of current trends and provide quality services on a daily basis. What began as a small recreation program in 1944 has now grown into a diverse recreation, golf and senior program with offerings for toddlers up to and including our senior population. We look forward to continuing to provide these services and more in the future.”
City funds, as well as individual, business and civic club donations, launched the Parks and Recreation Department with a $12,600 budget – a far cry from the department’s 2018 budget of nearly $6 million.
Under the heading, “You Can Help,” that first budget report listed wants and needs, such as constructing a neighborhood recreation building for banquets, basketball and volleyball. One of the first amenities offered: a small concession stand cobbled together from an empty piano box.
Howard Johnson, named the first recreation director in 1944, took the helm at a time when the city had two public parks, a football stadium and a public pool. The area around the former Memorial Stadium known as the Keystone Fields was the department’s first base of operations.
Youth programs were typically staged at school facilities, and skating and boxing had gained a foothold at Burley Tobacco and other warehouses along Legion and Main streets.
Though the fields may not have been groomed, and the exact rules not well known, tag football became a favorite for Johnson City youngsters. A league that played mainly on Saturdays included teams from West Side, Stratton, Keystone, Columbus Powell, North Side, Henry Johnson and South Side schools.
When West Side made it to the top of the heap, they were nicknamed the “West End Kids.” Their prowess earned them what likely was the first departmental garment: a maroon T-shirt with large white letters across the front that read, “Johnson City Parks.”
At an exhibition baseball game at Cardinal Park, more than $970 was raised to start construction of the original youth center. The Langston Civic Recreation Club also stepped up after inviting Johnson to explain the park and recreation board’s goals. Students at the former Langston High School painted shuffleboard numbers on their gym floor for use in fundraisers. The club also staged boxing matches and gathered pledges for outdoor activities at George Washington Carver Park.
The Surjoi Pool, operated by the private sector, was a community cooling off spot on land donated by Louis H. Gump. He later donated the pool and land to the city for use as a community pool and recreation area. Further development at the site led to the creation of Carver Recreation Center.
An encounter at a 1947 city league basketball game turned out to be the genesis of the city’s Recreation Club and Legion Recreation Center. Tennessee Silk Mill’s team was playing a team from the Gloria Rayon Plant when J.J. Jilton, the mill’s superintendent, turned to Johnson and said, “This is a great game. It’s too bad it has to be played in the cracker box.” Johnson replied, “Are you willing to help build a better place?”
The Parks and Recreation department continues to support the community through regular expansion of park facilities and amenities, recreational programming, entertainment, athletics, senior services and a variety of outdoor offerings. In 2018, Winged Deer Park was named the state’s “Complex of the Year” by the USA Softball of Tennessee.
Johnson City Parks and Recreation now operates 24 parks, one multigenerational community center and four recreation centers, four indoor basketball courts, one mountain bike park, 23 lighted tennis courts, one dog park, six swimming pools, 17 play structures, one boardwalk and lakefront special-use area with two boat ramps.
The tally also includes two amphitheaters, six sand volleyball courts, 30 picnic shelters, about 20 miles of hiking/walking trails, one football stadium, one baseball stadium, one skateboard park, one historical cabin, one tree arboretum, five multi-use athletic fields, 10 youth baseball fields, 10 softball fields,12 soccer fields, one 18-hole golf course, one 18-hole disc golf course, one splash park, 10 pickleball courts and other special use facilities on more than 1,200 acres.
The City has also purchased the 36-acre Wilson Property adjacent to Winged Deer Park to expand the number of athletic fields and is poised to assume ownership of the Tannery Knobs Bike Park in the near future.