Final ‘playdate’ brings back memories of Imagination Station’s beginnings

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Imagination Station
Photo by Eleanor Arrington

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Nov. 17 — For five full days in the fall of 1993, from nearly sunrise to sunset, hundreds of volunteers pulled together in the spirit of an old-fashioned “barn raising” to piece together a wooden structure that would inspire the imagination of “hundreds of thousands” of children over the next three decades.

“There were some of us out here at 5 and 6 a.m. because I remember some great sunrises,” Pam Drumheller recalled. “Some employers paid their employees [as if they were on the job]…while they were working on the park…and look at the surroundings…can you imagine a better place for a park? I’ll give a shout out to Ralph Dean because this park was his vision. We are blessed to live in a place like this.”

Pam and her husband Bob were catalysts in the creation and construction of the well-known Imagination Station at Luray’s Ralph Dean Park. The couple gathered with town officials and fellow volunteers from 1993 at the park on Saturday morning to share memories of the playground’s genesis at its “final playdate.”

“If not for them, we wouldn’t be here today and this wouldn’t have been around for 30 years for literally hundreds of thousands of kids to enjoy,” Mayor Jerry Dofflemyer told the group.

“I remember you had to get here early to get your tools signed out,” the mayor joked. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my life…because it was one of the greatest community projects we’ve ever had.”

In the spring of 1992, the Drumhellers were asked out to lunch by the late David Slye and his wife Kathy, who pitched the idea of creating a playground on the once-vacant field with views of the Blue Ridge mountains to the east and the Massanutten to the west. They soon began to talk with a company called “Leathers” about creating their vision.

Luray’s Imagination Station would become part of the wave of wooden playgrounds installed during that era that were designed by Robert Leathers of Ithaca, N.Y. Many examples of his three or four designs produced by Playgrounds by Leathers in the early and mid-1990s can be seen across the region and across the country. Now, after reaching the end of its projected 25-year lifespan, many are being replaced.

The aging wooden structures, like the one at Springfield Elementary, are now splinter traps and have been deemed unsafe for use. The constant maintenance required of the wooden structures has been adding up to the point that replacement is now more financially prudent than constant repairs. In October 2014, the town spent $10,000 and joined forces with more than 100 community volunteers to rejuvenate Imagination Station. Students at Springfield have not been allowed to play on their “kids castle” for some time, and the school board recently approved spending federal ESSER II funds to replace it.

“It broke my heart to hear it was coming down,” Pam Drumheller said while standing next to Imagination Station on Saturday, “but I understand why.”

The town started discussing a plan to replace Imagination Station about five years ago under former Recreation Director Pat O’Brien.

“We postponed it a couple of years because we didn’t know what effect COVID would have,” the mayor said.

A three-member committee is currently reviewing eight bids submitted for new playground equipment at Ralph Dean Park. The bid deadline was Oct. 13. The committee plans to make a final decision in the coming weeks, and Luray Parks Director Jen Jenkins will then make a recommendation to the Luray Council in December.

“We will roll it out then and everyone can see what we’re planning,” Jenkins said.

On Saturday morning, Bob Drumheller asked the small crowd of community-minded residents to close their eyes, imagine an empty field where they stood, and then open their eyes to see what had been created.

“This was an empty field until a few people got together and decided to build a park,” he said. “This community came together, and that’s the most beautiful thing about it…it’s a tribute to our community leaders for how we came together.”

Starting on Sept. 30, 1993, more than 300 volunteers a day reportedly came to the park to volunteer time as laborers assigned to one of eight volunteer foremen overseeing construction of various sections of the playground. Tents were erected to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner each of the five days during construction. The late Mary Ellen Jennings was in charge of checking out donated tools for laborers to use.

“And she would chase you down if you didn’t sign out a piece of equipment,” Drumheller joked.

A 10-member committee oversaw the donation of time, food, money and tools from the 18-month planning stage through the five-day frenzy of chaotic construction.

“I remember feeling a sense of relief on that last day,” the mayor reflected. “There were some questions during the week if it would get done.”

However, community spirit was strong during those five days and folks generally got along. Several folks remembered Judy Suddith providing some levity to the potentially stressful construction site when she appeared at the new park dressed as the children’s character “Barney.”

While Saturday’s event was dubbed the “Final Playdate” at Imagination Station, the actual demolition of the wooden structure won’t actually begin until the week after Thanksgiving, according to the town’s parks director.

“We’re definitely going to build back,” the mayor assured the crowd on Saturday, squelching rumors that the site might be left vacant.

The Town has not released figures on estimated costs, but after the new playground equipment is installed the Page Alliance for Community Action plans to help fund any additional pieces that may be needed. PACA has partnered with all three towns in recent years to provide new playground equipment at Shenandoah’s Wigwam Village, a new splash pad at Stanley’s Hawksbill Pool, and upgrades to the disc golf course and signage at Ralph Dean Park in Luray. The projects were funded through a grant from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

Luray officials hope to complete the playground replacement by the end of the fiscal year on July 1, 2022.

“With labor shortages and supply shortages, we can’t predict anything anymore because of COVID,” the mayor said.

As the group gathered on Saturday morning continued down memory lane, they reflected on how the structure was named through a contest held for area youth.

“It came from all the pictures that the children drew” showing what they wanted in a park, Elisa Thompson recalled. “So I said it needs to be called Imagination Station.”

“Everybody knows the name,” Bob Drumheller responded. “They don’t say I’m going to the park…they say I’m going to Imagination Station.”

“Try to think about the countless hours of imagination that happened for our children,” Thompson added. “I was out here yesterday and you should have heard all the imagination going on…it’s so much more than physical activity for our children. It’s community growth and family growth. I’ve seen that happen here time and time again.”

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