The Carpathia Chronicles
Part IV: Carpathia Park
In Part IV of this historical series, the story of Carpathia Park is told from its purchase and development into the summer retreat enjoyed by Detroit’s Eastsiders during the latter half of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. By Richard W. Gerhardt
Perhaps it’s the smell of Bratwurst cooking on an open grill; perhaps it’s the taste of a good German beer on a hot summer day; or, maybe it’s just being outside in the open air. No doubt, all of those things combine to make a summer picnic enjoyable and Carpathia has made this kind of outdoor, summer fun a part of their tradition since 1917. By the early 1920’s, Carpathia often held picnics over four to six consecutive Sundays during the summer. In fact, it seems the primary restriction that prevented the club from partying outdoors every weekend of the summer was the availability of adequate picnic facilities.
Planning for Carpathia’s summer picnics began during the winter months, when the Directorium named a committee to locate and rent picnic grounds for the summer. The formation of such a committee was typical of the way special tasks were handled in the Carpathia of the 1920’s. The picnic committee investigated suitable facilities and reported back to the Directorium, who had the final word on all club expenditures. An ad appearing in the Detroiter Abend Post in August, 1919, invited the general public to the third annual Carpathia summer picnic. The picnic was held on August 24, at Henkel’s Wood (Wald), located near the intersection of Van Dyke and 8 Mile Road. Those without automobiles, were advised to use the Harper - Center Line street car to get to the picnic .
Although the picnic of ’19 was only a single day event, Carpathia board meeting minutes from the early 1920’s indicate that picnics on 5 consecutive Sundays were typical. On one particular Sunday during the summer of 1925, Carpathia was even joined by the Deutsch Ungarischen Fortschrittsbund (German-Hungarian Progressive Union) for a joint day of outdoor festivities. It seems that suitable outdoor facilities were not always easy to come by, since an indoor picnic was held at Carpathia Hall on June 29, 1924.
Judging from the club’s apparent passion for summer picnics, together with the sometimes difficult task of securing suitable outdoor sites, it is not surprising that Carpathia investigated the possibility of purchasing property of its own. In fact, the indoor picnic of ’24 must have caused a stir with members, because that same day, a committee was formed to look at a 6 acre parcel in Macomb County for possible purchase as a permanent Carpathia picnic site. The committee, which consisted of President Jacob Noll, Peter Geiszler, William Remsing and Ignaz Berger, drove out to the site of unspecified location and gave their report to the monthly business meeting on Sunday, July 13. However, the parcel was deemed unsuitable for purchase by the club.
Less than one year later, on March 29, 1925, another property was brought to the attention of Carpathia’s leadership by club member Michael Schadlbauer. The Board decided to send the picnic committee to take a look at the 25 acre parcel, located on 16 Mile Road, between Ryan and Dequinder. Committee members who made up the first official Carpathia delegation to visit the property included Frank Hiel, Richard Swoboda, John Weber, Adam Tillinger, Jakob Strobl, Frank Krego, Michael Schadlbauer, John Merle, and Martin Vogel. What they found must have impressed them because a special meeting of the Directorium was called for Thursday, April 2, to consider the committees findings. At that meeting, the directors approved the purchase of the land and the property was bought for $600 per acre, with $2000 down, and a biannual payment of $300 plus interest. The parcel was named "Carpathia Park" and, within the month, plans were made to develop the property into a modern, summer retreat.
The meeting of the Directorium on April 23, 1925, dedicated itself to the task of planning the layout of the new Carpathia Park. The property was relatively narrow and deep, rectangular in shape. The rear acreage, furthest from 16 Mile Road, was wooded, and it was decided that the area just in front of the woods should be developed as a picnic ground. To access the picnic ground from 16 Mile, it was necessary to build a road into the property. The road, still called Carpathia Blvd. today, measured 60’ from curb to curb. A sidewalk was also planned 15’ from the curb. The Directorium placed a $4,500 limit on the construction of the road and sidewalk.
Also included in the initial planning for Carpathia Park, a caretaker’s house was to be constructed at the entrance to the picnic area 25’ from the sidewalk. But, the focal point of the picnic ground was the dance pavilion. Measuring 40’ by 80’ with a covered roof, the directors wanted construction to begin immediately. No doubt, it was a great asset to have Jakob Strobl as a member of Carpathia’s Directorium. The Strobl brothers were well respected builders, known for such familiar landmarks as Peter’s Funeral Home at the corner of Mack and 7 Mile on Detroit’s East side. The Directorium authorized Strobl to order the lumber, the Carpathia membership was rallied, and construction on the pavilion began the following Sunday.
Nick Jager remembers the dance pavilion very well. "My dad was caretaker of the park for a while and my brother and I spent the whole summer out there one year. The dance hall was all wood and very large. It had a roof over it and there was a stage at one end where the bands would set up. When they had doings, the sides were all open, but there were doors all around that could be closed when nothing was going on."
Elizabeth Usleber’s father, Adam Zellinger, also had the job of Carpathia Park caretaker for several summers during those early years. "There was a small, three room cottage for the caretakers and we used to live out there all summer long. There was something going on out there every weekend!" recalled Usleber with a smile. "During the week, my dad had to get the park ready for the next weekend. There was a lott of work to do. He would clean up and rake the grass. My mom would tend to her garden." Although there were no concession stands at Carpathia Park, Elizabeth remembers that her mother would sometimes cook sweet corn from her garden and sell it on Sundays.
To help finance the purchase of Carpathia Park, the front acreage of the property closest to 16 Mile was divided into lots and sold to the membership. The Director’s meeting of April 23, 1925, set the price range of the lots from $300 to $700, with 10% down and 1% per month at 6% interest. One month later, in May, 1925, the down payment was reduced to 5%. The size of the lots is not known, but the Directorium stipulated that houses be built 150ft. behind the lot line.
The enthusiasm of all Carpathia members for their new park was evident in the swiftness with which the club moved from purchasing the land to planning and developing it. In fact, by the end of May, Carpathia ambitiously planned the opening of the park for June 21, 1925. This was to be no small-scale event, but a grand opening, complete with dedication ceremony, rivaling in scale the dedication of Carpathia Hall five years earlier.
Getting the park ready for the big event required a great deal of planning and organizing. Members were assigned tasks, which they carried out conscientiously. Jakob Strobl was heavily involved, not only in the construction aspects of the project, but also in the cutting and clearing of unwanted trees and brush. Food needed to be ordered and cooked; signs were made and put up; written invitations were sent out to all the Detroit German organizations, as well as Ostschwaben clubs around the country. Two buses were rented for the day to shuttle people from the last street car stop at 8 Mile and Van Dyke to the park and back.
When opening day arrived, Carpathia Park was ready, and the celebration was indeed a grand event. The day began at 10:00 a.m. at Carpathia Hall, with a parade of cars, decorated in flowers and ribbons, which made its way out to the park. Schwaben from the provinces of Batschka and Banat came from all over the United States and this large concentration of Swabians attracted considerable media attention. This was aided by the fact that Detroit Mayor John W. Smith gave the keynote address in English. In addition, Peter Gänger, the former editor of the Schwaben Volkspresse in Temeschvar, Hungary, gave the keynote address in German. The media attention brought by these two well-known, public figures, was said to have underscored the importance of the Schwaben in America
The day’s formal program was begun by Carpathia’s male chorus, who sang several songs including "Der Wald". However, it was the Carpathia ladies chorus which received the greatest praise for their strength in performance. Both chorus’ were directed by Professor Nikolaus. The dedication of the park was the highlight of the formal program and occurred amid much fanfare. Following the program, the Peter Karls Orchestra played dance music until late in to the night.
The following day, on June 22, Carpathia’s leadership seized the opportunity to bring the large number of out-of-town Ostschwaben together in a conference at Carpathia Hall. Several things happened at that conference which advanced the longtime ambitions of Carpathia’s leaders to unify all Schwaben in America. First, four other Schwaben clubs in Detroit united with Carpathia to form the "United Banater und Batschkaer Schwaben". Peter Schock, honorary president and founder of Carpathia, was named as the Unions president. In addition, the convention discussed details of the unification of all Ostschwaben in North America. A preparation committee was established which drafted a mission statement and goals for this national union. Each region of the country had its own representatives. The Detroit region, which included Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and Elyria, OH., was represented on this committee by Peter Schock, Jakob Noll, and Peter Gänger. When the organizational work had been completed the "Coalition of the Eastern Germans in America" was established and, once again, the champion of Ostschwaben in America, Peter Schock, was elected president. At that time, the Union included 7 cities in the U.S. and 1 in Canada.
From 1920 until 1933, prohibition was the law of the land in the United States. Just as with the operation of the hall, prohibition affected the way alcohol was handled at Carpathia Park, but it never slowed things down too much. "They used to have beer taps set up in the woods. Half barrels of beer were hidden in trenches dug by members and covered with leaves," remembered Phil Jager with remarkable clarity. "There was a small shack at the entrance to the park. A club member was always there standing guard. On one wall of the shack was a board with a row of nails sticking out where the guy could hang his hat. The last nail was loose and could be pushed in. It was connected to a buzzer which ould go off in the picnic area. If the cops came, the guy would push in the nail, which would sound the alarm and give members a chance to hide their glasses and bottles before the police got back there." Although these precautions worked most of the time, Jager recalls at least one occasion when things did not go quite so smoothly. "One time, while my dad was caretaker, we were staying at the (caretaker’s) house and the Feds came in the middle of the night. They went back into the woods and busted up over 50 half-barrels of beer hidden in the ditches."
In the years that followed, Carpathia Park became a significant summer attraction for, not only many of the Detroit area Germans, but non-German’s as well. Carpathia members used the park as a tool in their continuing fight against the ever-increasing, anti-German, public sentiment. Members went out of their way to make non-German’s feel welcome and Carpathia Park was known by all of Detroit as a place where good times were found on summer weekends.
Special thanks to Phil and Nick Jager, as well as Elizabeth Usleber (Zellinger), who’s memories of Carpathia Park have been invaluable in writing this report. _