Austin's Pease Park. For most people just the name of this park conjures up memories of the annual Eeyore's Birthday Party—a fete thrown by locals in honor of the perpetually-sad donkey in A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Since 1974, the 42-acre park in the heart of Austin has been the gathering place for the eclectic party that features live music, family games (think giant maypole, sack races and oversized jigsaw puzzles) and a costume contest renowned for its creativity. But there is much more to Pease park than its annual tribute to the fictional donkey.
A Rich and Varied History
Shoal Creek, which makes up the backbone of the park, was home to native Americans who fished in, and drank from, the creek's pristine waters. In 1842, a Mexican invasion caused many Austin residents to flee. After that time, the Native Americans became more aggressive in skirmishes with European settlers. Most Native Americans were pushed out by the 1850s.
After the Civil War, the Congressional Reconstruction Plan called for George Custer and his troops to come to Texas, restore order and reign in post-war opportunists. Custor and his men were encamped along Shoal Creek when cholera swept through the camp, killing a reported 35 to 40 men, all of whom were buried along the west side of Pease Park. In the 1880s, most of the bodies were located and reinterred to the National Cemetery in San Antonio. Seven more bodies were discovered in the aftermath of the flood of 1900. These were then reinterred at Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery, where they lie in state today. Robert E. Lee, as a young man, also camped with troops all along Shoal Creek.
If the Shoal Creek area hadn't already seen enough, the 1890s brought a surge of gold-rush fever. Rumors of buried Mexican gold brought treasure hunters to dig in the park for years. But no gold was ever found. Rough times were not over for the park... In 1875 Governor Pease and his wife gave the land we know as Pease Park to the citizens of Austin. But for another 50 years, the parkland remained little more than a dump where locals disposed of dead livestock. It wasn't until 1926, that help came to the park when the community spent thousands of dollars for a rest room, entrance gates, a wading pool and more. After its 1926 beautification, Pease Park thrived with parties, concerts, Easter egg hunts, and many other events. But with any park, a lack of maintenance and unrestrained overuse can quickly result in a decline of both natural features and man-made amenities.
The Park Protectors
Fortunately for Austin, an abundance of dedicated stewards have stepped in over the years to develop and protect the park.
The Austin Kiwanis Club: In the 1920s, the Club committed to beautifying Pease Park and raised money for theTudor Cottage restroom, entrance gates, a wading pool and more.
Janet Long Fish: In the early 1950s, daughter of Austin community leader, Walter E. Long persuaded the Austin City Council to approve the construction of the hike and bike trail from Pease Park to 39th street. Janet spent her own money, time and considerable effort in getting it done—even leading a bulldozer along the trail to grade it according to the City requirements.
The Junior League of Austin and the Austin Metro Trails and Greenways: have contributed time, effort and money towards Shoal creek’s preservation.
The Pease Park Conservancy (PPC): In 2008, a group of residents concerned about the park’s recent decline decided to “adopt” the park under the umbrella of the Austin Parks Foundation. Now a full-fledged non-profit corporation with a 17-member Board of Directors and a 10-person Advisory Board, the group seeks to work toward an improved and sustainable future for the park.
Pease Park—A Community’s Treasure
Richard Craig, Chairperson for the Pease Park Conservancy (PPC), sees the park as far more than just a nice, outdoor event venue.
“The trees, fields, hillsides and the creek are what make the park great,” Craig said. “There is the illusion that it has been unchanged since the Comanche Indians left, although it is in the literal heart of an exploding urban area. We want to keep that so it can be enjoyed by future generations.”
The PPC has led efforts to improve the area’s landscape, including planting hundreds of new trees and restoring historic features in the park, such as the Tudor Cottage and Memorial Entry Gates constructed in the 1920s and the picnic tables installed in the 1930s. In 2012, the PPC established a permanent financial endowment for the park at the Austin Community Foundation. The fund now boasts a $165,000 balance, five percent of which can be used annually for improvements in the park and greenbelt.
The PPC went even further by funding a Master Plan for the park and teaming up with the City of Austin to gather significant public input. “The Master Plan will provide a blueprint for the ecological restoration and maintenance of the park and greenbelt as well as some recreational enhancements of the area,” says Craig. “Once it is completed and adopted by the Austin Parks Board and City Council, the PPC and City will work together to find funding to implement the plan in phases over time.”
Another project aims to address erosion issues in Shoal Creek. The Shoal Creek Restoration Project will include: stabilizing the creek banks; improving creek access points; extending trails and paths; installing infiltration areas to better manage stormwater runoff; removing some wastewater line and restoring soil and native vegetation. Work on these projects will begin in the spring of this year and will last approximately 18 months. The project will be constructed in three phases such that the park will not be impacted all at once.
This year promises to be an exciting one for Pease Park. The combination of dedicated residents, neighbors and City staff have all come together to address the diverse needs of the park in a permanent and ongoing way.
“As our central city population grows rapidly in density and size, these green spaces are going to be under intense pressure from residents seeking recreation,” Craig said. “We want it to be sustainable and this will be hard work that the next generation, and the following one, must take up in turn.”
So by all means check out Eeyore's party, but come back for everything else this great park has to offer.
Note: Pease Park offers miles of trails for walking, cycling and dog-walking. The park also has a playscape, a splashpad, two basketball courts, three volleyball courts and many picnic tables. There is an off-leash area along the trail to the west of Shoal Creek between 24th and 29th Streets.