Milltown’s Island Park opens with celebrationArea gathering place’s rebirth sparked by letter.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The rebirth of Milltown’s Island Park all began with a letter and a dream. That dream became a reality Saturday with the park’s grand opening. Organizer Kay Adkins Brown said about 400 people visited the island for the celebration, which included fire engine rides, kickball, a watermelon seed-spitting contest, dancing and plenty of reminiscing.
“It was great,” she said.
Donna Steiner, who works at Casey’s in Parkston, remembered Island Park when she was a girl during the 1960s. On Saturday, she stood by the river, watching her son fish as music played in the background.
“It was fun down here. We used to come down here to go roller skating and we also came down for the dances every Friday night. That’s when the pavilion was still there. I wouldn’t have missed this,” she said of Saturday’s party.
Darlene Schilling, who lives nearby, was excited to see the steady stream of visitors. She and her late husband, Allan, operated Island Park from 1963 to 1975.
“I am just so thrilled,” she said.
In a May 5 letter to The Daily Republic, Schilling decried the deteriorated condition of the 16.7-acre island and said it still had value as a family recreation area.
Others apparently thought so, too.
The story caught the attention of Brown, whose family settled in the Milltown area in the late 1800s. She now lives in Eagan, Minn.
Brown, who has a background in non-profit work, is now chairwoman of the non-profit Milltown Island Park Association.
In three months, the group formed the new non-profit in June, took over ownership of the park on July 25, cleaned out years of debris and began looking toward a new future for Island Park.
Brown figures at least 45 volunteers helped with the effort.
“There were people with loaders, trucks, mowers,” she said. “They cleared the river, raised a flagpole and we received incredible gifts-inkind like loads of rock and gravel. It was amazing.”
A $25 annual membership fee for the new Milltown Island Park Association will help to raise funds for maintenance and other projects, like a new picnic pavilion and equipment for an expanded playground. The island currently has just four swings. All building plans will have to consider the island’s propensity toward flooding.
“We’re also looking for special donors in the $100 to $10,000 range,” she said.
The association also has a new website: www.milltownislandpark.org, and historian Terry Grajkowski is collecting stories about the Island Park of yesteryear.
“The stories people have told me have been wonderful,” Brown said. “We had one 91-year-old couple stop by who hadn’t been back in 72 years. They first came here when they were 16. People met their husbands and wives here … everybody’s got a story.”
Schilling has memories of her own.
“When we ran it, we had Conway Twitty and Buddy Knox play for us in the ’70s, and we also had The Mob, when they were getting started in the Midwest.”
Knox was best known for the hit single “Party Doll,” and Twitty, who died in 1993, moved from his early rock roots to become a county music legend. Schilling’s son, Jerry, now a member of the Island Park board, recalled Twitty telling him in 1966, “I’m not going to play rock and roll any more, the money’s in country.”
Darlene Schilling recalled that Twitty arrived early for his gig at Island Park and went over to the nearby creek fed by the James River.
“He saw a fisherman land an 8-pound catfish and he came walking across the ball diamond with this big fish yelling, ‘Look what we caught. Look what we caught.’ Those were good times,” she said.
Island Park was just making the transition to rock and roll when the Schillings took over, but it had long history as an entertainment hot spot in the 1930s and ’40s, when the swing and big band sounds were in vogue.
Island Park Pavilion was inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year for the role it played in hosting some of rock and roll’s biggest names. The last concert at the island was in 1990, Darlene and Jerry Schilling agreed.
In the 1950s, the polka stylings of Lawrence Welk were a major draw.
“I remember as a child, my folks would come down when Lawrence Welk played and we’d park around the back of the pavilion and listen to the music and I’d fall asleep,” Darlene Schilling said.
Roller skating parties at the old pavilion were a big part of the Schillings’ business when they ran the park, Schilling said, pointing to a low spot in the landscape near the baseball diamond where the small dance hall once stood.
“In 1985, when the Dimock Dam went out, it flooded with such force that pushed (the pavilion) off its foundation,” she said. The building became unsafe and had to be razed. On Sunday, the ball field, which is still rough, was being used for a spirited game of kickball.
“At one time, we had a men’s and ladies’ league down here from all over; we had some fantastic players.
“This is just fabulous,” Schilling said.
Those softball memories had a special connection for Brown. “I had a dream about my mother, Margaret Adkins,” Brown said as she pointed over her shoulder. “She played softball in that field in the late 1920s and early ’30s and she taught school in Milltown for many years.”
“If I had to credit anything for creating in me the spark to get involved, it was the memory of my mother. “I think it was her spirit that brought me back here and told me ‘Maybe you should go and have a look at that place,’ ” Brown said.