Playgrounds—spaces designed for children’s play, exercise and enjoyment—are common in modern urban areas. In St. Paul, playgrounds are scattered within many of the city’s 184 parks and paired with almost every elementary school and recreation center. I’ve spent countless hours on the swings, slides and sandboxes of St. Paul’s playgrounds, both as a child and since becoming a parent, and it’s hard for me to imagine the city without these spaces.
However, playgrounds have not always been present within our community. In fact, until the early 1900s playgrounds were virtually unheard of in Minnesota. Children played in their crowded yards (often among drying clothes and outhouses) or in the streets amid dangerous horse-driven carriages.
Given these conditions, the 1904 opening of the first enduring playground in St. Paul—the Como Avenue Playground in Frogtown—would have been revolutionary for children and their caregivers. Rather than spending the summer underfoot at home or playing in the street, children had a dedicated space within the city to play.
Although it launched the lauded system of community centers and playgrounds we currently enjoy in St. Paul, the history of the Como Avenue Playground is not well known. The advent of this playground changed the way that children and their caregivers (typically women) experienced the city, as it carved out a safe space distinctly dedicated to children and their recreational needs. Today, as we work to ensure equitable access to playgrounds and consider a 1% sales tax increase that will be on the ballot for St. Paul residents November 7, with some funding earmarked for community centers and athletic facilities, it is worth considering the advent of the Como Avenue Playground and the historical impact of this space on our community.
The St. Paul Playground Committee
At the turn of the century, playgrounds were present in only a handful of cities in the United States. However, families who had previously lived on farms were flocking to cities, where crowded conditions provided fewer opportunities for play than fields and barnyards. In response, urban reformers began organizing formal playgrounds for youngsters. Among the first of these innovative facilities established in St. Paul was the Como Avenue Playground (no relation to St. Paul’s sprawling, 384-acre Como Park).
The Como Avenue Playground was the initial facility organized by the St. Paul Playground Committee—a group of elite (presumably white) men and women who were prominent civic boosters. The Playground Committee was established in 1903 with a goal “to keep children off the streets, out of mischief, away from evil influences; to develop a sound and healthy body, a kind heart and a regard for law.” The group received $2,500 from the City Council for construction of a playground, which was augmented by a well-attended fundraising baseball game that netted over $500 (worth some $17,400 in today’s dollars).
Planning and Construction of the Como Avenue Playground
The Playground Committee selected a location in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, which is northwest of the State Capitol. At the turn of the 20th century, many families in Frogtown were recent immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia and Poland who worked on the nearby railroads. The lots bordered the intersections of Como Avenue, Marion Street and Lafond Street and were located immediately to the north of the now-demolished Scheffer Elementary School.
The Playground Committee hired Arthur Leland, former supervisor of playgrounds in Louisville, Kentucky, to organize playground construction as well as future programming for children. Leland deeply believed that playgrounds were key to moral development, writing that “the future of the nation depends on the play of childhood.”
Leland had his hands full directing the construction of the playground pavilion structure, fields and equipment. Workers hauled in 1,500 loads of fill to level the area. They also cleared areas for baseball, tennis, croquet and basketball; constructed and installed playground apparatuses; and planted the border of the playground with ash trees, lilacs and buckthorn (which is now considered a particularly noxious invasive species).
The First Summer at the Como Avenue Playground
By early July of 1904, the novel playground was welcoming children of the neighborhood. It was immediately a smashing success. The St. Paul Globe reported that on opening day, “in spite of the threatening weather and the fact that some of the apparatus which will be part of the playground equipment was not in place, over 500 small boys and girls were present.”
An enclosed pavilion was at the center of the playground, with overhanging eaves to provide additional shelter from rain and the sun. The pavilion had room for dozens of children to play indoor games — such as checkers, dominoes and puzzles — and read from a small library. After a day of play, children were encouraged to shower within the bath facilities in the pavilion before heading home.
Three sandboxes were the realm of the playground’s smallest children, who used large blocks and sand to model towns and roads. These young children were supervised by Lorna Higbee, a St. Paul woman who had recently graduated from Carleton College in Northfield. In addition to the sandboxes, Higbee organized games such as Drop the Handkerchief and Cat and Mouse for the youngest children.
Most of the playground apparatuses were constructed within St. Paul. Boys clambered up a structure containing two rings, four climbing poles and a ladder suspended from large steel beams recycled from the old Wabasha Street Bridge.
Nine swings were always crowded with children of a variety of ages. They would have found these swings very special, as they were one of the only — if not the very first — of their kind in the city.
Another feature of the playground was the giant stride — a dangerous rotating pole and rope contraption once referred to as “the most notorious piece of playground equipment in history.” The remaining playground apparatuses were rounded out by a seesaw, a pair of parallel bars, a horizontal bar and two jumping standards.
More than the bathing facilities were separated by gender. Photos indicate that boys and girls used the playground equipment differently—boys are often pictured perched atop swing sets while girls clothed in dresses and sun hats are swinging below. Additionally, at least some playground games were divided by gender.
The Playgrounds Committee’s annual report also mentions that boys slightly outnumbered girls at the playground, with girls accounting for about 45% of attendees. Perhaps girls preferred other leisure activities, or maybe they were kept at home to assist their mothers with household work.
Adults provided different recreation opportunities to boys and girls. In the summer, boys were fixated on baseball. Leland split the boys into two leagues based on age range; each league was composed of six to eight teams that would play in the evenings, culminating in a championship game. As the days grew shorter, the boys turned to basketball, field hockey and football. Meanwhile, “basketball captured the hearts of all the girls,” according to the Playground Committee’s annual report. Both genders enjoyed games such as tennis, croquet, tag and jump rope.
Adult Supervision on the Playground
Unlike our current playgrounds, the Como Avenue Playground functioned more like a loosely organized modern summer camp or rec center program. Neighborhood parents dropped their children off, and activities were generally structured and supervised—although the adult-to-child ratio was something like a hair-raising 1:50.
The Playground Committee was composed of members of the St. Paul elite, and framed the supervised playground as a way to lure children away from the perceived anarchy of unguided play, writing that “the organized games under the direction of good trainers teach respect for the rights of others, fairness and self-control; cement the school and home, and counteract the lawlessness and destructiveness which are the lessons of the vacant lot.” The Playground Committee even went so far as to claim that “aggregations of children without the guiding and restraining influence of supervisor and instructors lead to perversion, quarrels, rioting and immorality.”
Arthur Leland (who was responsible for much of the actual supervision of children) also believed that playgrounds were important to moral development, although he held a different perspective than the Playground Committee. “We see the children in their games,” he wrote. “All conventions and formalities are laid aside. The training of the home, school and church seem to disappear. Nothing is left but the natural instincts. What a wonderful opportunity for the impressions to be made upon inmost character!… Impressions given through play are the lasting ones; other moral teaching is largely on the surface and will not stand wear.”
Similarly, a 1904 article in the St. Paul Globe celebrated the arrival of the playground as a safe space for kids, as “the little tots and their bigger brothers and sisters, and cousins and friends, will be happy in a kingdom all their own, where cops need not be feared.”
Playgrounds Take Off in St. Paul
According to newspaper accounts and the Playground Committee’s annual report, the first year of the playground was a roaring success. The average daily attendance was 235 neighborhood children, with attendance at over 26,000 for the entire season (the population of St. Paul at the time was around 163,000, compared with 307,000 today). Leland also proudly reported that he was able to convince many pre-teen and teen boys to stop smoking by telling them it made them worse at baseball.
In 1905, the Playground Committee arranged to purchase land for the Arlington Hills Playground located at the intersection of Maryland and Greenbrier (which remains a playground associated with the Arlington Hills Library and Community Center), and had their sights on expanding neighborhood playgrounds throughout the city. Playground equipment such as swings were added to Como Park, and athletic fields were also planned in this location. Furthermore, the Playground Committee’s original motto, The child who PLAYS HARD is father to the man who WORKS WELL, was replaced after a year by the more subtle, The thing we do best in life is that which we play at most in youth.
Just five years after the Como Avenue Playground opened, the city boasted six playgrounds. In the following decades, St. Paul began constructing indoor recreation centers for year-round sports and programming. The Como Avenue Playground, with its structured play activities, its organized sports and its emphasis on youth education, was a precursor to the 26 recreation centers serving people throughout St. Paul today.
The once-innovative Como Avenue Playground is gone. However, just across the street is the new Frogtown Community Center. This state-of-the-art community center bears little resemblance to the small, simple pavilion at the Como Avenue Playground. Exterior features have also changed. Rather than fields for baseball, basketball, tennis and croquet, athletic space has expanded to encompass room for playing baseball, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, badminton and sepak takraw.
Even after 120 years, however, some things have stayed the same. Children from the neighborhood vie for turns on the swings; they scale climbing equipment, shoot hoops and simply have a safe place to be kids—a stone’s throw from one of the first spaces in the city devoted to their play.
Research for this article was supported by the Gale Family Library Legacy Research Fellowship through the Minnesota Historical Society.