Vincennes University breathes new life into state treasure
By Dan Ravellette
One hundred and twenty years have gone by since Paul Dresser penned the lyrics and composed the music to the famous state song of Indiana, “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Back in 1897, Dresser had no idea of what a lasting impact that piece of musical art would have on the great Hoosier state, especially on the City of Vincennes and Knox County. He also had no way of knowing what a beautiful recreational facility would later become known as Kimmell Park, now magnificently located on the banks of the Wabash.
A lot of water literally has gone under the Lincoln Memorial Bridge to the south and the Red Skelton Bridge to the north of Kimmell Park in the past century plus two decades.
An article in the “Our Times … the 20th Century” column, which was written by Brian Spangle and appeared in the June 2, 2013, edition of the Vincennes Sun-Commercial, sheds some light on the history of Kimmell Park.
The story reads, in part: “Finally, in 1938, when Kimmell Park was constructed by the Works Progress Administration, the city initiated condemnation proceedings to acquire 15.79 acres that comprised Riverside Park and join it with Kimmell Park.” Later in that column, Spangle reports that: “In 1944 and 1945, German prisoners of war were housed in a camp at Vincennes and did labor in the county. Part of Kimmell Park, and what had been Riverside Park, is where the camp was located.”
The four stone fire pits
Shortly after completing his second term as mayor of Vincennes, having served as its leader from 1930 until 1938, Joseph W. Kimmell was recognized by having this newly-created landscape masterpiece named in his honor. The four renovated stone fire pits, an iconic part of Kimmell Park, were also designed and built by members of the federal Works Progress Administration. These significant pieces of the Kimmell Park puzzle were constructed to remember Knox County’s early history.
One was named after Indiana’s first newspaper, the Western Sun, now the Sun-Commercial. Another fire pit commemorates Patrick Henry, who served as governor of Virginia when Indiana was still part of that state. Another of the circular pits honors Major Francis Bowman, Colonel George Rogers Clark’s second in command, when Fort Sackville was captured from the British. The other is dedicated to the memory of Captain Leonard Helm, who served with Clark as a Virginia officer in the American Revolutionary War.
‘One of the finest parks in the state’
On Sept. 25, 2013, the ”National Register of Historic Places Program” wrote: “The Kimmell Park Historic District is significant at the local level under Criterion C for its architecture, the attractive limestone shelterhouse and picnic patios that embody WPA park structures. The circular patios with the seating and built-in fireplace ovens are unusual; only one other park in the state, Otis Park in Bedford, also a WPA project, has anything that is even similar in concept. The architects were Sutton and Routt, a prominent Vincennes firm that worked on the designs of other WPA projects, but apparently only one other park, Gregg Park, a mile southeast of Kimmell. The district is also significant under Criterion A in the areas of social history, for its association with the Works Progress Administration, and entertainment/recreation. Kimmell is one of the finest parks in the state entirely developed by the WPA, a New Deal work program that achieved great success in Indiana.”
Transferring ownership to VU
The City of Vincennes Parks and Recreation Department, along with the Vincennes Parks Board of Directors, had maintained and handled the day-to-day operations of the park until late December 2015. In Resolution No. 19-2015, the Vincennes City Council voted unanimously to transfer ownership of Kimmell Park to Vincennes University. The Resolution was signed by Vincennes Mayor Joe Yochum on Dec. 28, 2015.
Paragraphs 4 and 5 of that Resolution stipulated that: “WHEREAS, the City, Park Board and University believe it will be a benefit to the residents of Vincennes and to the students of the University for the University to own the Park Property so the University can expend University funds to better maintain the Park Property and to provide police protection for the Park Property; and WHEREAS, the Park Board has approved the conveyance of the Park Property to the University upon the condition that the Park Property will continue to be used as a public park; and … ”. VU went to work transforming this beautiful, spacious, historical treasure into an even brighter, glowing gem.
During the “Grand Re-Dedication” ceremony on Aug. 29, Mayor Yochum thanked VU for accepting the Park and for restoring it. In his remarks, Mayor Yochum said: “You’ve taken this park and made it amazing.” He added, “And it shows that when we all work together, really good things can happen.” Phil Rath, vice president of finance and government relations at VU, told the large crowd that had gathered in and around the newly-remodeled open-air shelter house, that more than $2.5 million has been invested in this special project. He praised the efforts of everyone involved in helping to make the transformation a tremendous success.
The park’s amenities
Numerous amenities now fill the approximate 16 acres of Kimmell Park, officially located at 2014 Oliphant Drive, with another 64 acres of Cooper’s Woods adjacent on the north side. The first obvious change is the expansion of what was an 18-foot gap to a spacious 100-foot opening as the main entrance from Red Skelton Boulevard. The renovations continue with 200 new trees having been planted, each with a skirt of black, wooden mulch surrounding its trunk. Seventy new lights, hoisted high on black-painted poles, illuminate the serene landscape every time the sun sets beyond the Lincoln Memorial Bridge.
An elevated concrete viewing area, just inside the main entrance and secured by 850 feet of linear guard rail, gives the Kimmell Park visitor an amazingly panoramic sight of the mighty Wabash River. Seven plastic-coated metal, VU-blue painted benches are evenly spaced on the riverside of the viewing platform to help visitors relax and enjoy the peaceful environment that has been created there. In addition to the viewing area, more than 4,000 cubic yards of concrete has been strategically placed to provide an abundance of parking spaces; an enlarged boat launch ramp; walking paths to the four circular fire pits; new bathroom floors; and for walking, strolling, jogging or running along the beautiful banks of the flowing Wabash.
One of the most striking renovations in Kimmell Park is the clean, well-lighted open-air shelter house. Sturdy stone pillars support a new roof and ceiling under which three blue, steel rafters strongly hang. Six fluorescent lighting fixtures, three on each side of the ceiling, provide a shower of light. Rows of portable, metal-mesh picnic tables, with a VU-blue thermoplastic coating, adorn the middle of the new concrete floor. A hand-crafted fireplace, with a 10-foot concrete bench on either side, stands mid-way between the two openings of the Oliphant Street side entrances to the shelter house. Purposely located on the highest elevation in Kimmell Park, the west side of the limestone shelter house structure provides a virtually unobstructed view overlooking the majestic Wabash River.
Steve Beaman, director of the Vincennes Parks and Recreation Department, explained that transfer talks began when “Mayor Yochum approached the Parks Board and informed them that Vincennes University was applying for a grant through the state that would allow for improvements throughout the community.
“One of their main pieces of the grant would be a total overhaul of Kimmell Park,” Beaman said. “The University would invest well over $2.5 million into the city park that had seen better days.”
Beaman also noted, “Phil Rath came to one of our Parks Board meetings and discussed with the Parks Board the whole process. After seeing the proposed improvements and getting reassurances from the university that Kimmell Park would remain a park and open to all, they graciously agreed to deed over ownership of Kimmell to the university.”
Among the many advantages of this transaction, Beaman explained that the money being saved by the city is at the top of the list.
“We could see savings of $6,000 to $8,000,” he said, “which includes man hours, gas, utilities, wear and tear on equipment, and the unexpected issues that arise such as tree removal, flood clean-up, vandalism and repairs to buildings.”
He sums up the reasons for the city’s donation and his delight in what VU has created with its transformation by concluding: “The City and the Parks Department would have never been able to make that kind of investment into Kimmell Park; or have the resources that the university has to see to the continued upkeep of the park.”
Beaman capped it all off when he said, “Kimmell Park is such a piece of Vincennes history, and to see the result of VU’s involvement is amazing. It has breathed new life into a grand old park and has extended its life for decades to come.”
The combined efforts of the City of Vincennes and VU, working hand-in-hand for the betterment of the entire community, have resulted in one of the most major improvements in recent years. It has become increasingly important to provide incentives for the young people of this area to remain here; to receive a quality education; to acquire good, high-paying jobs, and to enjoy a better way of living. The Kimmell Park restoration project is a giant step toward an improved quality of life today … and for future generations.