As you walk south through Wilderness Park just south of Lincoln, a large, unlabeled masonry gate is obvious on the path as you cross Calvert at First Street. The gateway is the most visible remnant of Epworth Park, which once greeted thousands of visitors on a single day.
L.O. "Orville" Jones, owner of Hub Clothing Co. at 104 N. 10th St., was a delegate to the state Epworth League convention at Nebraska City in 1892. Jones was familiar not only with the Epworth League of the Methodist Church, a religious organization for youths that had formed in Cleveland in 1889, but also with the great camp meetings that met at Lake Chautauqua, N.Y. He proposed that a similar event be established in Lincoln and quickly was elected president of the conference, a position, along with presiding officer, he would retain for 23 years.
Lincoln's first Epworth assembly met in Lincoln Park at First and Van Dorn streets while 40 acres of land directly to the south was purchased and improvements begun. Camp meetings in large canvas tents continued until 1903, when their own park opened.
The first season opened Aug. 3, still in the large rented tents. So skeptical were some board members and so confident was Jones that he personally guaranteed to cover any loses. Fifteen hundred daily tickets were sold the first week, and audiences reached as high as 5,000. The first year on their own grounds was deemed a success and from a gross income of $10,000 they were able to donate "$800 - to worn out preachers and $1,000 to Nebraska Wesleyan."
In 1911, a huge open-air/roofed pavilion that could seat up to 5,000 was completed. That year, season tickets sold for $1.50 and one-day tickets were 25 cents. Although the park was open every day, no tickets were sold on Sundays. Those who planned to spend the night were advised to "bring pillows and bed clothes; straw for beds is furnished free."
By about 1915, the grounds were considered completed. The central feature was Epworth Lake, fed by water from Salt Creek, with two foot bridges to Oxford Isle at its center, where a substantial Boy Scout cabin had been constructed. The doughnut-shaped lake was a magnet for children, offered canoe rentals, sported Venetian Nights with decorated rafts and boats, and above all was a prodigious mosquito breeder.
Many came to spend one or two weeks, and about 3,000 lived in small cabins or in rented tents erected on wooden decks, some with wooden and screen sides. Others stayed in the 150-room hotel, 60-bed dormitory or YMCA camp. To support the sizeable community, there were four restaurants, a grocery store, bakery, bookstore and post office.
The entire camp was advertised as safe for children, even wandering on their own, "fenced horse-high, hog-tight and bull-strong." In addition there were daylong activities including Bible lessons, singing and games.
To further promote attendance, the Burlington and Union Pacific railroads offered half-price tickets for families and cheap tickets from Lincoln to the park by street railway. Thus Epworth became a vacation destination with educational classes, fraternizing and lots of entertainment. Lincolnites were encouraged to visit for an evening away from the city's heat with programs in the pavilion priced at $1.50 for adults or 75 cents for children.
Along with animal acts, magicians, story tellers and fireworks, folks heard speakers including Billy Sunday, Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan. Like vaudeville, the speakers were interspersed with music from the U.S. Army Band, Enrico Caruso and Swiss bell ringers. At the evening show's peak, as many as 8,000 tickets sometimes were sold, requiring two performances a day with as many as 25 streetcars waiting to take city attendees home after the last performance.
The late 1920s and 1930s brought radio and automobiles, allowing great flexibility and freedom for folks seeking entertainment and resulting in lower attendance figures at the park. Then, in 1935, 14 inches of rain fell over a week's time, and flood waters destroyed much of the park. The last attempt to resurrect the park was in 1940, but it failed. Lumber from the remaining buildings was salvaged, and some buildings were moved to Yankee Hill, Crete and a Methodist camp in Cozad.
Gone forever was a park once called "the most largely attended church assembly in the U.S." and once advertised as the "largest gathering place in North America."
Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write in care of the Journal Star or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.