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Jun 11, 2013 — by Courtney Hatley
Legion Park, the oldest city park in Owensboro (with the exception of Smothers Park which was set aside as public grounds in the 1816 plat of Rossboro), was acquired as a shady picnic area in 1894. At the time, the location of Legion Park was outside the city limits and patrons paid a fare of 5 cents to ride a streetcar the 1 and a half miles to and from the park, which was operated by the Owensboro Railway Company and ran every 20 minutes. James Hardin Hickman (1852-1931), “tall, handsome, ram-rod straight” and Mayor of Owensboro at the time, purchased the land from Camden Riley, Sr. for a total of $4,000.
Hickman was one of the most well-loved and admired Mayors of Owensboro; he was elected five more times and is considered the Father of Owensboro’s parks movement. Hickman’s titles included pharmacist, tobacco merchant, doctor, bank director and manufacturer of Owensboro Wagons. An extremely influential man, he also served as a school board member and city councilman, and successfully argued for the development of paved streets. Hickman regarded nature as something to be cultivated and treasured; in an editorial for the Owensboro Inquirer, Hickman wrote, “He is not a normal man who is not in love with woods and trees and shrubbery and flowers; for they are among God’s best gifts to the world.” Providing the city with beautiful places and parks became an obsession of Hickman’s and it is largely due to his initiative that we have such splendid ones today. Eminently popular among Owensboro’s citizens, Hickman’s wealth was generously used to advance the prosperity of the city. However, Hickman’s fortune was largely dissipated with the Hickman-Ebbert Wagon Company venture and he ultimately committed suicide after a long period of ill-health and despondency.
Originally called Hickman Park, the name was changed in 1923 to American Legion after Hickman encouraged the commissioners to honor the Owensboro men who fought in World War I. The large trees and natural setting, as well as winding walkways, picnic shelters, fish ponds, a bandstand, concession stand and a fountain enhanced the already exceptionally beautiful park. A monkey house was eventually added which featured two monkeys, white rabbits, foxes, coons and an assortment of birds.
“The parks we have are a sacred trust for the benefit alike of the normal, wholesome and merry folk, who may find recreation and relief from life’s toils, but to the sick, the weary and the care-worn, they offer a place where the cooling shadows kiss the tired brow and invite surcease from suffering and give a nature’s failing forces a chance to live again.” – James Hardin Hickman
Mayors of Owensboro, Kentucky by Jerry Long
History Owensboro Parks and Recreation 1815-1990 by Evan Ray Russell