Collett Park
Historic park more than just a tract of land.
By Stephanie Salter

Josephus Collett was too busy building railroads and making money to find a wife and raise children, but in 1883 he donated something to Terre Haute that is at least as lasting as DNA: 21.1 acres of wooded land about a mile east of the Wabash River on the city's north side.

More than a century after Collett died, the public park that carries his name is on its seventh generation.

Now, instead of riding a horse and buggy out to the boonies to play in Collett Park, children climb from their parents' SUVs or ride their bikes from some of the 700 homes that line the streets and avenues surrounding the three-blocks-long rectangle of green.

Last year, thanks to efforts led by resident Donna Crawford, a nursing instructor at Indiana State University, much of the Collett neighborhood joined the park on the National Registry of Historic Places. It was long-overdue recognition of the symbiosis of the two, a piece of land and the people who love it.

"Collett is a park that the neighbors are extremely passionate about, perhaps more so than other neighborhoods and parks in the city," said Greg Ruark, superintendent of the Terre Haute Park and Recreation Department. "I think the residents feel somewhat of an ownership of the park, and I think that's great."

Landscaper Rick Mascari embodies that attitude. He grew up in a house on North Ninth Street, then moved three blocks away to Collett Avenue, where he and his wife are raising their six children.

Mascari is president of the Collett Park Homeowners Association, a 5-year-old group of about 100 members. They came together because "a lot of us felt we were losing the neighborhood" to neglect, apathy and a modern tendency toward urban isolation.

"A priest I know once said he knew society was in trouble when they stopped putting front porches on houses," said Mascari. "Collett Park is a neighborhood where people sit on their front porches or in their yards. There is a sense of community we wanted to build on."

Now, the neighborhood association is working with the Historic Landmarks Foundation and the city on a sweeping master plan for the refurbishment of Terre Haute's oldest park.

"It's a very expensive undertaking, and we do not expect the city to come up with all the funds," said Mascari. "We want to take responsibility for our park and do what we can to preserve it."

First up for some TLC is the park's Romanesque-design pavilion, an 1894 creation of architect J. Merrill Sherman. The city is about to lay a new roof, which will slow down what Ruark calls "alarming decay" of the structure.

"I don't know what we're going to tackle next," the parks chief said. "The master plan calls for some pretty significant changes. It's up to us to prioritize."

Pam LeMay, the manager of Collett Park, is looking forward to each improvement. In charge of the space for little more than a year, she's already adopted the neighborhood's sense of ownership and responsibility.

LeMay knows by sight Collett's regulars: the walkers, the kids who come to city day camp or to play tennis, the folks who sit on "Weegie's Bench" and in the Eldred Gazebo, reading, writing or getting lost in their memories.

"I walked away from a 15-year factory job in Casey, Ill., a few years ago, and now I do this," LeMay said, taking a break from tending to 12 sandy horseshoe pits in the center of the park. "I really like working here. I like it when I have it to myself and I like it when there are people, too."

Count her among thousands of happy heirs of a generous bachelor named Josephus Collett.

 Tribune-Star/Bob Poynter

Landmark: Two girls relax in a swing Wednesday afternoon near the Eldred Gazebo in Collett Park.

- Established: In 1883, as the city's first public park. The Romanesque pavilion was built in 1894 and many homes were constructed between 1900 and 1920.
- Size: 21.1 acres of land donated by Josephus Collett.
- Borders: North Seventh Street on the west, North Ninth Street on the east, Collett Avenue on the north and Maple Avenue on the south.
- Historic status: Park placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981. Much of the surrounding neighborhood (including 289 houses) placed in March 2004.
- Amenities: Tennis courts, children's playground, horseshoe pits, picnic shelters, enclosed pavilion for gatherings of 50 or fewer.
Source: Tribune-Star Files