Schiller Park is more than just a recreational space to German Village residents.

It is a place of history and lore, where volunteers spend countless hours manicuring various gardens.

It is a dog-walking destination, somewhere to relax, picnic, shoot hoops and catch up with neighbors.

The source of enduring pride for the neighborhood turns 150 years old this year -- a historical milestone that marks a colorful past.

"So many things have happened in the park," said John Clark, a local historian and author.

Early history

Schiller Park is the city's second oldest park. The first was Goodale Park. The 23.5-acre Schiller Park was purchased in April 1867 for $15,000 by the city. It was known simply as City Park for nearly 40 years, Clark said.

It was part of a bigger piece of real estate called Stewart's Grove, whose owners allowed people to gather on the land for public purposes.

It was the site of the Ohio State Fair, from 1864-65, and was a pooling stop for volunteer soldiers serving in the Mexican-American War before they were deployed to other destinations. The Columbus Oktoberfest was held at the park from 1967-71.

Francis Stewart, who owned a portion of the property that would become Schiller Park, sold some of the acreage to Columbus.

Essentially, the park was in the middle of nowhere, far south at the time for denizens of downtown and other areas of the city, Clark said. At one point, it was surrounded by a fence so cows could not escape. It also was the site of a short-lived zoo.

Several houses had been built on the property over the years, but the one remaining is the caretaker's cottage, built in the 1930s. It is now the headquarters of Actors' Theatre of Columbus, which performs in the park's amphitheater.

Over the years, houses were built around the park, which is now bounded by Reinhard Avenue, Jaeger Street, Deshler Avenue and City Park Avenue.

Diplomats visit

In 1871, Amelia May Parsons and Prince Alexander Ernst zu Lynar of Prussia were married in Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown. Afterward they both planted a tree for peace in Schiller Park. The Franco-Prussian War ended that same year.

Lynar wasn't the only diplomat to have visited the park. Former President Barack Obama spoke there during his re-election campaign in 2012.

Name change

The park was named after Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805), a German poet, playwright and philosopher.

The 2,640-pound statue of von Schiller, crafted in Germany, was dedicated, surely as a nod to the large German population on the South Side, on July 4, 1891. It officially was named Schiller Park in 1905.

During World War I, however, anti-German sentiment in Columbus and the United States ran high. The park was renamed Washington Park, after George Washington. The park became the site of the burning of German books, Clark said. But in 1930, it became Schiller again.

Urban paradise

These days, Schiller is every bit the urban park, with a basketball court, tennis courts, a playground and home to the Schiller Community Center (long known as the Schiller Recreation Center), dedicated in 1917.

Sidewalks surround the park and wend their way through the space, as trees -- some believed to be dating back to the Stewart's Grove era -- tower over joggers and dog-walkers.

Julie Bango, who grew up on the South Side, was taking her dog, Lily, for a walk in the park Sept. 6.

"This is Lily's backyard," said Bango, who now lives in German Village. "I love this park. I grew up riding my bike down here."

A lighted fountain was recently added in the pond on the south side of the park. Dirt from the pond's excavation was piled into the northeast portion of the park, leading to the formation of what is known as the sledding hill.

"People will get the inkling it's an indian burial mound," Clark said.

Gardens galore

A number of improvements to the park came from volunteers and private donations.

One was the iconic Umbrella Girl fountain on the north side of the park, created by then-local sculptor Joan Wobst, a village resident.

Nearby is the Grace Highfield Memorial Garden, honoring the longtime member of the German Village Society and a staunch supporter of the neighborhood.

The Schiller monument is bordered by lush greenery and faces three colorful flower beds, known as Huntington Garden, which lead to the von Schiller statue from City Park Avenue.

A group of 35 or so volunteers, known as the "deadheaders," do all the planting and maintenance of the garden, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year.

"We still have a number of (deadheaders) originals," said Bert Stevens, chairwoman of Huntington Garden.

Janet Druen, Connie Swain and Elspeth Willoughby formed Friends of Schiller Park in 1980 as a way to improve a dilapidated playground on the eastern portion of the park.

The women "had young kids in the area and figured it needed to be done," Willoughby said.

The group, which has since branched out to include other projects in the park, was instrumental in getting the playground renovated and, years later, championed a major upgrade.

"There was not a lot of other green space around that area," Willoughby said.

"And for those of us who were living there with young children, this was our playground, our backyard, if you will. I think it was very important to the community."

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary