Lynchburg’s First Playground, Part I

In a year filled with momentous events, 1914 witnessed World War I’s beginning, Babe Ruth’s first major league baseball game, the establishment of the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Reserve System, the first transcontinental telephone line in the United States, and the debut of red and green traffic lights. In the midst of these changes, Lynchburg jumped in on a new idea that was only beginning to gain traction in America: public recreation. With the launch of the Association of Playgrounds that year, Lynchburg became Virginia’s second city to have a public recreation program, following the lead of Richmond, whose own program was only a year old. At its inception, the association consisted of the superintendent of the department, one playground director, and one playground.

The Guggenheimer house after the land was converted to a playground.

The Guggenheimer house after the land was converted to a playground.

A public playground where children throughout the neighborhood could safely play was the dream of Mrs. Bertha Guggenheimer, and she donated the Guggenheimer house and a parcel of land at 1914 Grace Street to be used for that purpose. The playground was named in memory of her deceased daughter, Mrs. Cecile Guggenheimer-Milliken, and remained in use for 58 years. For several years, Mrs. Guggenheimer served as the president of the Association of Playgrounds. 

Children playing at the Guggenheimer-Milliken Playground, 1917.

Children playing at the Guggenheimer-Milliken Playground, 1917.

The Guggenheimer-Milliken playground quickly became the center of social life for children in the Diamond Hill area. By the early 1920s, over 30,000 children came to the playground each year to swing, slide, and play in the sandbox. The playground also had a baseball field and tennis courts that were graded and improved nearly every year until the Great Depression limited available funds for such activities. The playground’s football team took advantage of the playground’s grassy areas to practice their sport, and basketball hoops and jumping standards offered recreational opportunities for children and adults alike.

The Guggenheimer-Milliken Boys’ League football team, 1923

The Guggenheimer-Milliken Boys’ League football team, 1923

The Guggenheimer-Milliken baseball team in 1924, Midget League Champions.

The Guggenheimer-Milliken baseball team in 1924, Midget League Champions.

A tennis tournament at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1922.

A tennis tournament at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1922.

The children were not limited by permanent field installments, however. In 1927, the Lynchburg annual city report noted that at Guggenheimer-Milliken, the children had “secured several golf clubs and balls and constructed a temporary four-hole golf course that was in use constantly during the summer.” That same summer the department acquired a large number of boomerangs and distributed them on the grounds. 

As the department expanded and other playgrounds were created throughout the city, inter-playground tournaments became an annual fall event. Teams formed and practiced at each playground during the summer, perfecting their skills in horseshoes, volleyball, tennis, croquet, marbles, and any other sport or game people were interested in. As teams participated in the tournament for the pride of their playground, competition grew fierce. The 1928, the Guggenheimer-Milliken teams were narrowly beaten by those from Miller Park, losing out on the city’s title by only a single point. 

The Guggenheimer-Milliken hiking club, 1918.

The Guggenheimer-Milliken hiking club, 1918.

Sports were not the only forms of entertainment the Guggenheimer-Milliken children partook in. Following its donation in 1914, the Guggenheimer house on the property was converted into a community center, and its popularity matched the interest the playground was drawing. The donation of a “handsome piano” in 1922 made possible “further extensions in the activities” the center could offer, and at its height it was used for community socials, church gatherings, tea parties, and community sings. Athletic clubs, girls clubs, and mothers clubs also met in the building. Story hours were held in the center, and table and rings games offered indoor amusement for children. 

A storytelling group at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1918.

A storytelling group at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1918.

 In 1929, the city used the building to host its National Music Week program, and in the 1930s tap dancing classes were regularly offered. Drama and musical clubs met on the premises, and puppet shows were also wildly popular. By the early 1930s the drama clubs had to hold multiple performances to accommodate for the large crowds that were attending. By the late 1940s cooking classes organized by Red Cross nutritionists and home economics classes were being regularly scheduled there.

Children watch a puppet show at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1930.

Children watch a puppet show at Guggenheimer-Milliken in 1930.

The community center also became a natural place for kind hearted Lynchburgians to engage in social welfare work as the Great Depression dragged on. The 1941 annual reported noted that although such work was not something the Recreation department was engaged in, a good amount of it was carried out at the Guggenheimer-Milliken center.

By Karissa Marken
Lynchburg Museum Staff