With summer fast approaching and school days coming to an end, kids will be spending a lot more time outdoors. In Fulton, youngsters will be visiting our city’s green spaces, including Recreation Park. New playground equipment at the park is being installed for older teens, ballfields await sports enthusiasts, and, of course, there’s our beloved Lake Neatahwanta. With the cleanup of the lake continuing and ongoing speculation about the reopening of swimming at the lake’s Stevenson Beach, I’ve been thinking about John Stevenson, a Fultonian who made Recreation Park possible.
I was not familiar with Mr. Stevenson and his role in the betterment of Fulton until I started working with our city library’s Memoir Project. The Project’s goal of helping people preserve their Fulton memories caught the interest of G. Ray Bodley High School’s English Department and a few years ago our Project coordinators were invited to attend one of their educational programs. What an interesting night it was.
Students of the high school’s English 10 Honors class had spent the 2014-15 school year working on a community project that addressed issues or concerns they had for their hometown. The class split into three groups to come up with “action plans” as possible solutions to the problems. One of these groups focused on creating awareness about Fulton’s history and a student in that group, Makhali Voss, mentioned John Stevenson in her presentation. Makhali described Mr. Stevenson as an inspirational Fulton citizen, mentioning a few of his accomplishments. Curious to learn more about him, I spoke with Makhali after the program and she agreed to join our Memoir Project.
A few weeks later, the Fulton Library’s director, Betty Mauté, and I met with Makhali and her mother to explain the Memoir Project and find out if Makhali would be interested in writing a more complete memoir of Mr. Stevenson. She readily agreed to do so, and the Memoir Project was happy to have its youngest memoirist. (Makhali was between her sophomore and junior years when she wrote for the library project.)
We met with Makhali a couple times over the summer months as she wrote her reflections on John Stevenson. Though she has known since her childhood years that she loves science (she’s planning a career in the medical field), Makhali also showed a talent in researching history. Here’s some of what she was able to find out about John Stevenson and why he was so important to Fulton:
“John William Stevenson was born in 1866. He was one of ten children and therefore experienced first-hand what it was like to have little money. That may have been a reason why he became such a generous man. Even before his years as mayor – 1920-1927 – he was well-known, mostly for his generosity, once donating a ton of coal to a family during a rough winter.
“As Fulton’s mayor, Mr. Stevenson started improving the city, having many new miles of streets paved; 26 miles to be exact. He constructed a new high school, which is still standing today. It served as Fulton’s Junior High for many years and is now Fulton’s Education Center. John did not stop there though; after the school was built, he enlarged the hospital. He implemented a garbage and ash collection system, with the cost of $1.25 a year. Before that, it was 20 cents a week. He made Saturday movies free to any child or an adult with a child.”
Makhali also found out that Stevenson did not spend his whole life as a politician. As she noted, he worked for many years at Fulton’s American Woolen Mills, which provided uniforms and other cloth-related supplies for the U.S. Army in both of the World Wars and also the Spanish American War. Makhali explained how he turned his work at the Mills into a major benefit for Fulton:
“After John Stevenson resigned from the Mills, he did not cease to have a say in their operations. He convinced them to buy 28 lakeside acres to turn it into a recreational park. The 1,500 employees of the Mills were welcome to enjoy the park, which featured a merry-go-round, auditorium, an open air dance pavilion, and an athletic field with grandstands. The auditorium stood three stories high and could seat 3,200 people. It was built mostly by the Mills’ workers. The park was very family-oriented and drew the city’s people in as well as many tourists. On the weekends there were baseball games for families to enjoy. There was also a Recreation Park Band that would play from time to time.”
Mr. Stevenson’s recreational contribution to Fulton flourished for many years, but eventually it became a financial burden. When the Mills shut down in the early 1950s, the park was neglected. Makhali explained what happened next:
“It took a while, but after four years, the Mill decided to lease or sell the park. In 1933, they sold this property to the Fulton Board of Education for $25,000. They, in turn, gave it to the city, but retained the right to use the park for school recreational purposes. In 1942, the buildings burned and the spot is now marked by a new War Memorial Building.”
What a pleasure it was to work with Makhali on the Memoir Project. Not only did she enlighten me about a Fultonian who did much to improve our city’s physical attributes and recreational opportunities, but she stood as an excellent example of today’s ambitious young people who are willing, when they are invited, to take part in capturing our city’s history.