By: Kate Luce
What used to be grandstands, might not look like much. Just south of the Community Building, the history of South Bend is nothing less than expansive.
Dr. Jay VanderVeen, professor of archeology and anthropology, was asked this year to speak at the History Museum’s Insights on History. Due to the pandemic, the event was hosted virtually this year, but the video is still available to watch on the History Museum’s website.
“I have worked with the History Museum for several years. I’m on one of their smaller boards. I’m on the board that sort of looks at the collections. I’ve given two, possibly three, other of the Insights on History. So Marylin Thompson is one of the people in charge of guest affairs and doing a lot of the events. And she reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we have an idea, we were doing these things virtually. We’d love to have you present one,’” VanderVeen said.
During his talk, VanderVeen spoke on the history of the campus, beyond when it being IU South Bend.
In 2018, VanderVeen and his undergraduate class decided to do an archaeological dig near the grandstands past the Community Building. While the class didn’t find anything ‘museum-quality,” it was interesting for students to find bottle caps, trash and expected items.
“I’m pretty good at predicting what we’re going to have because I’ve been, I’ve been doing the archaeology thing for, for decades. My students were surprised by lots of things. So I can kind of run through their surprise. And one of the things that really was expected, but still surprising was we found a golf ball that was in fact stamped with Playland,” VanderVeen said.
They didn’t find a baseball bat, but they did find tokens, golf balls and a railroad spike.
His talk didn’t just feature the 2018 dig. He spoke on the full history of the area. His research was supported through the library’s access to historical newspapers, including the South Bend Tribune.
The area held an amusement park initially named “Spring Brook Park,” which opened its doors as a trolley park in the 1880s. The area gained a casino, roller coaster and exhibition hall by 1912. Four years later, a racetrack was added to the area.
In the mid-1920s, it was renamed to the more infamous, “Playland Park,” where it became the center for entertainment for South Bend. It was also home to the South Bend Blue Sox, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, from 1946-1954.
“The historical documents were a lot of fun because I guess a couple of people knew babe Ruth was barnstorming around. So, he came and he planted an exhibition game. All of the big bands of the time, you know, the ones that your parents may have had the records of, they all were here. So just the fact that it was such a huge gathering place that we don’t really think of when we look at the housing is great. There were roller coasters and they did ice skating in the winter. They did bicycle racing around the tracks that the cinder track,” VanderVeen said.
Playland Park officially closed in 1961, but life was still in the area. It became a golf course. IU South Bend then purchased the area to turn it into campus housing.
“On the property, we’ve been here as long as there’s been a city, pretty much. Which is the other key point is, The Spring Brook Park wasn’t the first thing. Playland certainly wasn’t the first thing even. IU South Bend isn’t the first thing. Native Americans have been living here for as long as we keep living here. The river is the really important part. And I love the fact that our campus has a river running right through the middle of it. Because that really, really does represent the history and the potential of the industry and everything that’s wonderful about this
that we need to protect it.
What has been left behind – does not seem like much. However, considering that it was built in the 1860s and still standing, VanderVeen considers this to be impressive.
While the grandstands are eroding with time and the elements, they have seen nearly two centuries of progress.
“We need to protect all of our heritage. And people look at the grandstands and there’s grass growing up in the middle of it. And when our students climbed it, there were broken bottles there. If we don’t keep it around, we can’t learn from them who can’t sort of get a connection and have that tangible connection with the past,” VanderVeen said.
You can watch VanderVeen’s talk here: https://www.historymuseumsb.org/see-do/online-programs/insights-in-history/.