LOCAL HISTORY: Oregon’s first state park, in Polk County, anchors centennial celebration

A sign at Sarah Helmick State Park details the family’s original donation to the state (Wikimedia Commons)

This column was originally written for the Willamette Valley Genealogical Society’s publication in a slightly different form and is shared here with permission.

Did you know that the Capitol Mall in Salem is an official state park? It is currently funded and maintained by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. This department grew out of and evolved over the years from the 1913 establishment of the Oregon State Highway Commission.  In 1998 voters decided that 7.5% of Oregon Lottery revenue would be dedicated to state parks.  As noted at the State Parks website, what started out as one state park in 1922 of 5.5 acres donated by a local family has grown to 254 parks with over 100,000 acres for the public to enjoy.

Each spring, depending on the weather, the Capitol Mall explodes into thousands of pink and white cherry blossoms from dozens of cherry trees lining the east and west borders of the rectangular mail. State of Oregon buildings frame the mall in marble and metal structures three to four stories in height. Two buildings were built during the 1930s by the federal Works Progress Administration and are historical treasures. 

Following the 1935 loss of the Capitol building by fire, a unique design was approved with a more modern approach from the Roman/Greek revival designs of the 19th century.  The 20th century structure is a beautiful combination of old and new stressing Oregon’s history and heritage, from the carved reliefs near the entrance, to the panoramic paintings inside the main lobby. You can even take a tour of the building and climb stairs to the golden pioneer statute at the top of the building. 

Following the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, dozens of mall trees, blown down by the storm,  were replaced by beautiful ornamental cherry trees. These trees sit atop a huge underground parking structure.

Samuel H. Boardman was the first Oregon State Parks director, and the park system grew to over 60,000 acres under his tenure. Watch Kevin Clark’s documentary, “The Father of Oregon State Parks,” for a narration of Boardman’s writings and stunning historic photos. He acquired more than 100 parks during his 20-year career.

Oregon’s first state park is just a short drive from Salem.

Sarah Helmick Park celebrates its 100th birthday this weekend. A story by Kevin Harden in the February 9, 2022 issue of the Polk County Itemizer-Observe states that in July, 1920, 99 year old Sarah Helmick, an early Polk County pioneer, donated 5.5 acres of her family homestead, located just south of Monmouth to the State of Oregon.   

“Although nearly blinded by cataracts, Sarah had ‘every faculty alert’ and ‘keeps a pleasant lookout on life,’” a report from the Albany Democrat-Herald said.

The park is the first in Oregon to be recommended for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The property was deeded to the Oregon State Highway Commission in 1922 and contains the first land given to the state specifically for park purposes. The creation of Sarah Helmick State Park is representative of a nationwide movement that called for state parks systems to be administered specifically by state agencies,” reads a nominating form submitted by Oregon’s Historic Preservation Office

“The popularity and success of Sarah Helmick State Park demonstrated that parks could indeed flourish under state ownership, eventually leading to increasingly larger and more independent state agencies; first by the Oregon State Highway Commission (1921), then as a part of the Highway Department within the State Department of Transportation (1969), next as the State Parks and Recreation Division within the State Department of Transportation (1979), and finally by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (1989). Sarah Helmick State Park is the beginning of an agency that, in 2021, manages 254 parks on 122,847 acres and serves 54.65 million daytime visitors and campers a year,” the nomination continues.

“During World War II, the park was used by the U.S. War Department as a training ground for soldiers during construction of Camp Adair north of Corvallis. In 1943, two years after soldiers moved to the park, Oregon’s first Park Superintendent Samuel Boardman was furious at damage done to the site and demanded $500 from the federal government to restore the park … Soldiers moved to nearby farm fields and the park was off limits to the military,” Hardin’s article says.

Though state budget shortfalls in the 1980s and 90s nearly forced the park to close, the nominating form says state lottery funds were used to keep Sarah Helmick Park open in 1998. The park was saved in part thanks to its status as the state’s first.

On Saturday, the parks department will host a centennial celebration at Sarah Helmick from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Activities include a centennial dedication, interactive demos and exhibits, a classic car show and free giveaways while supplies last.

The park is located at 10485 Helmick Rd., seven miles south of Monmouth on Highway 99W.

Learn more about the history of state parks

View a timeline of the first 100 years

Learn more about the state parks centennial celebration

View the free 2022 Park Guide

Read about Oregon’s Highway State Park System

Editor’s note: This column is part of an effort from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. If you have any feedback or would like to participate in Salem Reporter’s local history series, please contact managing editor Rachel Alexander at [email protected]

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