The Last Word - April 2020
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inGRATITUDE

Maxwell Park in Normal, Ill.

By Emily Tipping


When I was a little kid, the vast majority of my play experience centered in one place other than my back yard: Maxwell Park in Normal, Ill.

My family moved to a fresh and mostly treeless subdivision on the west side of Normal when I was just a toddler—probably around 1975. At that point, Normal pretty much ended two blocks from our house. After that, it was cornfields and highway and more cornfields. My dad, a transplant originally from Alabama, seemed to take great delight in getting

us into the car and driving out into the flat country, where you could see for miles and miles. (I suspect he took even more delight in taking those drives all by himself.)

And when we wanted to have a picnic, or when we needed to run off some excess energy, or when we wanted to go somewhere—anywhere—that wasn't home, from the time we moved in until I was in my early teens, that place was Maxwell Park.

Maxwell Park is part of a 125-acre parcel purchased by the Town of Normal and the Unit 5 School District in 1970. Demonstrating the value of such partnerships even way back then, the organizations created a comprehensive development plant that gave 50 acres for a new school, while the rest was developed by the town. The original park included playing fields, tennis courts, three apparatus areas and a picnic area.

I won't forget the trepidation I felt when I was finally allowed to go down the curly slide. And I'm pretty sure I was solely responsible for wearing out at least one swing seat.

When I was in fourth grade, I went to Maxwell Park for the drama program, and we put on an abbreviated version of Pirates of Penzance. (I was Mabel.) In other years, we gathered as a family and watched as my older sister performed in the summer musicals.

Alas, the performance theater in the park burned down in May 2002.

The park still holds so many fond memories for me. Family picnics and play time. The drama programs. Playing tennis with my dad on the courts. Walking with friends to the wilder spots out by the highway, where you could signal to truckers and they'd blow their horns at you, where you could get muddy in the creek looking for crawdads.

The year I moved away—1998—the park saw new development, with four new softball diamonds able to hold state tournaments—Champion Fields. The curly slide and other old-timey equipment of my youth has been replaced with beautiful new play equipment. The shelter where we had all those picnics has been replaced.

The park is now home to restrooms, picnic shelters and tables with grills, a playground, ballfields, lighted tennis courts, basketball, a horseshoe court, a disc golf course, a dog park, a natural area and a cross-country course.

It doesn't look the same, and it shouldn't. And other parks gained on my growing mind and became the places where I found recreation and fun as a teenager, and later as a college student at Illinois State University.

But Maxwell Park will always be the park that first comes to mind when I think of the places families go that are close to home. RM