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COLUMN

Long-forgotten Fort Wayne park has a rich history and, just maybe, a bright future

Tiny Guldlin Park boasted the city's first playground, and it's been downhill ever since

Saturday, April 6, 2013 - 12:01 am

With the passage of March into April, another Women's History Month has come and gone – with no discernible mention of the Fort Wayne resident who a century ago was considered “one of the most prominent women in America.”

That seems only appropriate, in a sad sort of way, since the once-thriving park that bears Addie Bleekman Guldlin's last name has followed her into obscurity.

Except for a few contradictory historical markers, a bargain-basement sign and a boat ramp into the St. Marys River, there is nothing to distinguish the barren 6-acre park that in 1911 became home to Fort Wayne's first public playground – an attraction advocated and partially funded by someone who thought that women should vote but also know how to run a household.

The 1,200-home historic West Central Neighborhood Association, which includes a park just southeast of the Van Buren Street Bridge, would like to change that both for its own sake and for the sake of a woman who deserves a better legacy.

“We'd like to see more people use the park, but right now it's one of the city's unknown treasures. Maybe access to the river will help draw people,” said association President Susan Smethers who said even a small investment by the city's Parks and Recreation Department – maybe a pavilion – would remind people little Guldlin Park is still here.

Not likely, said Parks Director Al Moll, who just a few years ago was trying to sell unwanted bits of park property not much smaller than Guldlin Park.

“If there was ever a park that is not used, that is,” Moll said. “Unless you want to kick a ball on an open field, there's not much to do. We have no plans to develop anything.”

And so the lonely little park just sits there, unused and all but unnoticed.

What would Addie Guldlin do? Something, that's for sure. After moving to Fort Wayne in the 1890s with her parents and husband, Olaf Guldlin, who became wealthy investing in Indiana's then-booming natural gas industry, she became interested in efforts to win women the right to vote, eventually helping create Fort Wayne's League of Women Voters. But progress was slow at first because of the influence of Indiana's liquor lobby, which feared women would support prohibition (and Guldlin did indeed support “temperance”). So she and many other suffragists became involved in social clubs, which allowed them to pursue other interests.

One of Guldlin's interests was a field then known as “domestic sciences” – the belief that women should receive formal training to be homemakers, which she considered an art form. She lectured on the topic nationally, causing the Indianapolis News in 1911 to declare her national prominence. She also supported the “city beautiful” movement, which promoted civic planning and grand features, such as wide boulevards.

But it was her support of the city's new Park Commission and her belief that central-city children had no safe place to play that induced Guldlin to advocate the development of playgrounds, one of which was earmarked for the area off Van Buren Street that had been the site of the French Fort Miami (erected in either 1722 or 1680, according to the dueling markers) and a deadly skirmish between Indians and American soldiers in 1813.

Guldlin supervised construction of the playground, which featured separate sections for boys and girls, and helped pay for it. In recognition, the new park was named in the couple's honor. The playground was impressive indeed, drawing a large crowd to its dedication on May 20, 1911 – just two years before most of it washed away in what remains the worst flood in Fort Wayne history. Guldlin Park hasn't been the same since, and few have seemed to care, or even notice. Especially once the city removed several nearby flood-prone homes a decade or so ago.

You can't really blame the Parks Department, which is struggling to maintain far larger, more popular and important parks while also dealing with unplanned expenses, such as trees destroyed by the emerald ash borer. So Smethers said her association will do what it can, devoting some time in the coming weeks to the removal of trash, downed tree limbs and other signs of neglect.

But don't count Guldlin Park out just yet. City Council recently approved a $500,000 study that could lead to millions of dollars in downtown riverfront improvements. And this summer, when the apparently resurrected Three Rivers Festival raft race sends hundreds of people east on the St. Marys from Swinney Park, they will float right past Guldlin Park. Some may come ashore at its ramp, look around and wonder, “What is this place? Who was Guldlin?”

Now you know.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.