When the plat of Brainerd was filed for record in 1871, a center square was left from subdivision and marked “reserved” in what would become the city’s beloved and iconic Gregory Park.
The reserved area first started off as Gregory Square — named so from the middle name of John Gregory Smith, the first president of the Northern Pacific Railroad — but no reason is given in those initial records for its intended use.
Near the center of the plat is a square area measuring two blocks on a side but not subdivided into lots or streets, according to Carl Zapffe, author of "Brainerd 1871-1946," which was published by Colwell Press Inc. of Minneapolis in 1946.
“The people begin getting park conscious and in 1885 they appeal to the council and ask them to do something about it,” according to Zapffe. “Not until the city grows in population and houses are built around the square does the need arise to question. …”
The square area was a dense pine forest, four square blocks in size. But to become a park, it would be necessary to put in lighting, construct paths and maintain and patrol the area.
“If the Lake Superior and Puget Sound Co., which was platting townships, selling lots and locating industries along the new railroad claimed ownership, it would be their job to take care of the area,” according to an earlier Brainerd Dispatch account of Gregory Park’s development.
Zapffe stated, “The danger to the local people is that the company might decide to subdivide the square into city lots, to the detriment of the city.”
Not all activities during that period within the reserved area were met with a favorable reaction.
“J.A. Bixby had a narrow escape one evening last week from being robbed. … These occurrences are getting to be too numerous for the comfort and safety of our people and a close lookout should be kept for these scoundrels who infest the city,” according to the Sept. 6, 1883, edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.
Another account in the local newspaper concerned prostitutes in the park, according to the May 29, 1885, edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.
“Chief Shontell says that these days, or nights rather, are seeing dire proceedings going on in the city park ... No less than three working girls have been escorted to their abode by the police during the past week with the admonition that if found there again under such circumstances that they would be locked up."
— Brainerd Dispatch (May 29, 1885)
“Chief Shontell says that these days, or nights rather, are seeing dire proceedings going on in the city park ... No less than three working girls have been escorted to their abode by the police during the past week with the admonition that if found there again under such circumstances that they would be locked up,” according to the Brainerd Dispatch.
Through the efforts of the city attorney, W. S. McClenahan, on Jan. 25, 1892, the U.S. Circuit Court decreed ownership to the city of Brainerd.
Residents wanted a cinder bicycle path built around the exterior. In the exact middle, C. F. Kindred erected a bandstand for the city band.
“The people also ask for a drinking fountain to help make it more pleasant for picnics. The city repairs that fence and plants trees as late as 1894,” according to Zapffe.
Catastrophe struck on June 2, 1898, when a tornado swept through the pine in the square felling trees. In 1899, the council authorized $200 for plantings. In 1900, another $100 was added. Box elders and poplars replaced the majestic pines and the old bandstand was removed.
A new park board with S. R. Adair as its first president promptly applied itself in 1909 to making Gregory Park an attraction by constructing a concrete wading basin with a fountain — for several years used as a goldfish pond — and encircled by a vine-covered pergola.
In 1912, as a memorial to Charles N. Parker, one of the Brainerd pioneers, a new bandstand was built in the park, the gift of the Parker family. In 1930, Cornelius O'Brien Sr., donated the money to erect a cut-stone gateway on Sixth Street.
“It carries a bronze plaque, which now serves to memorialize the donor. In the 1940s, the park board, in landscaping and beautifying the park with flower beds and trimmed shrubbery, undertakes further aesthetic development,” according to Zapffe.