By Wesley Harris
Memorial Park, just off U. S. 80 a few blocks east of the Ruston City Hall, was once a center of athletic activity and other outdoor pastimes.
Some events brought thousands to the park.
Yet, today, few people know why it is a “memorial” park.
The recreation area, once boasting shady picnic areas, a massive public swimming pool and bathhouses, tennis courts, and a baseball stadium, is best known today for the North Louisiana Military Museum and the Boys & Girls Club. And some would argue those are well-kept secrets.
The baseball stadium hosted both high school, college, and regional league teams before it was replaced in 1938 by Fraser Field at what was then called Woodland Park.
The North Louisiana Military Museum with its thousands of artifacts documenting most of America’s wars is housed in the old American Legion building constructed in 1937. The Boys & Girls Club operates in an old National Guard armory.
Not even a sign denotes the five-acre plot as Memorial Park, much less explain its significance. Once Ruston’s primary playground, Memorial Park has been replaced by numerous recreational areas, most with significantly more room to host activities.
To honor the fallen
The park was established in 1920 as a memorial to the men who died and those who came home from World War I. Seventeen Lincoln Parish men died in what was termed “the war to end all wars.”
Hundreds of Lincoln Parish men served in World War I, some in the National Guard. Others enlisted in the U. S. Army and other branches of service.
The park maintained its military connections long after its original intent had been forgotten. Independence Day was celebrated at the park for many years, often with over 5,000 in attendance. The American Legion, and later the Veterans of Foreign Wars established meeting halls in the park. General George Patton and his troops stopped by for some relaxation as they traveled through Louisiana to participate in military maneuvers in 1941.
The National Guard armory was added in 1948.
Time for a facelift?
Other than outdoor exhibits at the military museum, little updating has occurred in recent years.
In 2019, the Ruston Kiwanis Club dedicated the Dog Tag Military Memorial Garden it erected on the grounds of the museum.
At the time, Kiwanis member Ed Shell said, “The garden of dog tags bearing the names of veterans “is dedicated to these who have served, those who served in the past, and those who are still serving.”
The 1930s-era pool was closed several years ago when maintenance of the cracked foundation became impossible.
The VFW hall was abandoned after foundation problems left the building uninhabitable. Constructed in 1946, the concrete foundation was poured without any steel reinforcement rods to help hold it together. Steel was remained scarce after so much had been routed to the production of tanks, bombers, and aircraft carriers.
The park is showing wear with the abandoned pool and VFW hall. Some of the large brick pillars lining the U.S. 80 side of the park—added in 1927 in a major facelift—are beginning to crumble. The renovation was meant to help make Ruston a stopping place for the millions of tourists and other travelers on America’s only coast-to-coast highway.
Change is near
The park is undergoing some changes.
The City of Ruston has lent its support to a group raising funds for a skate park at the site of the old pool. A threadbare playground was removed recently to make room for more outdoor exhibits for the military museum.
Memorial Park is one of eight parks maintained by the City of Ruston. Most of the others are named for individuals who have contributed in some way to the community.
Only Memorial Park commemorates the ultimate sacrifice.
With a major improvement to the property planned with the addition of the skate park, perhaps it is time to revitalize the entire area. Install some shade and a few picnic tables, remove the abandoned VFW hall, and add signage and a historic marker to remind us of its original purpose.
The seventeen deserve it.
Donations for the Lincoln Parish Sesquicentennial Committee’s historical marker campaign can be sent to the Lincoln Parish Museum & Historical Society, 609 N. Vienna, Ruston, LA 71270