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90 years of memories in Hermann Park
Since 1914, families have played and picnicked in George Hermann’s swinging playground

Above: As a child, James Williams climbed on SP982. Photo by Dave Schafer. Right: A child cools down with a drink from a lion’s head fountain that used to rest in the Houston zoo. Courtesy Houston Zoo.

By Dave Schafer

James Williams, 60, has fond memories of playing in Hermann Park in the 1940s and ’50s: family reunions, birthday celebrations for Hans the Asian elephant, fishing in McGovern Lake.

Then there was the time he split his pants while horseback riding with a date through the park’s bridle trail.

“I can’t remember not coming to Hermann Park,” said Williams, supervisor of maintenance for Bush Intercontinental Airport. “To kids, it was a lot of fun. You didn’t have a lot of things to do then like you do today.”

Millionaire philanthropist George Hermann gave Houston 285 acres for the park in May 1914. At the end of the 1920s, the park spanned 648 acres. By 1990, the park was rundown but is now being restored to its former glory.

Today, Hermann Park encompasses 445 acres and welcomes an estimated 5.5 million visitors per year.

But for generations of Houstonians like Williams, the park will always hold a special place because of the memories crafted there.

A home for memorials and animals
Williams’ home wasn’t air conditioned, so the park, with its overarching canopies of leaves, offered the boy a cool, shady spot during hot summers.

To others, the park’s trees served as reminders of the horrors of war.

In the spring of 1920, the War Mothers of Houston planted 240 oak trees along Outer Belt Drive to honor Harris County soldiers killed in World War I.

“The city and (the soldiers’) families were determined that their memory would be cherished forever. For them, there would be more than stone monuments and statues,” stated a 1957 Houston Chronicle article.

Over time, vandals and the shifting of the soil stole the bronze nameplates that commemorated the slain soldiers.

Also in 1920, the federal government gave the city Earl, a bison. Within two years, a fence was built in a corner of the park for the zoo, and a zookeeper was hired to manage the 40 animals.

Hans Nagel, the first zookeeper, uses a chair and a whip during a lion-taming demonstration. Photo courtesy of Houston Metropolitan Research Center.

Expansion later brought many of the memorial oaks into the zoo. The trees stood where the elephant, hippopotamus and rhinoceros enclosures were to be built, the Chronicle article stated.

According to Stephen Fox, adjunct lecturer in Rice University’s School of Architecture, Outer Belt Drive today is North MacGregor Street. The oaks lining that street are “certainly” old enough to be the memorial oaks, Fox said. But because the nameplates are missing, it is unknown whether those are the same trees.

One man’s junk, another man’s memories
Other people’s memories and other stories have been shaped here.

The first zookeeper, Hans Nagel, was a showman in classic circus style. Although the animals, which included lions, alligators and monkeys, were wild when caught, Nagel climbed into their cages and performed routines complete with chairs and a whip.

In 1922, the Hermann Park Golf Course opened as the first public course to welcome all races. The first Miller Outdoor Theatre opened in 1923, and a newer auditorium was born in 1968.

To get train engine SP982 to its new home beside McGovern Lake in 1952, city employees laid prefabricated sections of track leapfrog down Fannin Street and into the park.

Williams remembers the 267-ton locomotive. “I used to climb all over that thing. All us kids did,” he said.

He’d walk along the catwalk, or sit in the cab and fantasize he was the engineer, Williams said. He’d stick his head out the window and pretend to blow the inoperable whistle.

When he took his son to the park in the ’60s, the train was fenced off.

The Sam Houston monument, erected in 1925, the Garden Center and the horse and nature trails also play prominent roles in memories made over the past 90 years.

Not every wished-for attraction landed on park grounds. In 1960, City Council nixed a proposal to put an F-86 jet in the park.

“We have enough junk in Hermann Park now,” former parks director Gus Haycock said.

But the park’s amenities weren’t junk to Williams and millions more like him. They were the crayons that colored a childhood book of memories.


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