Phillips Park - A Brief History
“Phillips Park: A Rich Past - A Bright Future!” was the theme adopted by the Friends of Phillips Park for the park’s 100th Anniversary observed in 1999 and carries into the Millennium.
The actual deed for the park was signed on November 21, 1899, though records indicate that as early as 1835 the hilly area, with wooded coves and lagoons, was used for picnics and family outings. The Aurora Sharp Shooter Society, a German organization, used the area for a shooting range in the early 1870’s. Shortly thereafter, Ferdinand Dapprich cultivated a vineyard, added a beer garden and later a billiard hall. In 1884, when ownership switched hands to Dr. Pond, and then to State Senator Henry Evans, the property consisted of 40 acres. Evans developed the area into a center of entertainment that included a refreshment hall and a dance pavilion. In 1899 City Park, as it was called then, was purchased by the estate of Auroran Travis Phillips, former grocer, alderman and mayor. He instructed that $24,000 from his estate be used to purchase property for a park and donated to the city. A total of 60 acres, at $400 per acre, were purchased from Evans and turned over to the city. The park was renamed Phillips Park in 1902.
Over the years that followed, people continued to gather in droves for 4th of July celebrations, weekly band concerts, pageants, baseball games and other community activities. The dollhouse, pony track, miniature train and merry-go-round were among the popular attractions in the past, as were the horseshoe pits, the ice skating rink and the sledding hills.
The zoo, established in 1915, acquired animals for exhibit by 1920 that included 5 black bears, 10 monkeys, 6 elk, 3 buffalo, 2 foxes, a wolf, a deer and hundreds of birds of every description. When Brookfield Zoo opened in 1934, the Phillips Park Zoo decided to focus on a collection of native animals, rather than the other large exotic animals that were showcased in the past. It became known as the zoo and museum when the mastodon bones and tusks were discovered in 1934. Animal pens and new cages were added and funded by a WPA project in 1938, at which time the zoo was home to baboons, monkeys, bears, a coyote, rabbits, pigeons, parakeets, parrots and lovebirds. The most recent and exciting additions to the zoo are the bald eagles and the wolves, with a new mountain lion exhibit planned for the near future.
On March 7, 1934, prehistoric Mastodon bones and tusks, between 10,000 and 22,000 years old, were discovered during the Phillips Park Lake Excavation Project. Over 555 workmen from the Civil Works Administration began the federal work project in 1933 to combat the effects of the Great Depression. Designed by local engineer G. Walter Parker, the excavation project created an island, in addition to the natural one already in existence. At that time the lake was officially named Townsend Lake, after the former Mayor and Park Commissioner, though everyone then referred to it as Mastodon Lake and continue to do so to this day. In 1988 the Mastodon Trail, a 1-mile pedestrian and bicycle path was constructed around the 28-acre lake. The bones and tusks were originally displayed in the park greenhouse, then the birdhouse and then moved to a permanent display at the Aurora Historical Museum in 1938. The exhibit remained there until the museum opened its second location in 1996 in downtown Aurora. The bones then returned home when the new Phillips Park Visitors Center and Mastodon Gallery opened to the public in the fall of 2003.
Now located on more than 325 acres, park attractions include the Visitors Center and Mastodon Gallery, the Sunken Garden, the Phillips Park Golf Course, the Phillips Park Zoo, the Aquatic Center, Mastodon Lake-a 28 acre fishing lake, the Mastodon Trail-a 1 mile multiple use trail, the Mastodon Island exhibits, the waterfall, World War I cannons and numerous veteran related monuments. Amenities include a large state-of-the-art playground, a toddler’s playground, picnic pavilions, sand volleyball courts, tennis courts, horseshoe courts, fishing piers and an ice skating pond and a sledding hill. Zoo exhibits include bald eagles, wolves, foxes, otters, elk, goats, pot-bellied pigs, llamas and more. For additional information contact the City of Aurora’s Parks and Recreation Division at (630) 256-3730.