April 22, 2021

‘Yours, mine and ours’: Memories of Rainbow Park

South of the BNSF Railway tracks lies Rainbow Park, one of Creston’s public parks nestled between East Monroe and Fremont streets, and South Birch and Vine streets. Today, the park features a fountain, new playground equipment, picnic shelters and a gazebo band shell. The park is home to a number of events during an average year, often hosted by a collective of volunteers – The Southside Boosters. The boosters’ mission is to create awareness and raise funds to help maintain the park so that others can enjoy it as much as they did and still do.

Donna Miller fondly recalls growing up in Rainbow Park. She said it’s a place she spent nearly every day until sundown for more than a decade in the 1960s and ’70s. Of the people she grew up with on the south side of town, she still keeps up with many of them in person and on social media. Others are memorialized in a binder in which she carefully collects a kaleidoscope of funeral programs of the friends and acquaintances she’s lost.

The obituary and funeral program collection was started by Carla Downey, the late mother of Bradey Larkin, Brett Larkin, Kristi Vicker, Mycale Downey and Curtis Downey, all of Creston. Miller said Downey was a Creston “northsider” who befriended many of the children who played at Rainbow Park.

“She didn’t ever have to work ... and so she would go to the library and look up people on the computer and try to find them,” said Miller.

In the 1990s Downey began searching for long lost friends with the intention of inviting them to the first Rainbow Park reunion, which was held in 2002 in the park where they once played. Following Downey’s death in 2008, Miller and Downey’s lifelong childhood friend Debbie Hansen carried on Downey’s project.

Life at Rainbow

Miller, 65, grew up half a block from Rainbow Park with a family that she describes as “yours, mine and ours.” As the youngest of three children, her brothers, Butch and Dave Conley, who were 8 and 5 years her senior, were charged with watching over her as they played freely in the park

“Back then you didn’t have the electronics, you went out to play,” said Miller. “When you went to school, you came home, changed your clothes and went to Rainbow Park.”

Miller said she had the most fun in the summer, when the entire day was spent in the park. Without reminders, the kids would have never come in to eat.

“We had a noon whistle, we had a six o’clock whistle, and we had a 10 o’clock whistle that blew,” Miller recalled. “At the noon whistle, all the kids would go home and eat lunch then we’d go back to the park. At the six o’clock whistle everyone would go home and have supper, ... and at 10 o’clock, that was the curfew for everyone to be home.”

She said the younger children didn’t get to stay out as late and retreated to their homes when the lightning bugs came out or the street lights came on. Whichever came first.

Respite at Rainbow

In the 1960s, a number of children who played in Rainbow Park were kids of blue collar workers, many of whom had seasonal work. Miller said her father worked as a concrete worker and recalls being very poor in those days. Like some of the other fathers of her friends, hers was laid off each winter, which weighed heavily on the family as unemployment was not available at the time.

“To make it through the winter was really hard,” said Miller. “But they always had money to drink.”

For many children, Rainbow Park was a place of peace and respite, where they found something constant – friendship and connection.

“A lot of these kids came from broken homes, or their parents drank, or they just didn’t have a good family life,” said Miller. “So instead of just sticking around home, they would go to the park.”

Miller said dozens of children played in the park on any given day and she considers each one of them family until this day.

“We formed like as a family,” said Miller. “Those kids felt, instead of just being friends, they were family to each other because, you know, they didn’t get what they needed at home.”

Games

In the 1960s, Miller said Rainbow Park was so full of trees in the summer you couldn’t see across the park that is a city block wide. She said the amount of trees made it easy for everyone to hide during a game of Hide and Seek. The tree-filled park was also the perfect setting for pranks.

“When these young teenage girls would go to a friend’s house and walk home at night through the Rainbow Park, they were scared to death because the boys would hide behind the trees and then jump out and scare the bie-jeebies out of them,” said Miller.

Miller remembers baseball games in the park with what she said was a great big maple tree that made up home base.

“Then first base was a tree, second base was a tree, and I think third base was a telephone pole,” she said. “It was just all perfectly marked out.”

In more recent years, Emerald Ash Borer beetles killed the trees, leading to their eventual removal. Even though many of the trees they once climbed and hid behind are long gone, some things remain at Rainbow Park – memories and a bench to honor the friends lost.

The Rainbow Park kids of the 1960s and ’70s contributed money and time for the placement of the bench, which was installed by Bob Cottrell. For those who saw to its installment, not only is it a memorial, but a place for respite and reflection for future generations of Rainbow Park kids.

“That was a way of life for the kids back in the ’60s, that park,” said Miller. “I mean, without that park, I don’t know what these kids would have done. ... We were family. ... It was our home.”