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100 years of Washington Park

An article in the April 27, 1939 Detroit Lakes Record carried a headline which read, "It was 'Eyesore No. 1' in 39."

This headline referred to the Washington Park grandstand that was built in 1908. Painting the wobbly structure was suggested, while others suggested wrecking it and building a new grandstand.

A frequent complaint by neighboring residents was that it was a place for undesirable "drifters" to sleep during the summer.

The 1930s is remembered as the Depression era. With World War II looming on the horizon, there really wasn't much money or time to think about a new grandstand at the ballpark.

When the war ended in 1945, interest in baseball was renewed. In 1946 the first Detroit Lakes American Legion baseball team was organized. This team contained the nucleus of the 1948 Laker team that went on to earn a berth in the Minnesota American Legion State Tournament.

With a new team playing at Washington Park, there was interest in improving the ball field.

City Engineer Winston Larson drew up plans, which were published in the Detroit Lakes Tribune late in 1947.

In early January, 1948, a front page news article listed six reasons why voters should approve two proposed bond issues; one for $20,000 for floodlights and the other for $25,000 for a new grandstand. On January 6, 1948 voters approved issuing the bonds to finance this project by a two-to-one margin.

A front page photo, right under the headline of the July 1, 1948, Detroit Lakes Tribune, shows a large crane on tracks lifting one of the eight green light towers into place.

On Friday night, twilight baseball made its debut at Washington Park when the lights were turned on at 8 p.m. -- before the start of the Lakers and Fergus Falls game. Remember, this was in the days before Daylight Saving Time.

On Aug. 11, 1948, the new $25,000 grandstand, which replaced the one built in 1908, was dedicated. Additional seating along the first and third base lines brought the seating capacity of Washington Park to over 2,500.

Other improvements included concrete dugouts, field drainage systems, new wire fences and canvas. With these improvements, the refurbished ballpark was one of the finest ballparks in Minnesota.

A big selling point for the improvements was that high school football games could be played at Washington Park under lights. Prior to the fall of 1948, high school football games were played at the Becker County Fairgrounds on a football field that was where the Food Pantry is now.

The first football game at Washington Park under the lights was September 24, 1948, when the American Legion sponsored the Lake Park and Audubon teams at the new football field. Lake Park outscored Audubon 39 to 12.

Detroit Lakes played its first football game at Washington Park under lights on October 8, 1948, when it hosted Frazee. The teams battled to a scoreless tie before a crowd of 1,500 fans.

DLHS football games were played at Washington Park for 40 seasons. On Sept. 13, 1968, the first DLHS football game was played at Mollberg Field.

After 40 years of use, the Washington Park grandstand was in dire need of improvements. In the spring of 1989 the Lakes Area Builders Association stepped up to the plate and refurbished the ballpark as their project for the year.

They cleaned out an accumulation of junk under the bleachers, fixed up the public restrooms and got the locker rooms in shape so ball players didn't have to go home wearing the same uniform they had played the night's ball game in.

Once again the ballpark had been restored to its original glory where it ranks as one of the finest ballparks in Minnesota.

It's 100 years since the first grandstand was constructed at Washington Park. This summer marks 60 years since the grandstand and lights were used for the first time. The 80-foot towers are still in use, however, the light fixtures on the tower have been replaced.

Before Washington Park was refurbished by Lakes Area Builders a "Snapshot of History" appeared in the March 23, 1989, Tribune which read:

"The original bleacher area was constructed in 1908. Because of the heavy expenses, anyone wishing to sit during games was charged 10-cent admission; those who stood could get in free."

In the same article, Beans Benson provides an oral account of one event at the ball field:

"A circus was held on the ball field once. The heavy carriages of animals got stuck in the mud, so six horses and two elephants pushed and got the wagons of animals out of the mud. It (the ball yard, which was built on a swamp) has been filled in several times. While the wagons were being pulled out, they happened to break some of the sidewalk, so the city sued the circus for the broken sidewalk. The circus people (Ringling Brothers) were very angry and swore they would never come back to this town again."

(Submitted by Harriet Davis and Becky Olerud from Becker County Historical Society)