A park for the people: William Land Park turns 100 years old

Take a trip down memory lane as William Land Park turns 100

William Land Park is celebrating its 100 year anniversary. The park is home to the Sacramento Zoo, Fairytale Town, Funderland and a golf course. Here's a look at the park's first 100 years.
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William Land Park is celebrating its 100 year anniversary. The park is home to the Sacramento Zoo, Fairytale Town, Funderland and a golf course. Here's a look at the park's first 100 years.

In 1918, the city of Sacramento bought the tract of land on which William Land Regional Park now stands.

After a century, the park has become a community hub, brimming with activities, excitement and fresh air.

To commemorate its history, the city of Sacramento is partnering with the Land Park Community Association and Land Park Volunteer Corps, among numerous other organizations, to throw a centennial celebration party on Friday, August 3.

If you’re planning to attend, perhaps you’ve played all nine holes of the William Land Golf Park. You’ve ridden all the rides at Funderland. You’ve laid on the grass and watched geese frolic in the community ponds.

But do you know the rags-to-riches, sewage-drenched, Sir-Mix-a-Lot-mused history of its 166.5 acres?

This land is my Land Park, this land is your Land Park

Land Park’s land may have been purchased in 1918, but the idea of Land Park began 6 years later, at the deathbed of one William Land.

A millionaire hotel entrepreneur and former Sacramento mayor, Land‘s last will and testament bequeathed $250,000 to the city for the purchase of “a public park within a suitable distance of said city of Sacramento,” according to the January 6, 1912, edition of The Sacramento Bee.

(That sum, posted next to an ad for $3.50 men’s dress shoes, was worth $6.5 million in today’s money, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Land Park’s namesake wasn’t always well-to-do. One of 14 siblings born in rural New York, Land worked as an indentured servant at his father’s orders. After years of toiling, Land bought his way out of servitude, graduated from a commercial college in Pennsylvania with honors and, like so many other Gold Rush-galvanized young men, moved west.

In 1860, he arrived in San Francisco with three dollars to his name. That wasn’t enough for transit to Sacramento, so Land walked the entire way. After finding cheap work at the Western Hotel, Land began his ascent to affluence, eventually buying the place, according to the William Land Golf Course website.

Land’s personal life was less picture-perfect. His only son died before his first birthday, and his wife, Katy, passed away soon after, in 1871, according to Pinki Cockrell, a retired board member of the Land Park Community Association and Land Park Volunteer Corps.

Alone in Sacramento, the city became Land’s family. Alongside the grant for the park, Land allocated an additional $200,000 to be given “to the destitute men, women and children of Sacramento City,” per The Bee. His name, adorning the park and its surrounding neighborhoods, wouldn’t soon be forgotten.

‘You could never grow grass there’

Land’s bequest was momentous. Few, if any, parks in Sacramento were open to the public in the 19th century. This was common practice across the country — green spaces within city limits tended to be private until a town-planning movement pioneered most famously by Frederick Olmsted swept the nation around 1900, according to a report compiled by Resources For the Future, a nonprofit research institute.

But one detail was conspicuously absent from Land’s will: where the park would be. For more than 5 years, the city debated this question feverishly, trying to divine what Land would have wanted and deduce what was most cost-effective according to Bee archives.

Many residents seemed sure that expanding Del Paso Park, a grassy space north of the city, was the safest bet.

One alternative emerged on the opposite side of town, a tract of land adjacent to the Sacramento River and below the city.

The site had history. It was once commandeered as a Civil War military camp — union regiments conducted field exercises on what is now a baseball field, according to Jocelyn Monroe Isidro, author of “Sacramento’s Land Park, the Images of America” book series. Plus, it was much more accessible to the average citizen than Del Paso, which seemed in line with Land’s ethos.

But the tract also happened to be in the middle of a flood plain that accumulated the growing city’s sewage and debris, according to LandPark.org. A 1916 editorial in The Sacramento Bee went as far as to claim “you could never grow grass there, let alone a tree.”

After years of debate and an attempted lawsuit, the city finally purchased land for the latter option in 1918.

By 1922, construction had begun, and though it would take more than 20 years to beautify the area and finish, Land Park’s fate was sealed.

A communal crown jewel

In the years that followed, Land Park grew and grew, accumulating the diversity of spaces and activities it’s known for today.

In 1924, work started on the Land Park Golf Course, now famous for its out-in-the-open landscape and down-to-earth vibe.

“You walk across here and you might see college students heading across the fairways, you see families picnicking on either side of the fairways, you see folks coming in to pray in the evenings,” Mike Lawson, a veteran golf marshal, told The Sacramento Bee in June.

Then came the Sacramento Zoo, which brought in alligators from other area menageries to open in 1927, according to Cockrell and LandPark.org.

The amphitheater was completed around 1940, early Funderland amusements showed up in 1946, and Fairytale Town opened in 1959.

In 1992, Land Park even won reference amid the fauna-themed slant rhymes of Sir Mix-a-Lot. (“Next day hit William Land Park / Creepin’ like a shark / Spot a bad freak and I swoop like a hawk” he raps on the pseudo-hit “A Rapper’s Reputation.”)

Now, in 2018, the park includes picnic areas, lakes, three soccer fields, six softball fields, a wading pool, a jogging path and a rock garden, according to the city.

On Friday, the park’s first century will be celebrated. The event kicks off at 5 p.m. in the William A. Carroll Amphitheatre.

Highlights include a classic car show courtesy of the California Automobile Museum; discounted Fairytale Town and zoo tickets; a concert by the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera Brass Quintet; a sunset movie showing of “Coco”; and a top-secret, never-before-eaten ice cream flavor served by local staple Vic’s.

An honorary golf tournament starts at 8 a.m. Saturday.

If you go

Land Park centennial celebration

Where: William A. Carroll Amphitheatre, 3901 Land Park Drive

When: 5 p.m. Friday

Cost: Free; visitors to Fairytale Town get $1 discount; Sacramento Zoo tickets are discounted to $9.95.

Golf tournament: 8 a.m. Saturday (call 916-277-1207 to register).

More information: http://bit.ly/land-park-100