Thursday, October 10, 2019

White City (Amusement) Park, Belleville, Illinois, formerly "Priester’s Park.” (1899-1919)

In 1899, Frank M. Priester, a 46-year-old German immigrant, used 88 acres near what today is roughly 6000 West Main Street, for "Priester's Park," a relaxing amusement escape for city residents. The area was situated in "Lenz Station," four miles west of Belleville proper. The sprawling property would have baseball, football, golf, tennis and cricket fields along with gymnastic apparatus, bowling alleys, a dance pavilion, rifle range, and a restaurant.

"Everything calculated to make the park the most thoroughly equipped and pleasant resort in St. Clair County has been provided for, including a large lake for fishing and boating," according to a front-page story on January 20, 1899, Belleville Daily Advocate. "The entire place will be lighted with electric lights (powered by an on-site generator). Belleville societies and clubs will be royally entertained whenever they go there."
Lake, Priester's Park, Near Belleville, Illinois.
In 1902, a bolt of lightning sparked a fire that destroyed a barn, bowling alleys, and pavilion. Tragedy struck again in 1905 when two St. Louis men drowned.

By the fall of 1905, Priester already was eager to try something different, so on November 3, he announced his plan to turn the amusement park into Priester's Park Driving and Country Club open to members only. In addition to all of the previous attractions, Priester spent another $20,000 to build a half-mile driving track for horse and auto races, and a movie theater. The idea was to make the club, valued at $100,000 (perhaps $3 million in today's money), a "popular place for gentlemen who appreciate true sportsmanship" while providing special days for women and children. By the following spring, memberships numbered 650 with another 212 offered. The new concept had its informal opening on May 12, 1906.

"A tour of the park and inspection of the buildings will be a pleasant surprise to the admirers of comfort, nature and all that goes to make life worth living," the Advocate gushed.

The bar, for example, featured an extensive buffet served in elegant surroundings with 16th-century trappings. Also new were private club rooms for both men and women, four private dining rooms in Priester's own on-site home — and a hotel.
Priester's Park Hotel.
"There can be no question but that the preserves of the club are the most spacious, up-to-date and finest equipped in the Central West," the Advocate writer concluded.

But all the gold and glitter could not buy the club's success. In the fall of 1907, another fire left $45,000 in damage, prompting another change of plans for Priester. On April 8, 1908, several thousand people enjoyed riding the 2,000-foot roller coaster at what was now called "Priester's White City," where admission was 10 cents to all. Tickets included the lastest rage — a motion picture theater.

Neither the new name nor new events like motorcycle races could save Priester's dream. By 1913, he was embroiled in lawsuits with Star Brewery, from whom he leased land for the park. Priester was eventually awarded roughly $10,000 in damages in two suits. He soon sold the park, but it had even less success in the hands of Peter Schwartz. In July 1917, Belleville ordered the park closed when a sheriff's deputy was slugged while trying to calm an unruly patron. The closure was rescinded the next month, but the city ordered that while liquor and music would be allowed, dancing would be banned, adding to the park's miseries.

For a time in 1916, Belleville discussed buying the place for its first city park, and organizations began donating money. But the West Side Improvement Association claimed it was too far from town and would turn into a costly boondoggle, so the idea died.

Finally, in 1919, the park's roller-coaster history came to an end when Bishop Henry Althoff bought the park for educational purposes. To celebrate New Year's Day 1925, Althoff announced that the Oblate Fathers of Mary would establish a Misson and Retreat House on the property. On October 4, 1926, St. Henry Prep Seminary welcomed 13 students through its doors, the first of nearly 3,000 who would study there until it, too, closed in May 1984.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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