Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Forever Lost in Forest Park, Part 1

Did the Johnny Appleseed Gang burn down the Brown House four decades ago? Who, you ask, was the Johnny Appleseed Gang? And where the hell was the Brown House?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a long and sordid tale, full of violence and intrigue.

Let’s go out of the Acres and back in time for a bit and go on a field trip to Forest Park. And I’m referring to the Forest Park of yesteryear—specifically, an historic structure that has been gone for 40 years.

Yes, I know this blog tends to dwell on stuff that’s been swept into the dustbin of history, and I bemoan to no end the fact that that these landmarks are vanished forever. Yep, cry me a river. I may dwell on the lost past all too much, but how else are we going to relive this crap unless I jog our memories, right?

I’ve already written about a couple of institutions that the Forest Park neighborhood has lost—Cinema X and Blake’s clothing store, not to mention the old Forest Park Zoo, with the late Snowball the polar Bear, Jiggs the chimp, and Morganetta the elephant. But how many of you remember the Rustic Pavilion? Drive into the Forest Park main entrance, drive past the tennis courts on the left and the old pony rides on the right, and pause at the swimming pool. On the left was a majestic structure known as the Rustic Pavilion, which was built in 1889.

The Rustic Pavilion stood next to what was once the man-made “paddle pond” and fountain.

I’m not sure when the pond was drained, but the Rustic Pavilion, also known as the “Brown House” to neighborhood people, managed to provide fun and relaxation to Forest Park patrons for 82 years…

…until it was burned in an arson fire in 1971:

I had played in the pavilion numerous times as a kid and I remember the shock of seeing its charred remains when I was eight years old. Who would do such a thing?

The answer, according to legend, were enemies of a group of youths who hung out there. The Brown House Gang was known to congregate in the rustic pavilion, and they had more than a few foes.

We’ll probably never know with absolute surety who torched the structure, but it undoubtedly had everything to do with a feud between the Brown House Gang, which also hung out in the “green house” (the historic trolley shelter on Sumner Avenue next to the Forest Park entrance) and the Johnny Appleseed Gang, a group whose territory was Johnny Appleseed Park on Mill and Hancock Street in the lower Forest Park neighborhood.

The name “Johnny Appleseed Gang” might elicit snickers from those unfamiliar with the Forest Park neighborhood and its past, but old timers remember the havoc Johnny Appleseed and Brown House Gang members wreaked on the area of Johnny Appleseed Park (now known as Stebbins Park), as well as the entire Forest Park neighborhood.

These two gangs locked horns in the summer of 1970, and it got serious after a member of the Brown House Gang was hit in the head with a lead pipe in one encounter. When the Brown House Gang beat up a member of the Appleseed Gang and bashed up a car in another fight in Johnny Appleseed Park, the clash sparked a war.

Things were brought to a boil on the night of June 30, 1970, when three carloads of Johnny Appleseed Gang members, armed with bats, chains, and other weapons, came looking for the Brown House Gang around 9:00 p.m. What they found was trouble: that night the Brown House Gang was hanging out in the “green house” on Sumner Avenue. Immediately, 20-year-old Gerald Teece pointed an unloaded shotgun at the Johnny Appleseed Gang, which calmed things down a bit.

But after the two groups caused another commotion, the police were called, and the teens dispersed—only to resume their discussion 20 minutes later near the tennis courts, and then the dispute moved across the street from Forest Park’s main entrance. On Sumner Terrace, next to the medical building on Sumner Avenue, they went at it. The fight was on.

Between the confrontations, 17-year-old Daniel Amato, a member of the Brown House Gang, had gone to his apartment on Belmont Street, grabbed a knife, and came back to the area. He claimed he stabbed 16-year-old Frank Albano after being outnumbered by members of the Appleseed group clutching weapons. Albano was dead on arrival at Wesson Hospital from several puncture wounds to his chest.

Amato was charged with murder, and Teece, accused of hiding Amato’s knife in his apartment, was charged with being an accessory after the fact and two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon.

The murder shocked Springfield not only because it happened next to the city’s largest park, but also because it shed light on the presence of gangs in the Forest Park neighborhood. An article mentioned other groups in the area: the X Gang and the Holy Name Gang, named after the locations where they hung out (the latter being a school and a social center on Dickinson Street).

Police declined to call them “gangs,” but residents had long complained about the teens—especially the Brown House Gang, which was allegedly responsible for viciously beating a father and his son on the Forest Park tennis courts in 1969.

The Springfield Union newspaper stepped up its coverage of the controversy, even using a diagram to show where Albano was killed, and the routes used by combatants to escape the scene.

In an unusual development, members of both gangs showed up to the Springfield Newspapers to tell their versions of the event—each claiming that they weren’t the aggressors and that the other gang was “out for blood.”

Then tempers flared again—literally. On July 5, 1970, someone set fire to the “green house” pavilion around 3:00 a.m., but the damage was confined to one bench, a wall, and the floor. Below is a modern day photo of the “green house,” a former shelter for Sumner Avenue trolley riders. It was light green in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has since been painted brown.

Emotions were running high. The same day, Amato’s lawyer, Attorney Thomas J. Donahue, withdrew from the case because of threats on his life. A member of the Brown House Gang was also warned at gunpoint that he would die if he took the stand as a witness. In addition, Amato’s brother, James, was told that Daniel would be killed if he were released from jail, and Teece’s wife also received a threat against her husband.

Amato’s new lawyer, Efrem Gordon, claimed that the leader of the Apppleseed Gang, 18-year-old Robert Goldrup, was the one who threatened Donahue twice, and that the youth had also vowed to kill two teenage girls who were friends with Amato.

Police were well versed in dealing with groups of trouble-making teens, but they expressed surprise that youths as old as 18, 19, and 20 continued to hang around in such units, and that some of them carried on like this even though they were even married, including the leader of the Brown House Gang, a guy known as “Frenchy” who was a bit older than his friends.

The incident galvanized the political leadership in Springfield, which suggested putting more police on the streets and offering more youth programs— Parks Superintendent Baldwin Lee had characterized youth recreational programs in Forest Park as being “poor to fair.” Albano’s death also became a rallying cry four years later when the South End Gang and Forest Park teens battled each other with weapons: city officials held a meeting designed to avoid a war that had the potential turn as deadly as the 1970 feud between the Appleseed and Brown House Gangs.

Forest Park’s Rustic Pavilion, also known as the “Brown House,” went up in flames at around 2:00 a.m. on September 6, 1971. There was little doubt in most people’s minds—given the other arson fire in the “green house” five days after the slaying—that the Johnny Appleseed Gang was behind both blazes. That was the word on the street, and it still is 40 years later. After all, the two buildings were the hangouts of the Brown House Gang—especially the Rustic Pavilion. The latter fire, however, was much more serious, leaving nothing in the “Brown House” but the chimney and the heavier beams—and memories of a beautiful structure reduced to mostly ashes.

On December 7, 1970, Amato pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years and one day to the Concord Correctional Institution. Teece, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of manslaughter and two counts of assault by means of a dangerous weapon, was sentenced to concurrent one-year sentences at the Hampden County House of Correction on all charges. Amato was eligible for parole after one year, and Teece was eligible after serving a third of his sentence.

By stating that the Rustic Pavilion was the second casualty of this gang war, I’m not diminishing Albano’s death. A human life is irreplaceable. If he weren’t killed, I’d like to think that the teen, a well-liked baseball player at Tech High, would have eventually survived these ridiculous brawls and lived to a ripe old age. But when rivalries like this escalate into combat with weapons, obviously the possibility of serious injuries and even fatalities escalates as well.

However, the loss of the Rustic Pavilion is also a terrible tragedy. It was an antique and one of a kind, a place where horse and carriage rides began and ended in the early 1900s. (There was a boot-shaped stone in front of it where horses were tied.) Fortunately, it was such a treasure that it was featured in many photographs and postcards. Maybe it’s overkill to post so many of them here, but it’s only in cyberspace—and in memories—that the Rustic Pavilion continues to stand proudly.

Below is the only photo I know of that shows the interior of this architectural gem. Does anyone have any others? Feel free to email them to hellsacres@gmail.com.

The Rustic Pavilion: forever lost in Forest Park, but not forgotten. Read The Brown House, Part 2!