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Part 6 of 10: Early uses of the System

Since the early 1900s, Utica's parks have been a gathering place and venue for important events in the community.

Godet flying over the Parkway and Conkling Park in 1911.

The Utica Saturday Globe described the uses to which Utica's Olmsted parks were being put in its earliest days. Roscoe Conkling Park, a "gem of nature," had become "a picnic place for families,  playground for children, a walk for lovers, an observation-point for the serious-minded…A walk through this commanding and picturesque pleasure ground is a veritable delight."  Sports were also an important part of park life from the earliest days of the Olmsted system (sports will be discussed in Parts 9 and 10 of this series).

As will be described in a later part of this series, Conkling Park was organized around several nodes named for certain types of trees, and at each there was a small cluster of mostly wooden buildings, which have all disappeared.  A pavilion with a dance floor that could accommodate 200 people opened in 1914 at the Elms, which was located between the Utica Zoo and the small parking lot that today overlooks the golf course and reservoirs.  Organizations had other sorts of gatherings, including picnics with competitions, at this site.

Around 1910, the Utica Parks Commission hired a local architect to create a bandstand that stood for a number of years on the Parkway, approximately 150 yards from Elm Street, that no longer exists.  During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal program to employ idled workers, built a second bandstand, as well as a baseball diamond, behind the Parkway tennis courts.  For several decades, the Utica Civic Band, among other groups, gave well-attended concerts from this bandstand.  Although this bandstand likewise disappeared (presumably during the creation of the Val Bialas ski center), the City later acquired mobile stages for performances in the parks, and Conkling and, later, F.T. Proctor Park fprovided the staging area for July 4 fireworks witnessed by tens of thousands over the course of many decades.

Indeed, from early on, the parks were considered the natural venue for important community events. In September 1911, thousands of Uticans gathered around the Parkway and the western end of Roscoe Conkling Park (near Oneida Street) to witness Eugene Godet, a French pilot, fly an airplane over Utica for the first time.  Even US Vice President and Utica resident James S. Sherman was among those amazed by the sight of a machine flying in the sky.  "Long after Godet has passed away," the Utica Observer wrote, "…there will be old men and old women who will say that the first exhibition of an aeroplane that they ever saw was given in Utica by a young Frenchman named Godet."

Perhaps the most elaborate of the early public events in Utica's Olmsted system was Old Home Week, held at Roscoe Conkling Park over several days in August 1914.  Four performances of the Pageant of Utica, a theatrical history of the settlement and evolution of the Upper Mohawk Valley, and the unveiling of the von Steuben statue, were the highlights of Old Home Week. 

The Pageant dramatized an array of events from the region's history:  the earliest settlement of the area by Palatine Germans in the 18th century; the nearby Battle of Oriskany in 1777; the arrival of settlers from New England; the abolitionist movement; the Civil War (which was commemorated by a woman, identified as "Peace," riding slowly on horseback up Conkling hill, followed by a troupe of aged Civil War veterans). Although the Pageant of Utica was told largely from the perspective of the descendants of New England settlers, it culminated in a finale featuring a parade of members of new immigrant and migrant groups—including African Americans—who were presented as representatives of Utica's bright future.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1932, an estimated 30,000 people attended a dramatization in Conkling Park to celebrate Utica's Centennial Celebration in 1932.  The climax of this theatrical performance was a battle around an elaborate reconstruction of Old Fort Schuyler, from which the city of Utica eventually originated; there had been no such battle, but it apparently made for entertaining outdoor theater.