News Column

Helena festival retains flavor of small-town America

June 26, 2014

By Ken Newton, St. Joseph News-Press, Mo.

June 26--The wooden bandstand gave in to age long ago, the place where the Helena Orchestra performed and countless tykes flaunted their cuteness in the annual baby contest.

Memories hold that the bandstand had a storage room that sheltered a piano, and no one could figure out, after the summer's heat and winter's freeze, how it could retain its tone from year to year.

Until finally it couldn't. So a group went to the Methodist Church to borrow a piano for the Helena Park Opening, a civic celebration each June in the unincorporated Andrew County town. Through haste or inattention, though, the piano fell off the wagon.

"It never quite sounded the same after that," Margaret Dishman remembers.

As a curiosity of branding, long before branding became a thing, the annual event at Webster Park assumed the name "Park Opening." Nothing gets opened, mind you ... it's a park. Saturday will mark 105 years of faux openings.

"People always ask, 'Haven't you got that opened yet?'" says Martha Clark, who chairs the Helena Park Board and helps Mrs. Dishman and others in coordinating the fete.

No matter its name, the Park Opening hangs on as a vestige of small-town America, an act of community in an age where people's interests get increasingly spread to the winds. It reminds folks that a high-tech world still has room for a cakewalk and a dunking booth and maybe a conversation with someone they haven't seen in a while.

The festival goes on because people like it. And, by legal caveat, it goes on because it has to.

To understand this, a person needs a short history lesson about Helena, located about 16 miles northeast of St. Joseph.

The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad wanted to build a narrow-gauge line between Albany, Mo., and St. Joseph. Two farmers, H.C. Webster and Warren Snowden, discovered the route would bisect their adjacent properties. They determined in 1878 to allot some of their land for a town site.

A romantic, perhaps, Mr. Snowden wanted to name the town for his wife, Florence. But another Missouri community already had the name. So the construction superintendent of the railroad, Col. John Motter, assigned the town the name of his daughter.

(It is pronounced He-LEE-na, not like the capital city of Montana.)

A parcel of land got set aside for a town park, but a stipulation came with the deal. A yearly public function would have to be held, the money raised to go for park upkeep. Failing this, the land would revert to the Webster heirs.

"So we're afraid not to do it," Mrs. Clark laughs.

Though Mrs. Dishman adds, "We don't know if there are any heirs left."

W.H. Sharp not only built a stage but organized an orchestra to play on it for the inaugural Park Opening in 1909. An archival picture shows the ensemble, in their Sunday best and with string and brass instruments in hand.

That first event brought a large crowd to Helena by horse and rail. Lemonade was available from a stock tank.

It has survived hot days and rainy days, has spanned periods of war and Depression. Even local tragedy. In the 1920s, the town doctor, Ernest H. Carpenter, went to light the acetylene generator that powered the lights in the park. He had done this countless times before. But this time, the tank exploded, killing him.

Helena and all of Andrew County mourned.

Mrs. Dishman remembers her first time at the festival in 1964. Married to a local guy just a couple of weeks before, she got the question from her mother-in-law about her planned attire. It's a park, she figured, so slacks seem about right.

"Not to the Park Opening," her mother-in-law said right away. Mrs. Dishman discovered the decorum of the time called for dresses.

Mrs. Clark, also not a Helena native, went to the event the first time in 1973 and all of them since. Her memories run to the 1976 Park Opening, held about a month after she gave birth to twins. The nation prepared to celebrate its bicentennial, and Mrs. Clark sewed red, white and blue period outfits for the newborns to wear in the baby contest.

"They didn't win," she says, then laughing, "although I thought they should have."

She would eventually oversee the demolition of the old bandstand and the construction of the new concrete stage, which serves as a hub of activities for the festival. Along with others, Mrs. Clark also helped put out the call to replace the deteriorating wooden benches where people sat to watch the entertainment.

Donations came in, and new, all-weather benches now stretch out from the stage front. The design work was done pro bono, and the concrete got poured by volunteers. Money has been raised to replace some of the picnic tables. An Eagle Scout project improved the electrical connections at the park, just across the street from the elementary school.

"When people see a need, they do it," Mrs. Clark says.

But modern life pulls against such festivals. The town no longer has a convenience store or a gas station. Locals spend more time on the road for work. If their kids or grandchildren have activities, and they always do, that's a trip here and there.

"Every year, there are more things to take people away," Mrs. Dishman says.

If the coordination of volunteers becomes more complicated, the Park Opening remains a durable part of the calendar. Maybe it's the Lion's Club cooking. Maybe it's the cute babies. Maybe Helena residents just like getting together.

The Park Opening seems set to keep opening.

History plays a role. Locals love their years of investment.

"We've talked about changing the name," Mrs. Clark says, "but the response is always, 'Don't even think about it.'"

INFO BOX

The 105th Helena Park Opening will be held Saturday from 4 to 9 p.m. The event will take place, as it long has, in Webster Park in Helena, Mo., with music, food, children's games and a baby pageant.

Ken Newton can be reached at ken.newton@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.

___

(c)2014 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)

Visit the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.) at www.newspressnow.com/index.html

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Source: St. Joseph News-Press (MO)


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