In 1972 – 1973 Mrs. William C. Limacher was named chairman of Bicentennial Committees by both Will County Board Chairman Roy Hassert and Joliet Mayor Berlinsky. Having seen the problems separate county and city committees had presented during the State Sesquicentennial in 1968, she decided to accept both appointments as chairman “so at least I would know what both committees were doing.”
When both committees agreed that they wanted to have a lasting memorial to our great nation’s 200th birthday, a county wide survey, led by The Joliet Herald News, was conducted. It was decided that this five and one-third acres along the waterway that had been Joliet’s first street should be saved for a park that would contain a theatre and bandshell for the performing arts.
The committees were combined and a not-for-profit corporation, the Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, Inc., was formed. Judge Michael Orenic assigned Herman Hasse, later Chief Judge of Will County, to process the legal documents to enable the combined committees to form a not-for profit corporation. This was the first such corporation formed in the United States from a Bicentennial Committee.
Many sub-committees were formed. Each performing arts organization, school and college arts department and veterans organization in the county was contacted for it’s input as to the type of facility which should be built. Individuals from Caterpillar, the Joliet Drama Guild, the American Legion Band, Joliet Junior College, Lewis University, the College of St. Francis and the Joliet Ballet Society were among those that were consulted.
In addition to local resource people, through the efforts of State Bicentennial Chairman Andrew McNally and Director of the Chicago Art Institute Larry Chalmers, the services of consultants from the Goodman Theatre were provided. The architectural firm of Semitekol, Larson & Stromsland was selected. Extensive fund raising was started and funds were raised throughout the country. As local fund raising progressed, many hours were spent planning the theatre and the band shell.
During this time an intensive battle was going on to secure from HUD the property along Bluff Street, north of Jefferson Street on the west bank of the waterway. This site is historically significant as Joliet’s first homes and businesses were established here in the 1830’s. The property was valued at $210,000. “After the regional HUD office in Chicago three times denied transference of ownership, we decided to go to Washington D.C. and state our case at the federal level.”
Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, Inc. President Mrs. William C. Limacher; WJBP, Inc. Treasurer John G. Whyte, Mayor Maurice Berlinsky and Councilman Ken Pritz went to Washington D.C., (paying their own way). They met in the offices of Congressman George O’Brien with staff members of Senators Charles Percy and Adlai Stevenson and a bevy of lawyers from HUD. Mrs. Limacher said, “We had been informed that we should give a fair offer. Each of the four of us put in 25 cents and offered the $1.00.” At the conclusion of that two day meeting, HUD gave up. “They gave us back our dollar and agreed to give the Bicentennial Corporation the land with certain provisions.”
It was agreed with HUD that, if sufficient funds were raised and the theatre and band shell were completed, ownership would be turned over to a tax supported body of the Corporations choice. It could have been given to the Joliet Park District, the County of Will or the City of Joliet. After much deliberation, in 1977 the land with the completed theater/bandshell complex was given to the City of Joliet to be operated by Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park Inc.
Since 1977 the Corporation has been under contract to the City of Joliet under the auspices of the City Manager. The Corporation helps oversee its operation and reports to a City Councilman who serves as liaison. First, was Councilman Ken Pritz, then Lou Peyla and now for many years, Joe Shetina. The Corporation also continues to raise funds through contribution drives, Park events and volunteer projects.
After the corporation obtained the land, they worked fervently to raise the necessary funds. Caterpillar, Inc. was the first corporation to back the endeavor with a donation of $75,000.00. Following their enthusiastic example, other corporations, businesses and individuals responded. “Gold bricks” with donor’s engraved names were sold for $1,000 to $10,000. Those original donors giving $5,000 to $75,000 were engraved in a separate bronze plaque. Funds were also raised through Park events, volunteer projects and sales. No tax money went into obtaining of the land or the construction of the theater/band shell complex.
During this same time the committees were putting on a tremendously successful county wide celebration. Over 200 events appeared on the Will County Bicentennial Calendar of Events. Joliet and Will County were nationally recognized as the first city and county in the State of Illinois (23rd in the nation) to be recognized as Official Bicentennial Committees.
Will County Superintendent of Schools, Boyd Buchar, and later Superintendent Matt Racich, provided free office space in the Will County Courthouse from 1972 through 1977. Bev Pearson was hired first as a part-time secretary until it became apparent her full-time services were required.
Prior to construction of the theatre/band shell complex, Concerts in the Rough were held. The first concert was held in 1973 near what is now Bicentennial Park’s “historic site.” Dr. Hal Dellinger of Joliet Junior College arranged to have Jerry Lewis and the JJC Jazz Band perform for the first concert. The next year some of the contributions were used to construct a concrete patio by the bluff just north of the Oneida Street steps. Electricity was installed and a sound system was purchased. This system was later utilized in the band shell. Concerts in the Rough were held through 1976. For each of these concerts, Councilman Robert Hacker set up the sound system each Thursday and then stored it at his lumber yard. In 1977 a hill was constructed opposite the band shell using fill from the excavation of the theatre building. One thousand dollars worth of sod was donated which was laid by off-duty Joliet firemen and U.S. Marines.
On July 4, 1976 a time capsule measuring 94″x 34″ x 34″ was buried under a ten ton rock with a brass plaque instructing that the time capsule should be opened in 100 years. It was blessed by Bishop Romeo Blanchette. “A whole year was spent writing letters to people all over the county inviting them to contribute items to be placed in the time capsule. So many people responded that a time capsule of this size was required.”
In 1977 the first season of Concerts on the Hill held in the bandshell were on Thursday evenings during June, July and August under the direction of Board member Don Weir. The first program was sponsored by Caterpillar and featured the American Legion Band, the New People and the Sandy Vaughn dancers. Bill Drilling was the emcee and Congressman George O’Brien sang the national anthem.
The first performance in the indoor theatre was the Joliet Drama Guild production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Georgiann Goodson, who was then a leader of the Joliet Drama Guild.
In September of 1977, out of the many applications that were received from all over the country, Joliet born, well-known dramatist Georgiann Goodson was hired as the Park’s first manager. From that beginning, Billie and Georgiann worked harmoniously for the success of the Park. They initiated many original events for the community. These are listed in the programming section.
In 1980 through the efforts of the Corporation, the land at the southwest corner at Bluff and Jefferson was donated to the Corporation by the Union National (now First Midwest Bank). The Corporation, in turn also gave this piece of property to the City and together they planned it and used it to match a Bureau of Outdoor Recreation grant of $109.00. This enabled us to provide additional roadways, picnic and games areas, parking and landscaping.
In 1984 the Corporation started proceedings that resulted in acquiring the property on the southeast corner of Bluff and Jefferson. This had been the drive-in facility of the First Midwest Bank. This was valued at $270,000. After successfully obtaining it the Corporation extensively renovated the existing building and rented it to the National Park Service to serve as the interim headquarters of the newly formed Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. Bicentennial Park had also been designated as Joliet’s permanent interpretive center for the National Heritage Corridor. In 1993, after the Corridor offices moved, the Joliet Police Department’s newly formed NOPT officers took up residence in this building until the new Police Station was completed in1998.
In 1993 the Joliet City Center Plan was put into effect. Bicentennial Park is a prominent feature of this project. A brick and concrete river walk now borders the waterway punctuated by “viewpoints” named for prominent Joliet pioneers. Overlooks are reached by easy stair access on the rebuilt stair-railed Oneida Street steps. Curving brick pathways guide pedestrians on a stroll along the Historic Walk and over the “Hill,” which has undergone levelling for more comfortable viewing. It also connects to the river walk. Graceful, decorative benches are placed at prime vantage points all through the Park. Extensive plantings of stella d’oro day lilies, ornamental shrubs and trees provide shade and vistas at the imposing stone entrance marquees and throughout the grounds. Banners decorate lampposts while electrical ballads provide power for vendors and displays. At night the lighting lends brilliant illumination for strolls. Floodlights accent the stone bluffs. Parking areas are accessible south of Western Avenue and north and south of Jefferson Street.
In 1994 Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, Inc. were the recipients of $600,000.from the estate of Arthur G. Smith. There were no stipulations as to its use. Over the years, through hard work, prudent management and fund raising the Board had amassed $400,000 for capital improvement. The Board of Directors unanimously decided that this was the time to build our planned additions on the north and south ends of the original theater/ bandshell building.
In the spring of 1998 the architectural firm of Stromsland and DeYoung was selected . Ron Stonitsch Construction, Inc. was general contractor. The ground breaking took place during the September “Concert on the Hill” The north addition doubles the size of our storage and set building area. Also doubled is the “green room” which is used by entertainment groups as a holding area, for business and club meetings and for our own drama classes. The south addition added our much needed office spaces, a permanent concession area and increased and beautified the lobby and entrance. The combined footage of both additions is 7,100 square feet. As in the original structure no tax money was used. The Corporation provided one point four million dollars.
In March of 1999 our first manager, Georgiann Goodson retired after twenty one years of devoted service to the Park. At that time she assured us that she would continue to be with us as one of our volunteers. As such, each December she continues to direct the very popular Gnome Festival which she instituted at the beginning of her Park career.
In the evening of May 5, 2000 the new additions were dedicated at an Open House Reception. Music was provided by a string ensemble in the lobby and piano in the theater. Our good neighbor, Harrah’s prepared and served a delicious array of meats and sweets on tables centered with ice sculptures. The surprise of the evening was when Councilman Joe Shetina read Resolution #4794 which stated that the City Council in private session had unanimously voted to change the name of Bicentennial Park. They resolved that “from early planning through completion and recent renovation of the Park, Mrs. William C.(Billie) Limacher has been the central figure and motivating force responsible for the tremendous success of the facility and Will-Joliet Bicentennial Park, Inc. and it is fitting and appropriate that Mrs. Limacher be recognized and memorialized for her outstanding contributions to the Corporation, the Park and her community. Therefore, be it resolved by the Mayor and City Council that the name Billie Limacher be added to the site”.
In September of 2001 the new southeast stage and the beautiful lighted fountain were dedicated. The City Council named the fountain “Frannie” for Frances Jacksa Schultz, wife of Mayor Arthur Schultz, in recognition of the contributions she has made both to the project and to the City of Joliet.