Playgrounds for the Children of San Rafael
By Carol Acquaviva
F. Gordon O’Neill, in the following excerpt from the memoir Ernest Reuben Lilienthal and his Family, describes the recreational life of San Rafael children in the late 1800s.
The young mothers loved the life in San Rafael, for it assured the health of their children, who grew strong in its wholesome, genial atmosphere. For children, it was paradise. On weekday mornings they awoke to the sound of raking gravel on the driveway, a daily chore to smooth away the wheel and hoof marks left by the traffic of the preceding day…. They spent hours of playtime on that same smooth driveway, which became the running track for innumerable relay races and speed tests, and the scene of the after-dinner games of “one foot across the gutter.” Often they dashed to the orchards for competitive climbing, or to gorge themselves with cherries, plums, or peaches. With enthusiasm and vigor, they appropriated the whole gamut of children’s games. Nearly every child had a companion of his own age for his playtime or his studies. The little ones had their nurses and, as they grew older, they had the varied diversions of life in the open air.
San Rafael in the early 1900s was no different from other populated areas as industrialization changed the way people lived. Technological advancements in housekeeping, transportation, and communication meant there was more free time for recreation. But there weren’t necessarily more options in places for children to play. “At the present there is very little in the way of playgrounds for the children of San Rafael,” wrote the Marin County Tocsin in August of 1915. “It is unlawful for the children to use roller skates on the sidewalks and paved streets, chiefly because it is dangerous, and they have no other place to skate. Suitable provision should be made for recreation grounds so as to keep the children off the streets and out of mischief.”
The San Rafael Municipal Baths had opened just a few months previous; famed inventor and San Rafael resident Leon Douglass had funded the opening of the popular, modern indoor bathhouse located at Second and Irwin Streets. But what still seemed to be lacking in San Rafael was public outdoor recreation areas for children.
Soon, Leon’s wife, Victoria, supported a public playground area “for the benefit of the kiddies and young people of San Rafael.” She purchased an area bounded by Irwin, Fourth, Grand, and Third Streets for $11,000, preventing the land from becoming subdivided. Victoria personally commissioned plans for a public playground, tennis courts, a boys and girls gymnasium, baseball field and grand stands, basketball courts, hand ball, “and a circular cozy corner thirty feet in diameter and provided with a wading pond in the center and plenty of sand covering its entire surface, for the tiny tots.” Plans were donated by Professor J.W. Gregg, head of the landscape gardening department of the University of California. The Douglass Playgrounds ultimately found its most enduring popularity for use of baseball games played and hosted by San Rafael’s local teams.
In 1925, the San Rafael Board of Education arranged for school grounds to be kept open and supervised for after-hours and holiday use as playground areas. Later, when the Great Depression hit Marin, local leaders called on the Works Progress Administration to open additional playgrounds in San Rafael (and other towns). Funded by the National Youth Administration, the concept was reinforced: provide better access to safe, free play areas on weekends when school wasn’t in session. More families than ever before were living year-round in San Rafael, and physical education programs were becoming standardized in schools. P.T.A. groups in the 1930s also shared ways for parents to create “clever and inexpensive ways to make amusements in small backyards.”
In 1934, the State Emergency Relief Act included sponsorship of supervised playgrounds during summer vacation. The physical education instructor at Marin Junior College (which later became College of Marin), Mr. Carlson, volunteered as director of this program, with support staff chosen from a group of unemployed teachers, college graduates and others who were struggling to find employment.
Incidentally, in Sausalito, WPA funding of a playground and after-school recreation program was turned down by the City Council , on the basis that there were plenty of recreational opportunities “afforded by nature for the children’s healthful play in school playgrounds,” a scenario “far more enticing in Sausalito than in any other community.” The Sausalito News continued:
Further pointing out that the attendance of children diminishes as the varieties of natural outdoor recreation increases, the committee stated that Sausalito’s beaches, docks, boats and hills keeps the interest of local children a way from supervised playgrounds to a degree that does not exist in other Marin towns.