The Indianapolis Parks system history is filled with delightful stories of united communities, honored heroes, and family fun. But there are a few tales in our city’s annals that might also raise an eyebrow or cause a chuckle.
At the turn of the 20th century, the City of Indianapolis experienced a population boom. Plentiful jobs and an excellent quality of life attracted new residents to the Circle City, which in turn caused a demand for amenities and services. Mayor Thomas Taggart, who served as Mayor of Indianapolis from 1895-1901, urged the city to invest in parks and green spaces. He arranged for the purchase of 96 acres of land along the White River and in 1898, Riverside Park opened. Critics decried the expense of Taggart’s plan, arguing that, even if the city could afford to purchase the land, they could not afford to maintain a large city park. Undeterred, Taggart and city officials came up with what they thought was an ingenious solution to the problem: they purchased a herd of sheep to serve as Riverside Park’s groundskeepers.
The plan ended disastrously. With no shepherd overseeing their grazing, the Riverside sheep all but destroyed portions of the park landscape. They ate indiscriminately, causing significant erosion on the riverbanks. Invasive plant species quickly took over where native plants once grew. The project was quickly abandoned, and the sheep found homes at nearby farms.
Skip ahead more than one-hundred years, and you’ll find a group on the city’s near east side breathing new life into this century-old idea, but with greater success. The Green Shepherd Project puts a small herd of sheep to work keeping weeds, leaves, poison ivy at bay on abandoned properties in the Willard Park neighborhood. Volunteers move the sheep around the neighborhood to different properties, ensuring that the sheep enjoy a varied diet while maintaining adequate ground cover. The project’s founders note that it takes two sheep approximately ten days to clear a property with knee-deep weeds.
Early city planners may have had the right idea, but the folks at The Green Shepherd Project have demonstrated that community involvement is a critical part of any revitalization project.
Stay tuned for more of Riverside Park’s rich history in the coming months!