Many of Vanderburgh County’s older generation retain fond memories of Burdette Park. It was a popular meeting place for young people before, during, and after World War II. While people recall the park’s old “salt pool”, roller skating, and the outdoor dancing, most are unaware of how Burdette got its name. The park’s origins are shrouded in mystery for most people.
Burdette Park as well as the Everette Burdette American Legion Post 187 were both named in honor of a young Evansville man who grew up in Howell, enlisted in the army during World War I, and was killed in action in Germany.
A number of American Legion Posts sprang up in Evansville following the armistice that signaled the end of the “great war”. Burdette Post received its charter on December 27, 1921, and A.W. Epperson was elected its first commander.
During the summer of 1927, the 25-member west side post purchased a 40 acre site that was 10 minutes from Howell and three miles from the Evansville city limits. Legion members put up some of their own money to help finance the purchase.
The site, which was to eventually become Burdette Park, was an area of great natural beauty with tall trees, scenic hills and lush valleys. An abundance of fresh water was provided by a spring-fed well, and there was a natural salt spring which figured prominently in the park’s future development.
Fred Schlamp, Carl Wolfin, and Charles Dunn were among the early prime movers in the purchase of the park site and its development during those first crucial years. Work began at the site in April, 1928. As the preliminary clearing began, Legionaires started construction of a clubhouse. That structure still stands today and overlooks the present swimming pool and is still known as the “Clubhouse”.
Everett Burdette and his brother Ernest joined the army on September 23, 1917. Their father, the Rev. E.G.S. Burdette, lived at 117 West Illinois Street in Evansville. A younger brother, Ralph, joined the army a few months later and was slightly wounded the following summer.
Less than one year after his enlistment, on September 1, 1918, Everette Burdette fell to enemy fire. His body was returned to the United States early in 1921, and, that April, Everette Burdette was buried in Locust Hill Cemetery.
During the park’s formative years it was used primarily by Post 187 members and their guests. In December, 1931, the post formed a non-profit corporation to operate the park and promote its activities. By 1935, from 3,000 to 4,000 persons a week were visiting the facility.
A number of public works programs during the “great depression” – such as WPA, CWA and DERA – provided money and manpower needed for development in the early years of the park. The Legion had deeded the park to Vanderburgh County to enable it to qualify for federal assistance programs. Later, the Burdette Park Association was formed to operate the park. That first group included Dunn, Curtis Stinson, and Oline Varner from the post, County Council President Harvey Herndon, and County Auditor Edward Koenemmann. Formal ceremonies were held in 1936 to open the park to the public.
Earlier visitors to the park found a number of attractions. In addition to the Legion home, six log cabins had been built. Timber and sandstone from the park itself, were used in much of this initial construction. There also were two artificial lakes, foot trails, 25 rustic bridges, plus a number of picnic tables and ovens which were available upon paying a $0.05 fee. One of the first major projects at Burdette Park was the building of a dam for the lake along with the construction of the Lakeside Cottage. This building is still standing and is one of the more popular facilities today at the park. When major expansion and renovation took place in 1938, the county’s share was $14,000. The remaining $289,000 was provided as part of a WPA improvement project.
Many of the first park visitors came from Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky. It was this support that assisted in the park’s early success and growth. But, as time passed, more and more Vanderburgh County residents came to discover the park’s natural beauty and its many recreation opportunities. The salt spring provided water for the first swimming pool which became known as the “salt pool”.
Burdette Park suffered damage during early 1937 from the flood that ravaged Evansville and many other river communities. For example, the roller skating rink floor was under several feet of water. Cleanup efforts allowed the park to open that summer and it continued to prosper.
Park attendance declined during World War II but in 1945 as the war came to a conclusion, plans were already being formulated to renovate existing facilities and build new ones. Improvements were discussed and plans were prepared for the new dance pavilion which was constructed in 1946.
Burdette Park enjoyed several good post-war years before revenues declined in 1948 and 1949. The park almost failed to open in 1950. It took almost $5,000.00 from the county to make necessary repairs to the swimming pool and roller skating rink. Later that year, the park association notified Vanderburgh County that it would no longer be able to operate Burdette after the year ended.
The county agreed to take over operations. Earl Reasor, a County Commissioner, was elected president of the Vanderburgh County Park Board in March, 1951. Edward H. Mayer was named vice-president with Elsie Barning secretary. County Councilman Larry Lant, County Agent Albert M. Bishea, and citizen members Larry Fitzgerald and Henry Kissel rounded out the board.
The advent of Daylight Savings time that same year was expected to boost business and revenues. Gate admissions were 14 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. There was a 40 cent charge for swimming while dancing cost a quarter.
But, to many people’s dismay, in 1954 county officials discussed the permanent closing of Burdette Park. In addition to the financial problems, the 1950’s were a time of political turmoil for the park. Managers were hired and fired on a revolving basis or so it seemed. There was little stability until mid-1954 when Carl (Pete) Mosby was hired as park manager.
Mr. Mosby actively promoted dancing at the pavilion with special entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. Efforts were made to find new organizations to rent park facilities; organizations such as the Hadi Shrine. Many park roads were blacktopped and better dressing rooms were built for the swimming pool. During this time, however, the salt well began to go dry. It required almost round-the-clock maintenance to keep the pool open and operating according to Health Department standards.
Plans were discussed for extending city water service to the park. By 1956, despite these problems, park revenues were on the rise and the park had operated in the black for two years. Then, after serving three years, Mosby was ousted as manager.
Revenues had declined again by 1959 and conditions at the swimming pool had worsened. The salt well was almost dry and the pool was under increasing fire from the Health Department. While the pool opened in 1959, it was obvious that drastic action must be taken if the park was to be saved.
Help and leadership came from the County Commissioner elected in 1958, Mr. Charles Ellspermann. The manager situation stabilized in 1961 with the appointment of Mr. Francis J. DeVoy, his widow, Louise DeVoy, who succeeded him, Robert Hertzberger, from 1974 until 1976 and Ray Wolf from 1977 to the present time.
When Mr. Ellspermann was elected as a County Commissioner, he had little experience with or knowledge or Burdette Park. However, Mr. Ellspermann felt the park was a “natural asset” and he felt there was a definite need for family recreation in the county. Ellspermann, as president of the board, worked with Wilfred Diekmann and others to ensure the extension of an 11,000 foot water line to provide city water at the park. The fresh water and sewage facilities, coupled with strong new leadership, saved Burdette Park form possible extinction.
A $300,000 bond issue was approved in 1960 to construct an Olympic size swimming facility at the park to replace the old salt pool. The new pool is still one of the finest and largest pools in the Midwest.
The old salt pool had been closed for almost a year when the new pool opened on August 19, 1961. The water line and proper sanitation facilities gave the park new life. The new pool was the keystone for two decades of expansion and prosperity at the park.