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A Park To Be Proud Of

On most days, Rowan Park is a quiet retreat only a stone’s throw from the hustle and bustle of Bragg Boulevard and downtown Fayetteville.

Never mind that the tennis courts have fallen into disrepair, the bandstand is silent or that Festival Park is now the city’s new favorite. Rowan remains a beloved site to many long-time residents who have fond memories of the park and who, along with newer citizens, value the area as rare green space. Others see it, at least part of it, as prime development property, fitting into the city’s plan to build a state veterans park and create new gateways.

It is that divided vision that has thrust Rowan Park into the news in recent months.

Just over 12 acres in size, the park lies between Bragg Boulevard and Woodside Avenue, bordered on one side by Athens and Hillside avenues and by West Rowan Street on the other. A consultant’s plan for the gateway project calls for high-rise condominiums, townhouses and offices that would occupy all but about five acres of the park.

After learning of the proposal, people wanting to see the park remain intact reacted quickly – some banding together as Friends of Rowan Park – and made their feelings known with e-mails and calls to members of the City Council, petitions and letters to the editor. Their efforts were rewarded when the City Council voted 5-4 to kill the proposal. Some supporters of the consultant’s plan have indicated that the issue might be addressed again.

But for now, the park is safe from development.

Long before the final tracts of land for Rowan Park were acquired by the city in 1950, it was an unofficial playground for neighborhood children. One of those children was James MacRae, who lived on Hillside Avenue from 1937 until 1941 when his family moved to Brook Street.

“It was a beautiful field with not many trees at that point,” he said. “It was a great open space where we could fly kites and run and play.”

Now 74, he remembers that broom straw and honeysuckle grew wild and that there were two creeks that meandered through the area, emptying into Cross Creek. He and his friends enjoyed catching crawfish and salamanders – “water dogs” to the youngsters. A field of sugarcane grew beside the creek, he said, where the boulevard is today.

A main attraction for the children was “King,” an African-American man who lived in a modest house facing Woodside Avenue on the edge of Rowan Park. From all accounts, King was a genial and gentle man who loved spending time with the youngsters and taught them how to make slingshots and rabbit boxes and how to catch possums. He had a small garden and a menagerie of goats, chickens and rabbits.

“We had the greatest time,” MacRae said. “It was something little boys growing up in town wouldn’t have realized. …He was a heck of a nice guy.”

Dr. Frank Shaw, one of those Haymount boys, remembers another side of King – his wisdom.

“He was a very forceful man who commanded a lot of respect from everyone,” Shaw said. “He was a very bright, astute man. He held court for all the children in the neighborhood and gave advice, excellent advice. He was a psychological genius; he kept the peace among all the boys without ever taking sides.”

He was known simply as “King,” but his first name was Moses, according to Shaw. The Shaw family had a special fondness for King and looked out for him. From Georgia, he had been the driver for Frank’s grandfather, John Shaw. Frank Shaw recalls that King came to the home of his parents, Dr. Alexander and Winship Shaw, regularly for supper.

King, who had a wooden leg, also is remembered for his knowledge of the Bible and his ability to recite whole pages of scripture from memory. Some thought he couldn’t read, but, Frank said, “I think he could read some.”

King reportedly died in 1968 at the age of 108, but even now, folks still talk about him and remember him fondly.

The park began in the early 1950s after the city bought land from members of the Sandrock family for a token sum. It joined tracts that the city had purchased in the 1940s.

In the ’60s, the big blue whale took up residence at the park, and it still is a popular attraction for young visitors. If a whale seems out of place this far inland, it, along with other water-themed animals, was purchased from an amusement park in Wilmington, according to Robert Barefoot, director of the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Parks and Recreation Department. Only the whale survives, although the city added other concrete creatures to the children’s play area.

During the years, the park has been the scene of a variety of activities, from symphony concerts to war protests led by Jane Fonda. But, gradually, the focus has shifted to other areas.

It once was one of the premier tennis locations, Barefoot said, but that distinction now goes to Mazarick Park. At one time, sounds of “Play ball!” echoed through Rowan Park when its field served the region’s youth leagues. It fell out of use as Honeycutt and other fields were developed.

The band shell, added in the late 1980s, doesn’t get much use these days, but it has been the scene of summer concert series, Shakespeare Under the Stars and concerts by both the Fayetteville and North Carolina symphonies. The park’s Web site says, “The park forms a natural amphitheatre for audiences sitting on a gentle hillside and is terrific for concerts and other performances.” Entertainment has moved on to the larger venue of Festival Park.

One of the drawbacks of Rowan Park is the lack of parking spaces, Barefoot said. “Parking has always been an issue.” He adds that activities within the park should not disturb the residential neighborhoods.

Along with the whale, there is a children’s play area and picnic pavilion that’s occasionally used. Visitors still enjoy quiet strolls through the park and walk their dogs there.

Some have suggested that part of the area be used as a dog park. For now, Barefoot said he sees no upgrades or changes to the property.

Among those who worked against development of the park is William Peek. As a child, he lived on Rock Avenue but would ride his bike several blocks away to play with friends at Rowan Park. Peek, who is not a resident of Haymount, acknowledges a “sentimental, emotional” attachment to the park, but for him, his involvement was motivated by more than emotion, he said. “It was sort of the way that the city was going to jump in and take our memories away.”

Lee Lytton, who has closely studied the proposed plan, said her opposition to development wasn’t based on sentimentality. “I felt Fayetteville had few parks and green spaces. To sell part of it off for development offended my sensibilities. … Why should taxpayers give up something to fill the pockets of developers?”

Mary Kay Hennessey came to Fayetteville in 1976 and says nostalgia didn’t enter into her desire to preserve the park. “It’s a unique place to play in the city and should not be diminished,” she said.

“I would like to get it so that there will never be any question of putting housing there again,” Hennessey said. “There are plenty of other places to build houses.”