Oakes Park is one of Niagara Falls' finest and most used public facilities. This outstanding athletic field opened on Civic Holiday, Monday, August 3, 1931.
In the next day's edition, The Review headlined its story of the inaugural this way: "Oakes Park Opened in a Blaze of Glory." Review Sports Editor, Bill Gaynon called the opening "one of the biggest days in the history of Niagara Falls."
The park's name honours the man who made it possible - Harry (later Sir Harry) Oakes. Born in Maine in 1874, Oakes spent years prospecting for gold in many parts of the world. He had no luck until he arrived in northeastern Ontario in 1910. There, near Kirkland Lake, he discovered what proved to be the second richest gold mine in the western hemisphere.
Oakes moved to Niagara Falls in 1924, after buying the former Schoellkopf mansion just above Dufferin Islands. He and his wife, Eunice, later enlarged the residence, naming it Oak Hall. (This is now the administration headquarters for The Niagara Parks Commission.)
Oakes was keenly interested in athletics and, as one of his many philanthropic acts here over the years, deeded 6.4 hectares of farmland at the corner of Morrison and Stanley to the city for use as an athletic field. He also pledged most of the funding as well as the equipment to develop the facility.
A community works committee was formed to oversee the project. It was made up of representatives from the city, adjacent Stamford Township, various local businesses and athletic clubs.
Work got underway in the spring of 1930. Harry Oakes and George Emery Sr., who was the superintendent of Fairview Cemetery, were appointed as on-site managers.
During the survey and site planning, it was decided to develop the park as two 3.2-hectare sections. A rugby and lacrosse field, baseball diamonds and a six-lane grass running track would be featured.
George Emery assigned Edward Strange, who was a city landscaper and gardener, and Walt Edgar, a groundskeeper, to oversee the day-to-day work of the development.
From the beginning the committee was determined to create a first-class facility. This included such things as the installation of drainage tiles under the diamond on the main baseball field. It was one of the first diamonds in Ontario to have such a feature.
No detail was neglected. For example, sewer and water lines were laid, a press box was provided, washrooms and parking facilities constructed, a flagpole erected and a chain link security fence installed around the park's perimeter.
Grandstands were purchased from a Toronto racetrack, while Frank H. Leslie, publisher of The Review, provided a large scoreboard. The original clubhouse, which was located at the entrance, was salvaged from the Bridge Street Athletic Grounds where it had been used as a fire station. The building was remodelled to provide two dressing rooms with showers. A meeting room was on the second floor.
There was a daily labour force of 10 to 20 men, which changed every five days. This arrangement provided employment for as many workers as possible - something of considerable importance in the Great Depression years of 1930-31. The men were paid $1.00 a day. Drivers who supplied horses and wagons or scrapers were given $2.50 for an eight-hour shift.
Some 5000 people were on hand for the park's opening, which was organized by the Niagara Falls Lions Club assisted by the city's athletic organizations. The vast crowd witnessed an exhibition baseball game and lacrosse match along with a variety of other sporting events. These were followed by a huge parade made up of several bands along with members of all the athletic clubs in the area. Since Harry Oakes was in Europe at the time, his seven-year-old daughter, Nancy, raised the flag to officially open the park.
Over the last 81 years the park has been enhanced in many ways, thus ensuring that it remains one of the best facilities of its kind in any Ontario city of similar size. The park also stands as a tribute to Harry Oakes as well as to the many men whose skill and labour created it.
By Sherman Zavitz
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