By Regina Elling
With nearly perfect November weather and an enthusiastic crowd on hand, only one thing was missing as Collier Park celebrated its 100-year anniversary — more local residents. But the attendees didn’t let that slow them down one bit.
Keith Van Sickle has been a ranger at Collier for 10 years. He stayed busy recounting the park’s history and present status to numerous individual questions throughout the events.
“When I arrived here for the job,” he said, the park was a “weed-infested dirty lot” and the home of “drug dealers and prostitutes.” Based on current guests, Collier Park is now a refuge for families needing a quiet respite in the center of town.
The eight-acre park has an impressive history, centennial guests agreed. In 1909, D.C. “Charlie” Collier, also known as Colonel Collier, donated 10 acres to the Ramona Improvement Society. He intended for the land to become a community park. It was also during this time the eucalyptus colonnade was planted at each major entrance into town.
In 1913, the land was donated to San Diego County. It would be 1940 before there was an official county parks department. Collier Park then became San Diego County’s first park.
The ancient pepper trees on one side were planted when the land was originally donated. By following the shape of the trees surrounding an open space, guests can see where a former band shell once sat.
Through the years, the park has hosted play gyms, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a Scout hut, restrooms, parking lots, ballfields and more. In 1934, Civilian Conservation Corps members built the rock foot bridges and lined flood canals.
But time took its toll on the park, and Van Sickle said that when he came along, “no one was really responsible.” Even though a caretaker lived on the property, his role was limited to “keeping toilet paper in the restrooms and mowing the grass.”
Van Sickle made it a professional — and personal — goal to return Collier Park to the community. “I wanted families to be able to enjoy this park,” he said.
Toward that end, a county ordinance forbids drinking in Collier Park, one of only a handful of parks in the county with such a ruling.
The park has gone through numerous changes in just the past 10 years.
“In 2006, I met Teri Schmidt, and she has been the motivating force behind getting the Ramona Garden Club involved here,” said Van Sickle. “The club has transformed the back of the park into several garden areas with rock-lined paths, an additional rock foot bridge, a large stone bench and a Blue Star Memorial.”
Many of the native plants made their way into the park in 2010, when the Oak Tree Society made a substantial donation, he noted. More than 250 natives, including toyon, Manzanita, mallow, ceanothus, yucca and indigenous beavertail cactus were planted on the hillside. That year also saw the arrival of the massive cedar, to be used for Ramona Chamber of Commerce’s annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.
The roses surrounding the tennis court were planted in 2011.
“More than 100 roses were donated,” Van Sickle said. “We keep them to memorialize a former staff member who loved and always planted roses here.”
Collier Park continues to grow and evolve. The recently installed soccer arena next to the Boys and Girls Club has seen thousands of youngsters play, while new picnic benches keep the more sedate set occupied.
“It’s a very nice place to work,” commented Van Sickle.
During the centennial celebration, the parks department children’s coloring contest was a success, based on the smiles on the youngsters’ faces, and Ramona Garden Club gave away free native plants.