As autumn gives way to winter, people are still enjoying the park. And Big Rock approaches a special birthday. It was dedicated to the city 64 years ago this December.
Believe it or not, locals have enjoyed the beautiful area much longer than that.
Here is one of the earliest photos of it, taken a mere 20 years after photography became generally available to the public. Clearly, Big Rock was a worthy subject!
This old newspaper clipping discusses the popularity of the park as a place to hike and gather nuts and berries.
The farm on which the timber and big rock sat was once owned by the Roorda family before it was purchased and donated to the citizens of Pella by P.H. Kuyper to preserve it and allow for future residents to enjoy it. The park has many stories to tell. Read below for some of them.
To quote an article from 2020 written by Bruce Boertje of the Historic Pella Trust:
" Q: What do truant Lincoln-School boys, the 1922 Pella High School Girl’s basketball team, a 1904 Opera House traveling troupe, numerous church groups, the High School faculty, and students ranging from junior high to Central college, all have in common? A: Big Rock! Known today as Big Rock Park, this unique landmark has been a destination point and popular gathering spot since the founding of Pella. For 111 years the Big Rock and surrounding land was privately owned by generations of the Roorda family. In 1940 the Pella Chronicle noted that in this “pasture and timberland…lies the celebrated Big Rock which everyone has seen, for it is a favorite place for picnics. The Roordas have always been very kind about letting folks into this woodland." In 1958, after Anna Roorda passed away, Rolscreen founder Pete Kuyper purchased 83 acres containing the rock and donated it to the city to be preserved and enjoyed as a park. The Chronicle stated: "The deed (to the property), which paralleled Mrs. Roorda's wishes during her lifetime, stipulated the area should remain in its natural state, particularly the large native trees. Mrs. Roorda would never allow any trees to be cut from the timber.”
Elsewhere the Chronicle explained: "Most welcome is the gift to the people of Pella by P. H. Kuyper to be used as a public park and recreation area. The woodland area is one of very few such beauty spots remaining near Pella. Within it is that big granite boulder known as Big Rock, a favorite natural wonder. And the woodland is lovely because it has been so little altered by men - there are hundreds of native oaks, walnut and hickory trees, and on some of the hillsides, the all but vanished hazel brush. Wildflowers grow in abundance.... The donor makes some wise stipulations - that three be no roads within the park, only walking or bridle paths; that the native trees be spared…." The earliest mention of the rock in Pella’s newspapers came in 1892 when it was reported that the Missionary Society of Second Reformed Church held a picnic at the “Big Rock” west of town. In 1904 a certain P. Ten Hagen used carriages to bring the 14-person troupe of the Guy Hickman Company that was appearing at the Pella Opera House to Big Rock where the company “spent a very enjoyable time. Every member of the visiting party expressed the opinion that they had been more entertained upon this occasion than at any time since their fall tour began.”
In 1913 Central College students who were members of the Philomathian and Alethian literary societies held a Halloween party that gathered at the athletic field. The students, who were all in costume, proceeded to march solemnly to Oakwood Cemetery and then north to the "Big Rock woodland" where they celebrated with a big campfire. In 1920 a dozen boys from Lincoln School “felt the 'Call of the Wild' on Thursday afternoon and quietly slipped off to the 'Big Rock’ in place of traveling toward the school house. Marshall Dennis was pressed into service and with some assistance and the aid of an auto truck, managed to return the boys to their room, before the middle of the afternoon. The truants are making up double time for the rest of the week after 4 p.m.” In 1922 the High School girls basketball team had their pictures taken at the school and then headed out to Big Rock where the girls enjoyed “a feed consisting wienies, buns, pork and beans, and oranges.” For years in the 1930s and 40s the high school group Future Farmers of America invited every 8th grade boy and his parents to attend a free wiener roast at Big Rock. The meal was preceded by a ball game and afterwards they learned more about the FFA organization. The Boy Scouts learned to navigate the countryside, often trekking to Big Rock. In 1938 the boys had to follow a trail that consisted “of blazes on trees and posts, chalk marks and broken twigs.” They had to find their way to the apple orchard north of town (north of the Country Club golf course), then cross country to Big Rock. “From there the trail lead to a culvert through corn fields and pastures. And finally to an abandoned coal mine where a large bed of red-hot coals awaited their bacon, eggs, wieners, and potatoes.” By the 1950s Blue Birds and Camp Fire Girls were making the all-day hike to Big Rock where they "cooked their dinner and supper”. In 1937, 71 high school freshmen hiked to Big Rock for a picnic courtesy of their class sponsors. “Supper was prepared around a camp fire.”
That same year the entire 31 high school "faculty members and wives attended a wiener roast at Big Rock around a roaring campfire”, complete with cows lurking in the background. The paper noted that when they finally left for home at a very late hour, they very maturely “had a race to get out of the gate first so that they wouldn’t have to be the one to close it”. Way back in 1904 the Central College newspaper The Ray reminisced about the “big rock, about which hang so many romances.” Our Mission Statement calls on the Historic Pella Trust to "Protect and Promote Buildings, Landscapes and Sites important to the heritage of Pella, Iowa”. We would be remiss if we failed to promote Big Rock Park as one of the most historic and best-preserved sites in Pella. In 1958 The Chronicle perfectly summed it up: "Here is a gift whose value is considerable now but, as the years pass, and native woodlands disappear and are lost forever, it will bring pleasure to us and to the children out of all."
Only 28% of Iowa's native woodlands remain. Currently, Iowa is only 3% woodlands. Over seven million trees were lost in the 2020 derecho and 114 million trees were cleared between 2010 and 2015. Iowa is losing its trees--making Big Rock Park a unique resource not only for our town but for the state as well. Trees prevent erosion and water pollution and add value to Pella. It's clear that we still need Big Rock Park. The years have added to its value. Happy Birthday, Big Rock Park!