It was an astonishing idea. Spend $100,000 in 1873 to buy 260 acres of land, including Como Lake, a lake that was little more than a large swamp at the time? Crazy as it sounded, that’s exactly what the Minnesota Legislature decided to do.
That act of legislative courage and foresight changed St. Paul forever. If you doubt the impact one dedicated person can have on history, look no further than Horace W. S. Cleveland, a landscape architect who believed in the healing power of nature and free public spaces for the working masses. He was the driving force behind the state’s acquisition and development of not just Como Park, but also much of the parkway system in the Twin Cities.
Cleveland would have been thrilled and amazed at the benefits Como Park provides for the people today. Is there any other park in Minnesota where a family can pack a picnic lunch, spend the day at the lake, walk up to the zoo, wander in Como Town and the conservatory, and not spend a dime? I think not. Although a donation is requested, Como Zoo is one of only three zoos nationwide that still offers free admittance. For a $3 ticket, you can also go back in time and ride one of the 75 hand-painted wooden horses on the restored Cafesjian’s carousel, built in 1914 – one of only a few vintage carousels still operative in the U.S.
Over two million people a year visit the zoo and conservatory. Many more walk, run, bike, bird, fish or ski the paths, wooded hills and trails around the lake – all seasons. In January, the conservatory gardens offers a blessing of warmth and green for the winter weary. The seasonal flower shows are breath taking. Any day, any time, the park offers open spaces for people to sit a while, take a deep breath, enjoy the birdsong, clouds, trees and lake. The healing power of nature. All free. For the people. It’s still an astonishing idea.
Nowhere in St. Paul could the importance of open spaces be felt more than in Como Park during the pandemic. In the spring and summer of 2019, and well into 2021, the walking and biking paths were filled with people. Early morning people, eager to avoid contact with others. Mid-morning families on break from on-line learning and remote work. The lake paths became so crowded that Como Blvd. East was closed to traffic to allow more space for all of us to escape the worry and solitude of our homes and hearts.
To this day, the park continues to thrive, because it’s also by the people.
Como Friends, a primarily non-profit, donor-based organization makes possible maintenance and improvements at the zoo and conservatory. The successful public/private partnership forged by Como Friends has raised more than $35 million in new investment toward capital projects and community programs at Como Park Zoo and Conservatory. Polar Bear Odyssey, Gorilla Forest, Sparky the Sea Lion in Como Harbor, Large Cat Habitat, Japanese Garden. All free, and open to the public, thanks to their dedicated fund-raising efforts. Friends’ funding provides educational programs that reach more than 500,000 kids and adults every year.
Then there are the roughly 1,500 volunteers who give of their time and effort to maintain and staff the zoo, the conservatory, the Cafesjian’s carousel, the grounds and the lake. You’ll never know their names, any more than you’ll know the name of the guy with a stick-picker who clears trash every morning around the lake. He does it for all of us, as do the diligent dog walkers and others who pick up, clean up, keep up. Nature doesn’t care who we are, what we earn or who we vote for. The park sustains and refreshes us, one and all. Free. For the people.
Note: “A Chronological Illustrated History of Como Park Saint Paul, Minnesota” by Timothy V. Gadban is an excellent Como Park historical source.
Sonjie Johnson has lived in Como Park for 28 years. An avid nature-lover, she has run or walked Como Lake all of those years, and find the park’s history unique and compelling. She also gardens, reads, and writes. She belongs to the church of the open sky.
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