A celebration to mark 100 years of Donner Park and give back to the Columbus community drew hundreds of people to the public area despite sweltering heat.

Pony rides, watermelon-eating contests and a dunk tank were among planned activities to thank community residents for continued support over the years, said Mark Jones, parks and recreation director.

Many families who attended said they planned to get relief from the mid-90s temperatures by cooling off at Donner Aquatic Center, which offered free swimming to the public from 5 to 6 p.m.

Columbus resident Crystal Taylor was among the first visitors during the celebration that also marked 70 years of the city’s parks and recreation department, and brought her 7-year-old daughter Paige. Taylor said she decided to attend since it would give her daughter something to do, adding that she enjoys spending time at Donner Park, 739 22nd St.

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The celebration was a trip down memory lane for some attendees. Cincinnati resident Susan Grott Grodecki came to the event with her sister, Catherine Grott, after a mini-reunion they both planned to attend in Columbus over the weekend.

Grodecki recalled that she and her sister spent many years of their childhood at Donner Park, where they learned how to swim. The siblings lived on Franklin Street nearby and often made a trek to Donner Park growing up.

“We didn’t need Mom and Dad to come over here,” Grodecki said. “It really established a lifelong love of swimming.”

Grott, who currently lives in Billings, Montana, joined Grodecki in placing her hand print on a community art canvas that will be displayed in the Donner Center. Grodecki also said the celebration was an important occasion to remember.

“It really shows the lifelong gratitude at a young age of enjoying the parks system,” she said.

The land where Donner Park was created had been a green space owned by William Donner, a Columbus native who became wealthy in the Pennsylvania steel industry.

In 1917, Donner donated a plot of land to be used as a community park. Three decades later, his foundation made a subsequent donation to the city in the form of a swimming pool and community center, Donner Center, named after the philanthropist.

Jones said he appreciated the community coming out to mark 100 years of Donner Park and recognized that the future of the Donner Center remains unclear. The building, which is 70 years old, is currently being evaluated and needs to be brought up to the 21st century, Jones said.

He added that the Donner Center needs to be a “one-stop shop” not only for millennials, but also other members of the community as well, and said officials are still in the early stages of determining the center’s future. Jones was taking in the activities being offered to the public during the celebration.

“It’s kind of our gift to the community for everything they’ve done for us over the years,” Jones said.

Columbus resident Patricia Samm brought her two grandchildren, 5-year-old Asha Samm and 9-year-old Kieran Samm, who were visiting from Tennessee. Asha Samm said her favorite part was going on a pony ride, while her brother said he enjoyed the dunk tank.

However, all three of them came prepared, wearing their swimsuits and planned to cool off in the pool.

“We thought this was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon,” Patricia Samm said. “It’s a good family atmosphere.”

The heat wasn’t a concern for North Vernon resident Jennifer Russell, who came to the event with her son Brody and their neighbor Collin Massie, and had participated in a watermelon-eating contest during the celebration.

“They’re having a blast,” Russell said.

While many of the activities were outdoors, scrapbooks filled with photos and newspaper clippings dating back to the 1950s were available inside the Donner Center, where balloon animals and face paintings awaited children.

Albert “Hutch” Schumaker, who owns the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Columbus, was among visitors viewing the historical scrapbooks and said Donner Park was a place he spent many of his childhood years in. He described the park as a great community asset for families and still enjoys it today.

“I think many people haven’t discovered it or have forgotten about it,” Schumaker said. “It’s really important for us to remember our past.”

Key dates in Donner's development

The land where Donner Park was created had been a green space owned by William Donner, a Columbus native who became wealthy in the Pennsylvania steel industry.

Here are some key dates in Donner’s history:

1917: Donner donated a plot of land to be used as a community park.

1925: Donner Park shelter house is constructed.

1947: The pool and community center are presented to the city by Donner.

1948: Donner Center opens to the community. The Donner Aquatic Center began operating July 4.

1954: The Donner Park shelter house is renovated.

1985: Bond issued for $1.375 million to renovate the Donner Center.

1986: Dedication of renovated Donner Center is held.

1997: $4 million bond issue is passed for the renovation of Donner pool, Lincoln softball complex, a new maintenance facility and a new golf course irrigation system.

2011: A new slide at the Donner Center Aquatic Center is installed.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com