In my estimation, Blair has the finest park system of any city its size. I am a fan of all of the city parks, but my favorite place to walk and to photograph is Black Elk-Neihardt Park at the top of College Drive. The park is named for Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota and John G. Neihardt who wrote Black Elk Speaks. The book is based on interviews with the Lakota holy man in 1931. The most distinctive feature and the focal point of the park is the Tower of the Four Winds with its magnificent mosaic depicting long time Dana art professor Reverend F.W. Thomsen’s interpretation of Black Elk’s vision. Many people who view the tower may not be aware that the large round structure behind the tower is the top of the city’s largest water reservoir.
The park is a great place to observe nature, and a gorgeous sunset. The disc golf course gets a lot of use through spring, summer and fall. A band of regulars, including my wife and me, walk the paths and trails for mental as well as physical health. The pavilion is a popular spot for picnics and receptions. But for many residents, the park is probably out of sight and out of mind.
For the past few years, The Black Elk-Neihardt Park Board which has been renamed Friends of Black Elk-Neihardt Park, has put on an annual event featuring food and family activities to get people to the park who might not otherwise visit. A year ago, almost by chance, the event coincided with Grandparents Day, which has proved to be an ideal arrangement. You don’t have to be a grandparent, or bring a grandparent ( the Friends have grand parents you can borrow) but it is a perfect opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, play some games, tell some stories, fly a kite, and eat some hotdogs.
The Friends organization has several plans and proposals in the works. Large bronze relief sculptures of John G. Neihardt and Black Elk were cast and completed several years ago and have been displayed at various times at Two Rivers and Washington County Banks. Hopefully the sculptures will soon find a permanent new home on an overlook near the picnic shelter. Another plan, with city council approval, is to dedicate and name the shelter the FW Thomsen Pavilion in honor of the Dana art professor whose leadership, vision and dedication led to the formation of the park and the tower.
Another long term project will be to determine what will need to be done to preserve the tower mosaic. The mortar which holds the small tiles in place appears to be failing. Last week art conservator Mayda Jensen inspected the mosaic to try to determine the cause and determine what can be done to preserve the art work. It will take some time to research the problem and come up with a possible solution.
In 1973 Nebraska Poet Laureate Neihardt wrote to the Park Board to endorse the plan to build the park. He described the proposed sculpture as a, “Symbol of Universal Man stretching his arms over the Missouri River Valley.” I think the sculpture achieves that vision. Blair has many beautiful parks, but to my mind Black-Elk Neihardt Park is a unique treasure, and one in which the city and residents should take great pride.
More than 50 families including parents, grandparents, and children celebrated Grandparents Day at Neihardt Park Sunday eating hot dogs, flying kites and taking part in a variety of other activities. The event was sponsored and hosted by the Neihardt Park Board.