Remnant of former city park is still visible

Published 9:05 am Saturday, August 8, 2009

Albert Lea may have 39 or 40 city parks — both fairly large and really small and even obscure — in its system. And one of the smallest and now nearly forgotten is a place once known as Armstrong Park. Looking for this park on the present city maps would thus be futile, yet there’s a tangible reminder of this park on the north side of Fountain Street near the West Avenue corner.

This former park may have been one of the first plots of land in Albert Lea to be dedicated for public use. For at least a century the grassy area and its drinking fountain seemed to add something special to one local neighborhood. On page 276 of the 1912 Freeborn County History book written by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge is this commentary, “Armstrong Park, a small triangular piece of ground between Fountain, Grove and West Streets, was donated by Augustus Armstrong. While small, it adds a share to the beauty of that most delightful residence section and will be particularly useful since the City and County Hospital has been located just to the west of it.”

There are several details in this short sketch which need further explanation and updating.

Email newsletter signup

First, the triangular plot of land was based on Fountain Street and Grove Avenue. What’s now West Avenue is still across Fountain Street from the site of the former park. Grove Avenue once ran at a diagonal from a location between West and St. Mary avenues to the northwest to the Park Avenue and Grace Street intersection.

Second, the City and County Hospital was soon renamed Naeve Hospital. The two buildings at this site later became the Fountain Lake Treatment Center and are now a part of the Albert Lea Medical Center campus.

Third, Augustus Armstrong was a member of one of the first families to settle in Albert Lea. He arrived in the small settlement located next to a prairie lake in 1857 and soon became deeply involved with local life and politics. Armstrong was the county’s first clerk of court, served as county treasurer for several years, became a justice of the peace and was one of the area’s first lawyers. He also served as Freeborn County Attorney, was elected to several terms as both a representative and senator in the Minnesota Legislature, and led the fund drive to build the city’s first church. The 1912 history book said he contributed $1,000 to help with the construction of the original Presbyterian Church. He died on Aug. 18, 1873, while on a visit to Delavan, Wis. Armstrong is buried at Graceland Cemetery.

For many years, the only feature in the small park was a drinking fountain. However, this fountain was vandalized several times and finally removed, according to the late Bidney Bergie. Bergie once added that it was too bad no photographs were ever available to show the Armstrong Park fountain.

Armstrong Park ceased to exist in the early 1970s when Grove Avenue was vacated and the entire area was revised as part of the new Naeve Hospital building project. In fact, the present entry, or what could be considered to be a northern extension of West Avenue, to the Albert Lea Medical Center parking lot and main building complex runs right through the former park area.

Yet, there’s still a tangible reminder still left of this pioneer park. A short sidewalk extension and concrete base of the old fountain can be seen next to the Albert Lea Medical Center sign by the stoplight on Fountain Street. And in 1994 the Naeve Hospital Association installed a new drinking fountain as a way to revive this particular part of the city’s past for the public. Thus, pedestrians and those who walk or run by this location can have a place to obtain a welcome drink of water on warmer days of the year.