Almost a year ago, the Riverside trustees overturned a longstanding ban on picnics in village parks.
To take advantage of that change and with Frederick Law Olmsted’s General Plan for Riverside approaching its 150th birthday next year, the village’s Landscape Advisory Commission is inviting the community to participate in a special family-friendly event, Picnic Like It’s 1869, which will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16 on the bluff overlooking Swan Pond Park, along Burling Road just west of the Riverside Public Library.
Appearing before the Riverside Village Board and dressed in a homespun frock and bonnet, Landscape Advisory Chairwoman Cathy Maloney last week provided an example of how the commission is approaching this zero-waste event — by ditching the paper plates and plastic forks and getting into spirit of the 19th century.
That’s not to say Maloney expects people to don bustles and bonnets or waistcoats and bowlers. But she’s hoping that picnickers will approach the event the way their 19th-century counterparts would have — as a way to commune with nature.
“People’s objections to picnicking in recent history tended to be about litter and loud music, but that wasn’t the case when Olmsted and company were around,” Maloney said. “It was about enjoying nature, and there were no disposable items.”
People would pack up their wicker hampers with everyday china, silverware and glassware, linen napkins and, of course, their food and drink. They’d bring along blankets or tables and make a day of it. When they left, visitors did so without a trace, said Maloney.
If there was music, it would be of the acoustic variety, of course, with perhaps some singing. Picnic Like It’s 1869 will feature just such entertainment — local violinists and book readings in conjunction with the Riverside Public Library.
According to Maloney, people in 19th-century Chicago would travel for hours to farmers’ fields and other scenic locations to picnic. As a planned resort community with riverfront access and located on a train line, Riverside itself became a popular picnic area in its early years.
Images included in the Riverside Improvement Company’s sales brochure, “Riverside in 1871, with a Description of its Improvements Together with Some Engravings of Views and Buildings,” depicts handsomely attired ladies and gentlemen lounging in the parks and on the balcony of the refectory (site of the Youth Center), taking in views of the river.
Olmsted’s plan includes a “picnic island” in Swan Pond Park, created by a small creek that once ran through it and, according to an engraving in the brochure, accessed by a wooden foot bridge.
Picnic Island is long gone and the park has had a tendency to be on the damp side in the past couple of years, but the Landscape Advisory Commission plans to offer nature tours of the park, describing how the park used to be and informing participants about the current planting effort, what they’re trying to accomplish, and how it’s going.
There’s no need to register to attend the event, which will not have a rain date in case of inclement weather.