Daily Southtown Local News

Fort Frankfort, a ‘labor of love’ built by volunteers, to be replaced by new $1.7 million playground


As a new millennium approached nearly a quarter of a century ago, a group of residents came together to improve their neighborhood by creating a playground where kids could let their imaginations run wild.

Gina Hassett, executive director of the Frankfort Park District, remembers the 1999 effort well. The Park District donated the land and volunteers came from all quarters.

“Private donations, civic organizations, residents. It was built by the people,” she said. For some in town, the playground “speaks to them of when Frankfort was 3,500 people.”

But being made of wood, it is fast approaching the end of its useful lifespan, Hassett said. Rain, sun and snow have taken their toll on the structures of Fort Frankfort. Every year, volunteers did what they could to maintain the playground by sanding and treating the wood, but the time has come for something new.

Constructed by volunteers over a week in Oct. 1999, the wooden Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort is set for a major overhaul thanks to a $1.7 million state grant that will make it accessible to more people. (Frankfort Park District)
Constructed by volunteers over a week in Oct. 1999, the wooden Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort is set for a major overhaul thanks to a $1.7 million state grant that will make it accessible to more people. (Frankfort Park District)

Thanks to a $1.7 million grant from the state, Fort Frankfort will be reborn. Work on the new incarnation of the playground is expected to begin this fall, so the 1999 version will remain open through the summer, Hassett said. State Sen. Mike Hastings helped procure the funding, she said.

The news of a reborn Fort Frankfort Playground delights Phil Simmons, 76, who was the fundraising chairman and vice president of the Operation Playground Foundation, which raised close to $120,000 to build the playground. Dozens of residents performed the actual physical labor.

Terry Rusin, who no longer lives in Frankfort, “had the original playground idea and she took charge of seeing it through,” Simmons said.

“I was very thrilled to hear they were going to do this because a certain tradition is involved,” Simmons said of the new playground plan.

Hastings and Frankfort Park District Board President Mike McCarey hosted a town hall meeting Feb. 15 to discuss the renovation and gather input. More than 70 people attended to get a peek at design concepts.

Hassett said the resident input is important to ensure the project meets the needs of the community. For one, the new playground will allow participation by people of all abilities, she said.

She said the new playground is being paid for this time by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

“The Frankfort Park District is restricted by our funding due to a low tax rate and the tax cap. The state DCEO funding is a generous allotment coming back to Frankfort, a nice investment in the community,” Hassett said. “The reason it is so expensive is we’re going to make it an inclusive playground.”

That inclusivity means ADA standards regarding mobility, sensory and cognitive abilities of users are part of the planning process.

Rubber or artificial turf will be used under the play surface and ramps to the play features will be incorporated in the design, offering easier access to the equipment to all users. The new structure will not be made of wood, she said.

“We see parents and grandparents who have mobility issues. They want to play alongside the children but they can’t,” she said.

The Frankfort Park District does not currently have a playground that is accessible or is considered inclusive design.

The Park District is gathering feedback for the new Fort Frankfort Design through a survey posted at www.frankfortparks.org and will incorporate that feedback into the final design, Hassett said.

Nearly 1,000 people have already taken the survey and have said they’d like an updated version of what’s there. “That’s the way we are leaning,” she said.

“We hope to have something firmed up by late March or early April, then go out to bid,” Hassett said.

Volunteers load crushed stone into wheelbarrows Oct. 16, 1999, as community members come together to build the Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort. Nearly a quarter century later, the playground will get a major update thanks to a $1.7 million state grant. (John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune)
Volunteers load crushed stone into wheelbarrows Oct. 16, 1999, as community members come together to build the Fort Frankfort playground at Sauk Trail and 80th Avenue in Frankfort. Nearly a quarter century later, the playground will get a major update thanks to a $1.7 million state grant. (John Smierciak/Chicago Tribune)

As Simmons noted, if not for a dedicated group of volunteers in 1999, there may not even be a Fort Frankfort Playground.

“Our first meeting on this was in January. They wanted to build it that October. It was nine months from hearing about it to getting it done. It was quite an adventure,” Simmons said.

“Slowly but surely we raised the money. It was challenging, to say the least. But the community stepped up and they supported it,” Simmons said.

Simmons, who now lives in Florida, remains impressed that all the work was done by residents who volunteered “with no paid help involved.”

Fort Frankfort Playground – named by school children – was built in just one week, a fact that still impresses Simmons.

“On Monday, they were painting dots on the ground for post hole diggers. And on Sunday night, it was done,” he said. “Let me tell you how ‘wow’ it was.”

Three shifts of volunteers – each with 80 to 120 people – worked around the clock. Area restaurants donated meals. St. Anthony’s Church was used as a daycare center for children of parents who were working on the park.

“It was a labor of love. I’m so proud of Frankfort. They really stepped up,” Simmons added.

Steve Metsch is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown. 



Steve Metsch , 2024-03-11 19:53:09

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