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Local History 

Dickerson Park Zoo

 Some history and early descriptions of the property that would become the Dickerson Park Zoo.

Story of Old Swinea Hall Poses a Mystery
by Mike Crocker
Springfield Magazine, November, 1982.

"Do you recognize this building?  The building currently houses the Dickerson Park Zoo offices, animal nursery and reptile exhibit.  Known as Swinea Hall, it was named in honor of the late William Swinea, who served as zoo director from 1937 to 1969.

"It hasn’t always been called Swinea Hall and it hasn’t always served in its current function.  When was the structure built and why?  These are questions which zoo officials have been trying to answer for a long time.

"It is believed that it was constructed in 1875 as a summer resort hotel by the Joseph Gott family.  There are references in local records of South Hotel but exactly where the South Hotel was and when it was constructed is not know.  Many of the old records no longer exist.  The Greene County Genealogical Record in 1893 states that the hotel was a tasteful and beautiful building with large and airy rooms with a competent landlord in charge.  Activities available at the hotel included swimming, horse racing, fishing and hunting.

"It is known that the current zoo park area was developed into a zoological park by the year 1890 by two business men, H.S. Hefferman and James Reilly.  The zoo collection was very large at the time and contained rare and unusual animals.

"The zoo closed in 1894 and the tract of land was purchased by Jerome Dickerson Sr., the same year.  The tract at that time was known as Interstate Fair Association and Zoological Gardens.

"The area was sold to the Springfield Park Board in 1922 by the Dickerson Estate. During the 1930’s various federal programs such as the WPA and NYC furthered development of the area, which by then had become a zoo again.  Swinea Hall was remodeled and renovated further during the period 1975 through 1981.

"The building has been classified as an historic site by the Springfield Historic Sites Board.  It is necessary now to establish it as an historic site on the state and federal register. To do this, documents of unquestioned clarity and description, such as tax records, are needed to definitely establish its date of origin and exact location.

"To accomplish these goals, help is needed.  Old newspaper clippings, files, photographs and any other related documents would be a great benefit.  If you can contribute anything to this cause please contact the Dickerson Park Zoo."

[Note: Swinea Hall was torn down in 1999.]

An early description of the Park appears in the Pictorial and Genealogical Record of Greene County, Missouri.  This description includes a list of animals at the zoo in 1893. 

In the Springfield Democrat Souvenir Edition, August 1894 is this description.

"One half mile north of the city limits is situated the Heffernan Zoological Park, which contains 130 acres beautifully diversified with groves of native trees, lakes, springs, drives, cliffs and other attractive objects.  The grounds have been improved at much cost to the proprietors and the visitor finds within the gates of the park many features of interest.  Aside from the collection of animals that may be seen here the park would be a very attractive institution.

"The Zoological departments of the park contain specimens of many rare animals, birds and reptiles.  Winter and summer quarters are provided for the interesting captives brought from distant lands and the student of natural history can see the graceful fawn and the grotesque young dromedary grazing on the same pasture between the month of May and October.

"The park has a fine racetrack and three stables containing sixty box stalls for the care of horses.  The races are among the chief attractions of the park and horsemen say that there is no finer track in the State.  A large amphitheater which is capable of seating many thousand of people overlooks the race course and gives the visitor also a good view of the picturesque scenery that everywhere delights the eye.  The park has a street railway connecting it with the city and a ride of 25 minutes takes a visitor from the public square to this rare suburban attraction."

Zoo Park Sold from the Springfield Leader Democrat, October 21, 1895, page 8.

"Jerome Dickerson the mortgagee bought it in for $300.00

"Zoo Park was sold by Thomas H. Cox, trustee, this morning at public sale in front of the court house.  It was bought in by Jerome Dickerson for $500.00.  Mr. Dickerson held a mortgage on the property for $11,500.  He formerly owned the park and sold it to a company headed by F.S. Heffernan, who failed to pay for it and it now reverts to Mr. Dickerson.  It originally cost $81,000.  It is not known what Mr. Dickerson intends to do with the property."


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