Welcome to the Lake Park Playground…… with two acres of fenced area it is the Town of Athol’s largest public playground. And it’s a busy playground. A favorite destination for many families, day care providers, and after school programs.
A six-room schoolhouse, named the Lake Park School originally sat on this spot. The school was built in 1894 and housed students in grades one thru four, and later five and six. Miss Clara B. Harrington of Montague was the school’s first permanent teacher. Later principals of the school included Mrs. George Pollard, Miss Eva Bonnette, and Miss Martha Blackmer.
Students who attended Lake Park School in the 1950s remember that the boys and girls were separated for recess and went into the school by different entrances. Some of the girls recall being a little jealous of the outdoor space that was given to the boys because they had a whole baseball field while the girls had a small space on the side of the building to play baseball. Baseball not softball.
In 1962 the school was determined to be unsafe and about 100 students were transferred to Silver Lake School, about a half-mile to the East. There was talk of reusing the building as a Civil Defense Field Hospital or resold for residential housing but ultimately concerns of safety won out and the school was demolished in 1966. Those living in the neighborhood at the time might have found it amusing that a crane and wrecking ball were necessary to take down the “unsafe” school. Legend has it that the demolition crew had to get their bulldozer to the second floor of the school in order to knock down the top of the building. The cost of the demolition was $2,500.
The empty lot served neighborhood kids well for a wide open space to play. The town seeded the lot and added swings but even after the approximately $6,000 in improvements the neighborhood kids still referred to it as the sandlot.
In 1987 the community rallied and turned the old sandlot into a magnificent wooden play structure that resembled a castle and fortress. The playground was designed by Larry Segal from Robert S. Leather’s Associates out of Ithaca, New York. The Army Corp of Engineers and dozens of residents of every age and skill set turned out to erect the structure. For the economical price tag of $40,000, the community enjoyed the “wooden park” for nearly twenty years.
In 2005 a student at Mahar Regional High School used the Lake Park Playground as the basis for an ambitious science fair project. The student tested the soil surrounding the wooden park structure for traces of arsenic, a chemical widely used in the treatment process of pressure treated wood. An unacceptable level of the arsenic was found in the soil and the playground was immediately closed to the public and soon after torn down.
Before the weeds could get root a new community group came together to begin the fundraising for a new playground. The first obstacle was to give the site a clean bill of health and about 200 cubic yards of soil was removed and replaced. The whole project, including the state of the art and handicapped accessible equipment, cost just under $200,000. A far cry from the $40,000 spent to build the wooden playground but we hope it will be taken care of and around for a long, long time to come.
A time capsule buried in 1988 by the children at Silver Lake School was unearthed in 2008 when the new playground was being built. It’s contents are on display in the Athol Town Hall.