Children play likely during the 1910s in Austin’s Central Park, where a spring-fed fountain drained easterly to the Cedar River above the downtown Austin dam. Central Park was Austin’s first park, with work starting in the late 1880s. It eventually faded away in the mid-1960s for various reasons.

LOOKBACK: Austin’s ‘Central Park’ along river gone but not forgotten

Fountain draining into Cedar above dam one of wooded site’s features before 1928 tornado, power plant expansion changed it

Unofficially named “Water Works Park” at the time, the site — located along old Water Street (4th Ave NE) above the downtown dam on the river’s west side — was expected to have work restart in spring 1898.

“By the return of another summer, Austin will have a nice park,” wrote the Austin Daily Herald on Aug. 21, 1897.

Despite not being finished, the park hosted an evening band concert in September 1897, the same month that the Austin City Council voted to approve “Central Park” as its official name.

Central Park — located on the site of Austin’s former downtown power plant and the present-day Austin YMCA community recreation center that replaced it— was Austin’s first park. It eventually faded away by the mid-1960s, however, after other larger parks were opened, a 1928 tornado devastated its trees and Austin Utilities kept expanding its power plant.

Early 1900s postcard of the downtown power plant and part of Central Park.

While “Central Park” was the official name, it was not necessarily the one used by citizens. At the time of its naming in 1897, some people called the site “Water Works Park,” “City Park” or “Riverside Park,” a name that resurfaced in 1973 when the city built its first hockey arena — Riverside Arena — across the street. “Water Works” related to the city’s water-supply facility adjacent to the park. In the early 1900s, “Lake Fritz” also was used for the park.

1888 map of downtown Austin not showing Central Park yet next to the Water Works although work to develop it had begun.

“We must get accustomed to the high-sounding name,” the Herald wrote in September 1897 about the name “Central Park.”

But even the Herald and other local newspapers back then had trouble with that, continually referring to it as “Water Works Park” or “City Park” in the years to follow.

1909 postcard of the heavily wooded Central Park.

A July 15, 1909, article in the Herald referred to it as “Central Park” but then had fun with the name.

“Don’t know where that is? That’s the official name of what is more often called the ‘Water Works Park.’ Let us call it by his official name, ‘Central Park.,’ ” the Herald wrote.

View across the Cedar River at Central Park circa 1910 with the old Water Street (4th Ave NE) bridge shown on the left.

Work to create Austin’s first park

Initial efforts to develop Central Park appear to start in 1887 when a Mr. Geraghty was paid by the city for “labor on water works park.”

At that time, the community was creating a “Water Works” building just west of the park site. A Mower County Transcript article in October 1887 described the work to dig a 20-foot-deep well that was 16 feet in diameter.

“One of the busiest places in Austin now is to be found at the Water Works,” the article wrote. “Thirty men are humping themselves to get things along as fast as possible. The foundation for the engine house has been laid and yesterday 20 feet of the chimney was rushed up.

Undated image of the power plant and Central Park.

By September 1888, the appearance of the grounds surrounding the Water Works building were nearing completion with grading and graveling. The river was dragged to help with the grading.

“The job is a tasty one and the money was well expended that was used in doing that work,” according to a newspaper. “We think the Water Works Park should receive some attention next.”

Based on 1870s plat maps, Central Park’s site appears to be higher ground than adjacent land along the river to the west. At that time, the Cedar River’s backwaters behind the dam had not been formed into today’s Austin Mill Pond. Numerous islands dotted the Cedar River, which flowed in areas that since have been developed, including the city pool’s site.

A body of water on the river near Central Park was called Coon Lake and later Lake Lincoln before that stretch of river was changed drastically to create Horace Austin State Park in the 1910s-1920s.

This property also was the site of Austin’s first primitive dam created by Native Americans to ground corn when they visited the area prior to European settlers arriving in the 1850s. The primitive dam was along the river’s western shoreline, just downstream from the present-day pedestrian bridge on Austin Mill Pond’s southeast corner.

Early 1900s image of Central Park (called “City Park” here) and the Cedar River above Austin’s downtown dam.

Central Park boasted a fountain that spouted water upward, landing in a small pool below that drained easterly into the nearby Cedar River after first flowing under a little foot bridge. It was the site for community gatherings, such as concerts, celebrations and speakers, as well as a starting point for parades.

Footbridge shown (left) at Central Park circa 1910s.

On Aug. 16, 1898, Central Park hosted likely its biggest event to that point for a “big peace celebration” there for the armistice signed four days earlier between the United States and Spain. That ended the Spanish-American War in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

A band played music and local officials addressed the crowd from a platform. A choir of more than 20 people sang, closing with “America (My Country ’Tis of Thee).”

The following year, a flood in June 1899 put Central Park completely under water — something that would happen a few more times in its life, including in 1903 and 1908.

Austin’s historic June 1908 flooding of the Cedar River captured here as the river flows through Central Park and the Water Works station’s property over Water Street (4th Ave NE) into what today is the Riverside Arena parking lot. Back then, it was the Kinsman Greenhouses.

Friedrich brings vision for park to life

In May 1905, Austin was continuing to develop Central Park along with its second-ever park — Lafayette Park — on the city’s side south side along the Cedar River. The old Water Street bridge had been relocated to the site to allow South Main Street to cross the river into Lafayette Park, which was about 11 acres of land donated in 1901 to the city by Lafayette French and other local leaders.

1917 map showing “City Park” for Central Park.

Anton “Fritz” Friedrich, caretaker of Central Park and the superintendent of Oakwood Cemetery, was leading the work at Central Park in the early 1900s. In 1905, Friedrich — also known as “Fritz” and “genial Fred” — was trying to change the park’s original design with sidewalks higher than the lawn. He cut roadways and walks down, making the land graded and “hundreds of trees set out.”

At the same time, the city was planning to put a top course of stone along Water Street’s north side, with steps planned to connect the park.

Major work also was underway in 1905 at Lafayette Park, including the creation of athletic grounds, a pavilion, a drive along the river and planting of hundreds of trees.

Friedrich also is credited with ensuring that George Hormel founded his business in Austin. Friedrich, who had owned a father-and-son butcher shop downtown that burned down in 1887, suggested that Hormel, then a traveling salesman, settle in Austin and go into business with his son Albrecht Friedrich.

1906-postmarked postcard showing the wooden bridge prior to the creation of a stone bridge.

The Herald proclaimed that month that “lots of work being done” to make the parks beautiful and that the parks board was doing “splendid work.”

“No other city of the size of Austin will be able to boast of more beautiful outing places for the people,” the Herald wrote, while referring to “Central or the Water Works Park, as most people call it.”

Under Friedrich’s supervision, Central Park was “being greatly improved,” the Herald wrote, adding that Frierich was “the most able man we have in the art of landscape gardening.”

Undated postcard of Central Park looking west at it from across the Cedar River.

Fredrich got ideas for the park while visiting California . He was looking for “places where the art of man had improved over nature’s handwork.” He found one in the form of a little, stone bridge.

Upon returning to Austin, Friedrich started trying to reproduce the bridge at Central Park, leading to a “beautiful stone arch, with its cobble stone approaches.”

“This was a great addition to the park,” a newspaper wrote.

Children fish circa 1910 from the Central Park’s stone bridge near the Cedar River.

During 1905, Austin’s park board approved constructing a cement curb with iron railing near Central Park on Water Street’s (4th Ave NE) north side, including a “flight of steps” from the walk down into the park, according to the Mower County Transcript. That May, the city also acquired more land for Central Park by acquiring and removing a home on Water Street abutting the park and Water Works station.

That same year, Austin businessman and former mayor Lyman Baird made what the newspapers called a “magnificent offer” to develop and beautify the swampland backwaters of the Cedar River at today’s Austin Mill Pond. He and his wife offered $5,000 if the city would match it.

Baird’s plans called for work to be done from Central Park along the river upstream to Oakwood Cemetery all to “enhance the beauty” of the city and get rid of an “eye sore.”

At the time, Baird said his plan was “not to be considered as an effort to throw cold water on what has been done and is doing” related to parks but rather to “supplement the work you have done.”

The present parks are in fine condition, Baird said, and could go a few years without further work to provide funding to develop the new park.

At the time, Lafayette French, chair of the Park Board, stated that 20 years earlier (approx. 1885) he wanted the city to secure land for a public park and now it had two: Central and Lafayette parks.

“A park system is considered a public necessity in every village and city,” French said.

Humorous postcard from 1909 of the Cedar River above the downtown dam, with Central Park on right.

Baird’s efforts eventually turned into state legislation in 1913 that was approved to make today’s Austin Mill Pond into a state park. About another decades of work — particularly major dredging of the river and filling of areas — proceeded for the development of Horace Austin State Park, which later was developed in the 1960s.

By November 1907, much had been done during a four-year span to beautify the city, including at Central Park, with more plans to beautify the Water Street (4th Ave NE) boulevard with three flower gardens of different designs.

“As a result, our city has been advertised wide and far by every stranger who has ever visited here,” the Herald wrote. At the time, however, the park board was hampered by a lack of funds to carry on that work.

1909 postcard of Central Park with the original Hormel Foods plant shown in the background along the Cedar River.

Honorary fountain bust for ‘Fritz’ backfires

That same year (1907) in July, Austin’s park board moved forward with plans to build a fountain and pond at Central Park. The pond’s basin was lined with concrete and covered with washed sand to help keep the water clear. Plans were for the fountain to “play” all summer long, “a thing of beauty amid a sylvian setting,” the Herald reported.

1924 image of the fountain draining to the Cedar River.

That month, the Herald wrote that “Lake Fritz” would be the name of Central Park’s fountain pool in honor of Friedrich, the park’s caretaker.

Friedrich also is credited with ensuring that George Hormel founded his business in Austin. Friedrich, who had owned a father-and-son butcher shop downtown that burned down in 1887, suggested that Hormel, then a traveling salesman, settle in Austin and go into business with his son Albrecht Friedrich.

Friedrich & Hormel opened in October 1887 but dissolved in 1891. Hormel then focused on meat packing and founded Geo. A. Hormel & Co.

With the fountain pool, Friedrich had envisioned it in a dream one night. The next morning, he started working on the idea. Earth was excavated 8 inches and an equal amount of gravel put in followed by 8 inches of concrete and 1.5 inches cement coating. A cinder walk went around the pool in which Friedrich placed gold fish and other fish.

“It is to be a real dream lake, and it was appropriate to name it ‘Fritz’,” the Herald wrote.

1911 postcard of the fountain.

Citizens felt so strongly about honoring Friedrich at the park that they also had someone create a cement bust of him. The bust was set on a pile of stones in the fountain pool, with a water pipe running through it. At the top, water shot out of the bust’s head and ran down the face, giving the appearance of weeping.

“(Friedrich) also objected to the implication that he had water on the brain,” the Herald reported.

That winter, someone put an overcoat on the bust and straw hat with ear muffs on the head.

One morning in June 1908 — just weeks before Austin suffered a historic flood that roared through the park — Friedrich reportedly went to the park and stated, “I don’t think that looks like me.” He then smashed the bust with a hammer before calling a workman to help.

“We are all glad it’s gone,” the Herald wrote.

1930 image of Central Park’s fountain.

Central Park hosts variety of events

In the early years, band concerts were a common attraction at Central Park most likely along with shoreline fishing of the Cedar River. During that time, there was at least one event there of log rolling (also called “log birling”) on the Cedar that drew a big crowd to the park.

George Hormel used Central Park to start his company’s parades on Labor Day. In 1904, the “packing house picnic” — “the biggest thing of the kind ever held in the vicinity of Austin” — started at Central Park, where employees gathered to form a procession with speakers, a band and banners.

1917 postcard of Central Park’s fountain.

They walked through downtown Austin and followed South Main Street to Lafayette Park, the site of the picnic. At that time, the new Lafayette Park was described as “the only suitable place near the city for a gathering of this kind.”

In August 1905, the 4th annual outing of the Hormel company started again at Central Park, heading west on Water Street and south on Main Street, ending at the Lafayette Park’s springs, which were along the Cedar River, east of the South Main bridge. Today, the site of the springs (long covered up) is part of Rotary Park.

A newspaper reported 350 employees of the Hormel company in August 1908 gathered at Central Park and marched to Lafayette for the annual picnic.

Boats head up stream on the Cedar River circa 1910 near Central Park.

In June 1911, Austinites gathered along the Cedar River at Central Park to celebrate the arrival of 2.5 million gallons of spring water flowing daily into the city’s mains.

Central Park hosted several thousand people for that party. Hundreds of electric lights gleamed through the park’s trees and its fountain was fitted with colored, electric globes.

“The waters laughed, bubbled, gurgled and splashed to the delight and pleasure of all,” the Herald wrote of the fountain in 1911.

Austin then began promoting itself as having the “finest water supply in the state” thanks to the major project that piped in water from City Farm Springs, formerly Sargent Springs and the present site of the Austin Country Club.

A boy goes fishing on the Cedar River in the 1940s at Central Park. Photo provided by William LeBarron.

At one time, Austin pumped its water supply from deep wells next to the pumping station adjacent to the park. Some times there were water shortages that led to drilling a new well. When that happened, civic celebrations happened at the park to commemorate the completion of the latest well.

In June 1919, Central Park was the starting point for a “Parade of Men in Uniform,” although the newspaper ad referred to it as “City Water Works Park.” World War I veterans assembled there for the June 10 parade and formed into companies before marching to Lafayette Park past thousands of people lining the streets, celebrating military victory and making “this the Greatest Event in our history.”

In 1920, the local unions met at Central Park on Labor Day morning to start their annual parade through Austin.

Another event in 1920 involved a band concert at Central Park on July 12 at 8:00 PM with a “remarkable address” by Doctor Bayliss of Brooklyn, N.Y., on Americanization presented by the Austin Rotary Club.

1920 ad for the Doctor Bayliss event hosted by the Austin Rotary Club.

1928 tornado devastates Central Park, downtown Austin

By the late 1920s, Central Park’s usage and popularity began to wane with the development of Lafayette Park, Horace Austin State Park (which really took off in the 1920s) and Todd Park (Austin’s largest park today), which started being used as a park in the late 1920s.

1925 image of Central Park’s fountain, looking west at the power plant’s smokestack.

Making matters worse for Central Park, many of its trees were destroyed when a tornado roared Aug. 20, 1928, through downtown Austin along the Water Street corridor, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses.

“The city park at Austin — a beauty spot — was laid waste,” the Herald reported. “It will take 20 years for Austin to restore this beauty spot, which was snatched from her in the twinkle of an eye.”

Central Park never really recovered, though.

Article about the 1928 tornado through Austin.

Central Park fades away

By the 1930s, Austin had a handful of large, established parks — Lafayette on the south side; Horace Austin State Park near downtown; Todd Park on the north side; and Sutton Park on the east side.

Todd Park, in fact, was named in honor of William Todd, who built the city’s first municipal light plant in 1899 but also was known for improving and maintaining Central Park.

As Austin grew in population and industry (mainly Hormel Foods), the downtown power plant expanded to keep up with the demand. When that happened, Central Park became smaller.

In 1947, Austin Utilities embarked on a $1 million expansion to the downtown power plant, cutting into the park. By the early 1960s, aerial images showed Central Park as just a small, wooded corner along Water Street.

Austin’s city directory included Central Park on the list parks through 1966 but then it disappeared, according to Sue Doocy of the Mower County Historical Society.

Newspaper articles also have not been found reporting the official demise of Central Park.

Circa 1941 aerial image of the downtown power plant and Central Park to its right with the Cedar River across the top.
A 1963 aerial shows a small, wooded part that remained of Central Park.
A crew with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources works in spring 2020 to install a barrier float across the Cedar River State Water Trail above Austin’s downtown dam to improve paddler and boater safety. To the left is the former site of Central Park.

Formed in 2007, CRWD works to reduce flooding and improve water quality on the Cedar River State Water Trail and its tributaries in southern Minnesota.

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