Glen Echo Park

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Today we take you to Glen Echo Park near Washington, D.C.

Glen Echo Park has less than four hectares of land but much history. In fact, more than one-hundred years ago, some people came here to learn about history. Others came to learn about the stars in the sky.

People also came to paint and make crafts, to sing and dance, and to hear music. Some came just to sit and think in the beauty of the land by the Potomac River.

Over the years, a lot changed. But a lot also changed back.

Visitors keep Glen Echo a busy place. Just this month, there were thousands of people at a folk festival at the park.

There are classes in hundreds of subjects. There are shows for children at the Adventure Theatre and the Puppet Company. Glen Echo Park is also home to the only merry-go-round owned by the United States government.

One of the most historic places to visit is the home of Clara Barton. She established the American Red Cross in eighteen-eighty-one. Clara Barton lived the last fifteen years of her life in a big house at Glen Echo.

Glen Echo was an education center when it opened in eighteen-ninety-one. It was part of the Chautauqua movement started by two men. Lewis Miller was a businessman in Ohio. John Vincent was a Protestant clergyman.

They set out to help common people become more educated. They also wanted to give them a chance to enjoy nature the way that wealthier Americans could. Their work was part of a larger movement at that time toward religious faith among Americans.

The Chautauqua movement began as a summer education program. It started in New York State in eighteen-seventy-four at a camp along Chautauqua Lake. Religious Sunday school teachers were the first to attend. But the idea spread.

Two brothers in Maryland helped bring the movement to their state. They gave thirty-two hectares of land to an organization called the National Chautauqua of Glen Echo. Edwin and Edward Baltzley wanted to help people learn what they needed to know to act as members of society.

A local history published at glenecho.org notes that the Baltzleys had other ideas for their land at first. The brothers hoped that people would build stone castles. They imagined it like Europe. But there was talk of a malaria danger. So buyers lost interest.

Many people attended the first season of the Glen Echo Chautauqua. They studied different subjects, from rocks to foreign languages to something called “The Care and Development of Physical Powers.”

One of the directors of the program was John Wesley Powell. He had explored the Colorado River and the American West.

But then a teacher at the park developed a lung infection. He died of pneumonia. Somehow a story spread around Washington that he died of malaria. Malaria is spread by mosquito bites. People became afraid to go to the park.

The official Chautauqua closed in the summer of eighteen-ninety-two, a year after it opened.

For the next five years, traveling shows entertained at the park. Then the Baltzley brothers let a small amusement park operate on part of the land.

In nineteen-eleven the Washington Railway and Electric Company bought the land. The new owners continued to offer shows and rides at the park. The company had started an electric railway system in Washington. Many local citizens liked riding the trolley, especially in the summer. Traveling in the open air at sixteen kilometers an hour cooled people in the Washington heat. And Glen Echo served as an interesting stop.

By nineteen-thirty-one, the park had a place where people could pay to dance. Two years later, there was a room with a huge dance floor: the Spanish Ballroom. People still dance there.

Before long, Glen Echo Park added other activities. There was a roller coaster ride. And the Crystal Pool could hold up to three-thousand swimmers.

In nineteen-fifty-five, the park was sold to a new owner. People kept coming.

But not everyone could enjoy the Glen Echo Amusement Park. African Americans were not welcome. In the summer of nineteen-sixty, the civil rights movement in America was gaining strength. Blacks and whites protested outside the park. The demonstrators won. The next year, the park accepted black people.

Bigger changes were also taking place, though. Theme parks were opening around the United States. Families could now go to places like Disneyland in California. The little park near the Potomac River in Maryland no longer seemed so exciting.

There was even a riot. It began on a day when the Glen Echo Amusement Park closed early. Young people from Washington could not get buses home. They became violent. This happened in nineteen-sixty-six.

Two years later, the park closed permanently. Many rides were sold or destroyed. The much-loved heart of the park was a merry-go-round. This carousel too was sold.

In nineteen-seventy the federal government bought the Glen Echo land. The government wanted to limit development near the Potomac River. People who lived nearby wanted to keep the carousel on the property. In just four weeks they raised enough money to buy it back from its new owner. They also raised money for the Wurlitzer organ that gave the carousel its music.

Then they gave the carousel and the organ to the National Park Service, under an agreement to keep them in the park for public use. In the nineteen-eighties, an artist began work to return the merry-go-round to its former condition. Carousel riders and other people gave money for the repairs. Full restoration of the Dentzel Carousel was completed about a year ago.

The animals are beautifully carved. There are forty horses, along with four rabbits and four ostriches. Riders also have the choice of a giraffe, a deer, a lion and a tiger. And there two circus chariots that people can ride in. One-thousand lights shine from the carousel. It looks very inviting, and not just to children.

Now, suppose we take a ride. As we go around, we hear the music of the Wurlitzer. Only ten carousel organs like this one are known to exist in the world. Some of the instruments we hear are unusual, like the glockenspiel and flageolet.

Another popular part of Glen Echo is the Adventure Theatre. In July and August, the theater will perform “The Adventures of Paddington Bear.” There are also acting classes. The teachers say that here, "stories become plays and people become actors."

But not all the actors at Glen Echo are people. Over at the Puppet Company Playhouse, through July eighteenth, is "The Wizard of Oz." Recently the Puppet Company began performing its plays in a new theater. Puppeteers Christopher Piper, MayField Piper and Allan Stevens present fairy tales and other children’s stories. The puppets are operated by hand or by strings. There is even a life-size lion.

The puppeteers create the puppets, write the words of the stories, and make costumes. They do almost everything themselves. Their non-profit company has been entertaining children at Glen Echo Park for more than twenty years.

Children sit on the floor and watch. Parents can sit on benches. Some people who came as children now bring their own children.

Anne Finnegan McGrath of Pennsylvania grew up in Washington. As a child, she rode the carousel and swam in the Crystal Pool. As a young mother, she took her kids to the Adventure Theatre. Now, as a senior citizen, she has performed Irish dancing at folk festivals at Glen Echo. She says the park fills her with happy memories.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Lawan Davis. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.