Thanks to Jim Grey’s recommendation, I spent yesterday morning reading Stephen Pellegrino’s reflections on the disappearing metal playground equipment from his 1960s New Jersey youth. His post struck a chord: was there anything more thrilling than going to a playground when you were a kid? For me, Muncie’s Westside Park was a place of infinite possibilities, where the afternoon seemed to stretch forever as my brother and I found ourselves trying to go down the slide faster than ever before, or straining to swing just that little bit higher than the last time. Of course, swings and slides could be found at pretty much any park. What made trips to Westside a real adventure was its Mark IV Imagine City climbing structure.
The playground structures I thought were unique to my childhood were, in fact, mass-produced. The Mark IV Imagine City was introduced in 1972 by the Miracle Recreation Equipment Company and Jamison, Incorporated of Grinnell, Iowa. The structure -model 111-183 in the company’s catalog1– was a self-contained playground with four slides, climbing bars, and platforms. Mark IVs were pricey, selling for for $23,000 ($127,000 today), but they were also built to last with an expected lifespan of forty years. A lot of that hardiness came from the structures’ MIRACOTE powder resin that was seven times thicker than paint, their PERMA-LOK transparent reinforced plastic coatings, and their PERMA GLASS reinforced color-pigmented fiberglass2. As was popular at the time, initial varieties of the Mark IV Imagine City featured a space-age theme, which should come as no surprise since the Miracle & Jamison Company also manufactured those three-story rocket slides, one of which featured prominently at Muncie’s Prairie Creek Reservoir.
In 1976, the company introduced a wooden version of the Mark IV as part of their Timberline Theme which featured rustic cues inspired by America’s bicentennial. The Timberline Mark IV was advertised as “a complete playground that can handle hundreds of kids3,” and Westside Park received one in 1983 as part of a $50,000 improvement plan4. McCulloch Park on Muncie’s northeast side received an identical Timberline Mark IV later the same year.
I never knew the playground as a Mark IV. I knew it as a perfectly-sized pirate ship for my brother and me or as our own personal Aggro Crag from Nickelodeon GUTS. I was six when the Star Wars movies were re-released to theaters, and Miracle & Jamison’s Lifetime Whirl merry-go-round that accompanied the playground served as an admirable stand-in for the Millennium Falcon as we blasted off into hyperspace and hung on for dear life.
My family always lived on the northwest side of Muncie, so I never spent much time at McCulloch Park. I wasn’t missing much, though, since both Mark IVs stood eighteen feet high and weighed 11,000 pounds across components like a wave slide, a double-deck satellite tower, a twelve-foot-tall “Tornado Slide,” and all manner of interior ladders and hatches. The wave slide was constructed of 18-gauge stainless steel embedded in reinforced fiberglass with a “safe start” canopy at the top. 1.25 inch steel pipe corner posts kept the whole thing from falling over- at least in theory, since it seemed inevitable that the whole thing would collapse when it was at capacity!
The playground seemed almost as alive as we kids were as it wobbled, creaked, and swayed while hundreds of us tore across and climbed on top of it. There was an element of danger involved and, yes, whipping down its metal Tornado Slide on a hot day always left a mark. In fact, injuries an eight-year-old received after falling from the top step of an identical slide in Chicago’s Hamlin Park led the city to pay his family $9.5 million and remove them all by 19855.
Treacherous as the playground could be, I never got hurt at Westside Park. I attribute that luck to harboring a healthy respect of the Mark IV as a potential threat from a young age. That said, upon first arriving at Westside I always sprinted towards the middle of the playground in order to clamber up the central tube that supported the Mark IV’s main feature, an enormous, domed crow’s nest. Scaling the vertical pipe by means of a clanking, metal ladder was scary for a risk-averse seven-year-old, but taking on challenges and conquering my fears encouraged self-efficacy and resilience during a time in my life that I really needed to learn to do that.
I was still of playground age when I discovered that the parks department had closed up that middle tube I loved to climb up with the bolted-on quarter-section of a blue trash barrel. That drew the era of vertical ascensions to a close, but confirmed the sense of danger I’d felt as I climbed up the rickety ladder inside. At any rate, my mom had always cast a wary eye towards that ladder, as she did the grandstand at the Delaware County Fairgrounds, which was declared unsafe and off-limits by county commissioners in 20116. Maybe mom knew a thing or two!
By 2014, the rest of the park’s equipment was in disrepair. Though the parks department had tried to obtain grants for a new play structure for years, the area’s property values were too high for Westside to qualify. Nevertheless, the Millennium Falcon returned to the spaceport for refurbishment that year when the merry-go-round received a couple of replacement handles7. I was twenty-four then, and didn’t have my finger on the pulse of Muncie’s parks scene.
Two years later, the city announced that new playground equipment would be installed after Labor Day8. I loved that playground, yes, but I can’t say I was outraged when it was torn down that October. After all, the Miracle/Jamison company was right: Westside Park got its forty years out of the Mark IV, plus three more as a bonus.
A few years after the playground at Westside was replaced, nostalgia finally struck and I went to McCulloch Park to take some photos of the identical Mark IV that still stood there. I’ve included some of those photos in this post- after forty-six years of service, the playground was badly in need of maintenance. So badly, it turns out, that most of it was no longer standing when I went back yesterday. All that remained were three wooden structures that, from left to right in the photo above, supported a small wave slide, the two-story wave slide, and a metal tube “ski” slide as Miracle/Jamison called it. I’m sure this is what Westside looked like back in October, 2016.
Back at Westside Park, today’s playground bears little resemblance to the one from my youth: about all that’s left, to my eye, is this tortoise, which was ubiquitous around these parts in concrete and fiberglass varieties thanks to Richard Kishel. An assistant art professor at Ball State and art teacher at Burris Laboratory School, Kishel designed his first playground features in 19599. Soon, he turned his attention towards tortoises that he fashioned out of steel-reinforced concrete from a fiberglass mold. I never spent much time playing on the four foot tall, 3,100 pound tortoise since the Mark IV loomed just off to its side, but I’m glad it’s still there from a nostalgic standpoint, even if its been moved away from the three eggs that once accompanied it.
I’m sure that the new playground is much safer than the rickety old Mark IV thanks to resins, plastics, and things like liability and municipal insurance policies. I know it’s a huge thing on social media for the “kids these days” to be roasted for how soft we all are, but even forty years ago an inspection of Muncie’s city parks revealed all kinds of safety issues to be addressed as the city began to upgrade its recreational facilities10. I’m a millennial, and my generation bridged the gap of the thousand-degree metal slides like the Mark IVs had and the new ilk of playgrounds: for most of my life, Westside’s Mark IV stood on an inhospitable surface of pea gravel, until it was replaced with the more safety-conscious shredded rubber tires in the late 90s or early 2000s.
Westside’s new playground is safer, sure, but it doesn’t look nearly as fun as the Mark IV Imagine City that I grew up with. After all, why should it? The key words are that I grew up: I’m thirty-two. I’ve got no business playing on a playground! Kids today will surely imagine themselves captaining a pirate ship, climbing a Minecraft mountain biome, or, yes, piloting the Millennium Falcon from atop the new structure, just as I did on the old Mark IV. Whenever I find myself dipping back into being judgmental, I think back to Westside Park’s earliest days. Founded by the Union Traction Company as a destination to boost the interurban’s fare revenue, the park once featured a refreshment stand, a carousel, a swinging footbridge11, and a side-friction roller coaster12 called the Figure 8! Those amusements put the current playground, along with the old Mark IV, to shame, but they were appropriate for their time, just as the Mark IV was, and today’s playground is.
I can’t remember a single trip to Westside Park lasting too long as a kid. I always looked forward to going back, rocketing down the tornado slide, climbing the chain ladder, and looking down and across the entire park from the crow’s nest. At some unheralded point that I no longer remember, though, I played there for the last time.
My trip back to Westside yesterday allowed me to recognize it as the kind of place we all wish we could return to, if only to relive the innocence and joy of our youth for a few moments. I think that’s the key: just as I loved the park when it featured the Mark IV Imagine City playground when I was seven or eight, an entire generation of kids loved the Westside Park’s attractions when it was an interurban park. The cycle continues on, as the “kids these days” will make their own memories on what’s there now.
That’s the way it should be.
1 Parks & Recreation Journal (1974, August). Miracle & Jamison Equipment Company. Advertisement. Inside cover.
2 Parks & Recreation Journal (1975, April). Miracle & Jamison Equipment Company. Advertisement. p. 3.
3 Parks & Recreation Journal (1976, March). Miracle & Jamison Equipment Company. Advertisement. Inside cover.
4 LaGuardia, J. (1983, September 15). Park Board may issue bonds to finance softball complex. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 8.
5 Mount, C. (1985, January 15). Boy Injured On Slide Gets $9.5 Million. The Chicago Tribune. Web. Retrieved December 10, 2022.
6 Roysdon, K. (2011, December 1). Off Limits. The Muncie Star Press. p. 1.
7 Gibson, R. (2014, September 1). Westside Park equipment in disrepair. The Muncie Star Press. Pp. A3-A4.
8 Roysdon, K. (2016, August 25). Westside Park to get new playground. The Muncie Star Press. p. A1.
9 Asst. Prof. Richard Kishel of Ball State Art Department Designs New Playground Equipment (1959, October 25). The Muncie Star. p. 18.
10 Maschino, B. (1983, May 21). Despite some problems, city parks strive to be ‘paradise’ for youngsters. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 10.
11 (1911) Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Muncie, Delaware County, Indiana. Sanborn Map Company. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/sanborn02433_007/.
12 Roller Coaster Has Its Ups and Downs (1911, August 2). The Muncie Evening Press. p. 5.
2 thoughts on “Memories of Muncie’s Mark IV playground at Westside Park”
Loved this. You are right that each of us makes our own experience and the standard to which every other experience is compared. I never played on anything like this, but it sure looks like it would have been fun.
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It was a great transition to the wooden castle type structures that started sprouting up later in my childhood, but were never as fun.
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