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Part 9 of 10: Summer Sports in Utica's Olmsted Parks

Utica's Olmsted System was built to promote healthy mind and bodies.

The current Parkway tennis courts, built by the WPA in 1939 (picture from around 1950).

Frederick T. Proctor Park was the place in Utica's Olmsted system that was meant simply for people to commune with nature while taking strolls—it is what is known historically as the "pleasure garden" type of urban park.   However, although the system was created in the belief that beauty and fresh air would themselves "uplift" people, Proctor and people like him also believed that sports would also uplift working people and help ensure that they would grow up healthy, civic-minded Americans.

From its beginning, Thomas R. Proctor Park (which was opened to the public five years before F.T. Proctor Park) was intended to serve as a place for organized sports; such parks were called "reform parks" because social reformers in the Progressive Era (1900-20) were concerned that urban working-class children had few appropriate places to play games and build healthy bodies and minds.  It is for this reason that T.R. Proctor Park has always been filled with playing fields for various sports. 

Thomas R. Proctor also dammed the Starch Factory Creek in T.R. Proctor Park in 1916 so that children would have a place to swim; the construction of the Buckley Pool by the Federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s eliminated the need for the pond Proctor built in 1916, which was apparently eliminated as part of the WPA's elaborate program to diminish flooding on the creek.

From its earliest days, Roscoe Conkling Park, the largest of Utica's 3 Olmsted-designed parks, was intended to be a mixture of pleasure garden and reform park.  Hiking and strolling have always popular in Conkling Park, particularly up and over the hill that starts at Oneida Street on the park's west side and in the very popular, zig-zagging switchbacks in Conkling's "South Woods" section on the park's east side.  Conkling Park offered many beautiful trails and majestic views characteristic of Olmsted design, but Thomas R. Proctor also wanted it to offer opportunities to engage in formal sports.  

In 1913, the first tennis courts were created, and Proctor proudly boasted that "there is hardly a day when they are not occupied from sunrise to sunset."  In fact, their construction changed Utica's sports culture dramatically.  As the Utica Sunday Tribune noted in 1916, "tennis had been the sport of the wealthy" before the creation of the Parkway tennis courts, since previously the only local courts were private ones at country clubs and in a few wealthy neighborhoods.  The current courts were built by the WPA in 1939.

As the American middle class grew between 1890 and 1930, demand for municipal golf courses also grew.  Like tennis, golf had been a sport of the wealthy because the only courses were at exclusive, expensive country clubs. The first American municipal course was opened in the Bronx in 1895, and the second was opened in Boston in 1900; in 1917 Philadelphia became one of the last major cities to create one.  Utica was not immune to these trends.  In 1916, Thomas R. Proctor supported a decision to transform the eastern end of Conkling Park into a municipal golf course.

Who designed Utica's course and when it was built have been the subject of some confusion.  Pioneer American golfer Walter Travis visited Utica in September 1916 and submitted a design for a course at Conkling Park that elicited much praise.  However, it appears that the Travis design was never used; the Parks Superintendent, Edward Swiggert, stalled on the creation of the course because he objected to its proposed size (something he disclosed privately to Olmsted). 

Although the course was supposed to have opened in May 1917, one was not constructed until the mid-1920s, and then thanks very largely to successful lobbying by a citizens group, the Utica Municipal Golf Association, led by Fred Graff of 637 Parkway East, directly across from the northeastern corner of Conkling Park.   Local newspapers reported that the first game was played at a new 7-hole course in August 1925, and plans were soon laid to upgrade it to 9 holes in 1926.  By the early 1930s (if not earlier), the course had become known as Valley View, even while remaining part of Roscoe Conkling Park; when it opened in 1925, approximately 50 American cities had public golf courses.

Valley View was expanded to 18 holes and generally upgraded by the WPA in the late 1930s using a design created by renowned American golf course designer Robert Trent Jones.  Utica's Municipal Golf Association maintained the course until 1946, when the City assumed responsibility for it.  In the early 1960s, the City built a clubhouse with locker rooms and a bar and restaurant near the intersection of the Parkway and Valley View Road, which was named after the early twentieth century local Italian Republican leader, Alfred Bertolini.