A shortened version of this article was published in the Kennebec Journal on June 2, 2012. This is the whole story.
By STEVE VELLANI
Hallowell has a long and colorful history and part of that history is of an active and involved citizenry. Two recent events come to mind: the march on the Capital in 1975 when the State DOT had plans to demolish the east side of Hallowell to make way for a four lane highway, and the grassroots mobilization of citizens to restore Vaughan Field as Hallowell’s park.
This is the story of Vaughan Field, but first a little history.
In the last half of the 1800’s the property was the site of the Sampson Oil Cloth Factory. The factory burned after the turn of the century and Sampson created a real estate company. He attempted to put a right of way to extend Sampson’s Row to Page Street. This was unsuccessful and at this point Sampson decided to sell the property. Bertha Vaughan purchased the property as a memorial to her parents and deeded the 9 acres to the City of Hallowell, stipulating that it be maintained as “a park and playground, to which all the children and citizens of Hallowell may have access…” For several decades the community of Hallowell enjoyed using Vaughan Field, which became known as “The Ball Field”, and where generations played football and baseball. The field was also the site of Easter egg hunts, parade staging, firemen’s musters and many other activities. Indeed, it was Hallowell’s park. A picture of Bertha’s vision for the park is hanging in Hallowell City Hall. In 1952 the voters narrowly decided to approve the use of Vaughan Field as the site for a new elementary school. The Vaughan heirs, at the request of the city, released to the city any ownership claims they might have had to the property. The City then entered into a lease contract with the Maine State School Building Authority and school officials to erect the new school.
When the State approved a new elementary school for Hall-Dale in 2004 the school board decided to build it at a new location leaving the city and school officials to make plans for the disposition of the land. Initially, the City wanted to sell the property to a developer and use the revenue to offset the cost of expansions to the school’s gym and library that the state wouldn’t cover. Once these plans became public a group of citizens organized to honor Bertha Vaughan’s gift and restore the property to its original intent as a park and playground for all Hallowell citizens. That group became the Friends of Vaughan Field.
A grassroots movement is the epitome of citizens involvement, this one truly spread like wildfire throughout Hallowell and gathered support from folks in other towns and cities. It began with a few neighbors to the parcel of land that were keenly interested with what would become of the eight acre mix of open space and woods. Some folks in the neighborhood were in touch with city officials to stay abreast of any plans that may have been brewing and, as it turned out, there were some plans. The plan to sell the land to a developer to build condos and use the money towards the new school was not a desirable outcome for the neighbors and they decided to get organized, better informed and active.
The tipping point was the discovery of a file at city hall that contained a deed gifting the land to the city in 1923, stating it would be maintained as a park and playground for Hallowell citizens, in perpetuity. These words were to become the foundational debate between some city officials and what were now the Friends of Vaughan Field. It quickly became apparent the city didn’t share that view of the deed language and we needed to change that view. We began by talking to other folks and asking if they thought Hallowell should have an in town park and the response was a resounding yes. A petition signed by hundreds confirmed it was not just a neighborhood group but a growing majority that wanted to move in that direction. The City continued to resist the pressure. In an unusual move, legislation was introduced to allow the school district to deed the land to the city for disposition. I say unusual because the state wants a new school to be occupied before the old one is disposed of. We knew if that bill passed our options would be reduced so we successfully lobbied our representative and had that bill pulled. One obstacle down, many to go.
In April of 2005,the Friends went to the city council to discuss our findings, such as the deed, and to ask the city to keep the land and use it as a park. A lively debate ensued and it was decided a public hearing was called for. Now we knew we had public support but imagine our surprise when the hearing that was held turned out to be the highest attend in Hallowell’s history. Over one hundred and sixty people attended and of those only four people spoke against having a park. A truly overwhelming turnout but it still wasn’t enough to completely sway the opposing point of view but a few councilors had joined with the Friends.
As the group grew in size so did its approach to swaying public opinion. If knowledge is power then more information is what we needed. Fundraisers were held which allowed us to finance a study by a noted land use consultant, lawyers were consulted to confirm the deed was valid and more and more meetings were attended by more and more people. The train was rolling and it would not be stopped!
With massive growing movement for the park continuing, we realized it was time to focus on running a candidate for the council. Our motto was, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em and then beat ‘em’! That fall more candidates ran for office, eight, than had run in decades. Indeed this park was a hot button issue that brought out the voters and culminated with our candidate winning a seat.
Now the Friends could work from inside and outside the government. This was key. At last, the Friends had the fourth vote needed to create the park. This could have been sufficient but we wanted an unanimous vote. We were, if nothing else relentless ,in pursuit of our goal. Other changes happened in the city government, such as a new mayor, city manager and another councilor and this resulted in a sea change in the local governments opinion. The mayor appointed the Vaughan Field committee to study the various uses for the land. It recommended the land be used as a park. After one more packed public hearing in 2007, the council voted unanimously to tear down the old school and restore Vaughan Field as Hallowell’s park.
This little tale exemplifies how an active and engaged citizenry can work through processes to effect real change where they live. People of all ages are using the park on a daily basis, from the playground to the open field and walking trail, it’s easy to now see, it was the right thing to do. Hallowell has always had many involved folks doing much good throughout the city and we are proud to call it home.
A dedication ceremony is in the planning stages and will be held at Vaughan Field soon.