Joplin’s park system has been its pride and joy since the beginning of the 20th century. In the first decade its crown jewel was Cunningham Park. This park has a long and varied history as the vision of the purpose of city parks changed over the 125 years.

Joplin is a city whose roots are in mining. For its first 25 years, it was all about mining. For many of the newly rich diversifying the city’s commercial base was their chief ambition. However, some of those saw the need to make Joplin a “better residence city.” Thomas W. Cunningham, a banker and investor, took that to heart.

Cunningham’s life was a rags-to-riches tale. His family had moved to Red Oak in Lawrence County when he was 2 years old in 1847. Then the family moved to Barry County.

When he was 17, he was recruited into the service of Confederate Gen. Sterling Price for the duration of the war.

He returned to Oronogo to work as a teamster for the Granby Mining and Smelting Co. He earned $1 a day. Since he had Sunday off, he would cut wood and haul it for Mrs. Sophia Sternsberg. She ran the boarding house where he stayed.

That earned him free room and board. It is said that in 500 days he had saved $500, the foundation of his fortune. Mrs. Sternsberg became Mrs. Cunningham in 1872.

Cunningham had a grocery business for a few years. At the same time he bought lots between First and Second streets on Joplin Avenue. Fortunately for him, ore was discovered on those lots.

When ore prices dropped in the late 1870s, mines closed and flooded. Cunningham made money installing pumps to dewater the mines.

He founded the Cunningham Bank in 1882. He maintained a large 80-acre farm known as Cunningham Grove that bordered Stump Avenue (West 26th Street) in the mining camp of Blendville.

Land donated

Cunningham always had a soft spot for miners. In 1892, he began dividing up Cunningham Grove into lots at low prices for miners. He even helped those who struggled with payments. He gave lots for three churches and 18 lots for a school.

He had been elected mayor of Joplin in 1896. On July 5, 1898, he donated 8.5 acres between what is now 24th and 26th streets for the first city park. The council accepted the property and named it Cunningham Park.

Historian Joel Livingston recorded the council vowed there would be “steps taken to make it a place second to no park in the state.”

That was an excellent promise. However, the city budget had no money to operate a park. Citizens picnicked amid the trees. But Cunningham Park languished as a woods full of underbrush for seven years.

In 1905, City Attorney Perl Decker persuaded the council to submit a 5-mil levy to Joplin voters for park maintenance. The measure passed.

A board of directors was appointed, which included prominent men such as Charles Schifferdecker and Joel Livingston.

The levy brought in $1,500 the first year. The board hired a landscape gardener who tackled the underbrush. It required two years to clear the park. Next, graveled walkways were constructed through the grounds. Alongside the walks, flower beds were dug and planted. A bandstand was built in the center of the park.

Just as the levy passed, Mineral Park was given to the city by William and Catherine Leckie. That park eventually grew to 15 acres. To decorate it, the park directors had the landscape gardener at Cunningham begin a nursery to grow flowers and trees. Plants from the nursery were then distributed among the city parks.

park expansion

When Charles Schifferdecker died in 1917, he willed 120 acres to the city adjoining the original 40 acres, which he had given in 1913, that had been Joplin & Pittsburg Railway’s Electric Park. The park was equipped with rides, walks, flower beds and a swimming pool.

In the intervening years the vision of the purpose for city parks began to shift. Originally the parks were a place to observe nature in a beautified form, a place to break the monotony of daily labors, “breathing spots” they were called.

Walkways with benches, beds of flowers, lawns for picnics and bandstands for concerts reflected the restrained, dignified and cultured outlook city fathers wanted to project.

However, with the addition of the amusement park of Schifferdecker, attractions that centered upon children gained increasing prominence, especially with the swimming pool.

By 1913, Joel Livingston, secretary of the park board of directors, proposed that the board investigate the new movement to establish playgrounds for children in city parks.

He visited Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago to see how the playgrounds operated.

Two years later, the directors had added playgrounds to Cunningham, Mineral and at First Street and Pearl Avenue equipped with swing sets and monkey bars.

A little swimming pool was added to the park at First and Pearl, which consisted of three lots donated by Thomas Cunningham.

That was enough for patrons of Cunningham and Mineral parks to advocate for pools in their parks, too. However, World War I intervened and parks were put on the back burner. At war’s end, municipal life resumed its normal course, which put the Blendville Booster Club back in action advocating for a Cunningham Park pool.

The park board pleaded lack of funds when the boosters asked for a pool and dance pavilion for Cunningham.

In March 1922, the boosters received the same answer to their request. They responded by calling for a mass meeting at Waggy Hall in Blendville.

The additional public pressure supplied by the East Joplin Improvement Club moved the council to submit an increase in the levy for parks in the upcoming April election.

When the votes were counted, the levy passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 3,904 to 1,700. The board immediately arranged to borrow the necessary money to build the two pools and bath houses with concession stands.

It was estimated the pools and bath houses would cost between $12,000 and $15,000 with another $5,000 to carry out associated improvements.

Work started on Feb. 19 in Cunningham and March 1 in Mineral. The pools were completed in June, but the bath houses were delayed. The pools didn’t open until mid-July. The News Herald reported that approximately 300 persons patronized each pool daily, “most of them children.” Significantly, the attendance numbers at Schifferdecker did not diminish.

Cunningham officially opened on Aug. 19 with a crowd estimated to be between 2,000 to 3,000. A band provided entertainment. And through the afternoon “several hundred men, women and children took part in swimming, diving and racing contests.”

The same week the Red Cross began its “Learn to Swim Week” at Cunningham. It offered demonstrations and lessons for men, women and children. It would become a annual activity offered by the park.

From a grove of trees choked with underbrush in 1898 to a landscaped lawn with flowers, pavilions and a well-attended swimming pool in 1923, Cunningham Park had grown with the times and could be said to be the first among equals in the city parks.

Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to wcaldwell@joplinglobe.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.

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