The legend of Soldier Spring Park is almost as old as Weatherford itself. A few years after the city was incorporated in the 1850s, a band of Confederate soldiers supposedly camped out by the namesake springs southwest of town before going on to fight a group of local Indians.
Whether the story is true or not, it is known the site was chosen for a Confederate reunion after the Civil War (Union soldiers who wished to attend were also invited).
The isolated spot, lush with trees and springs, was apparently left to grow at its own undeveloped leisure until 1890, when a popular movement sweeping the nation made its way to Weatherford.
The Chautauqua lectures began in New York as an outdoor, summer Sunday School series developed by two Methodists. The lectures quickly transformed into a combination of tent revivals and Vaudeville.
Still in existence today, the Chautauqua heyday ran from the last decade of the 1800s through the 1930s. The citizens of Weatherford caught up in the movement, and Soldier Spring Park became the local Chautauqua site.
The Chautauquas “will make Weatherford a name at home and abroad, which will draw the best and most intelligent class of visitors and settlers to this city,” reported the Weatherford Constitution in November, 1890. The paper added the lectures would be held in “as lovely a spot as the hand of Nature ever fashioned.”
Soldier Spring, now known as Chautauqua Park, was home to the series for decades. The Weatherford Democrat published a review of one such Chautauqua in the summer of 1918. That summer’s series features acts such as the Ladies Regimental Orchestra (described only as “eight clever and charming young ladies), Rotto the impersonator and an Italian prima donna named Madam Helen Cafarelli.
In the same production were speeches by Dr. Ira Landrith, a Presbyterian minister and prohibitionist, and Captain David Fallon, a British officer wounded in the First World War, who gave a passionate speech against the Prussians. Fallon urged the citizens of Weatherford to pledge their support of the war to President Wilson. The next day, the Weatherford Chautauqua group sent a telegram of support to Washington.
It was in the midst of this social climate the park changed hands, officially becoming a part of Weatherford. In October 1917, the park owner held an auction for the property. Only two bidders came, with A.H. Russell bidding on behalf of the city. According to the Weekly Herald, Russel was “given authority by the city council to bid the property in provided it did not sell too high.” Russell took the land, consisting of more than 50 acres, for $1,500.
In a 1917 Democrat article describing the purchase, the reporter made note of the original Confederate story: “In the south work of the creek is the famous soldier’s spring, where men stopped to quench their thirst back in the pioneer days of Texas and where soldiers engaged in fighting Indians camped.”
During the Chautauqua period, the park also played a darker role in Parker County history.
In 1908, Soldier Spring was the site of the county’s second and last legal hanging.
Little was known of the convict, J.B. Cason, except he came to Weatherford from somewhere back east. He traveled part of the way with L.F. McLemore, who was moving west for his health. Cason murdered McLemore about six miles southwest of Weatherford (robbery was assumed to be the motive) and hid the body on the Bill Eddleman ranch. Eddleman’s young son, Hugh, found McLemore’s mutilated body on a cow trail. Cason was convicted and sentenced to hang.
Although citizens were asked not to come to the execution, witnesses later recalled a large crowd came to watch. Cason was hanged at Soldier Spring May 22, 1908. The sheriff’s ledger from the time notes he was dispatched “by death.”
After its morbid notoriety as a hanging site and its celebrity as a location for educational and social lectures, Soldier Spring fell into disuse.
For almost 20 years, from the 1930s through the ’50s, it was used as a city dump. Miners then used it to dig for caliche.
In 1973, civic groups reclaimed the property for park use and restored it closer to its original landscaping. Tucked away just a few blocks from Weatherford Public Library, the park has been opened to the public since the ’70s and a historical marker gives a brief glimpse of its intricate history.
“Weatherford citizens have utilized this park in many ways through the years,” the Weatherford Web site notes. “The changes and improvements it has gone through have turned it into the treasure that it is today.”
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