new downtown park may get name of Eau Claire pioneer
One of Eau Claire’s early movers and shakers may soon lend his name to a slender city park. Eau Claire City Councilman Dave Duax has proposed naming a 2.1-acre piece of public parkland between First Avenue and the Chippewa River for Chapin Munger Seley, who in just three years in Eau Claire accomplished more than many civic leaders do in a lifetime. Between 1855 and 1858, Seley founded a bank, served as the chairman of the town of Clear Water, was instrumental in having that township transformed into Eau Claire County, and then became the first chairman of the Eau Claire County Board.
A century and a half after he left town, Seley’s footprints are still everywhere. “He was the father of parks,” explains Duax, a history buff who has been researching Seley for several years. “He set aside the two pieces of land that are still (downtown) parks: Wilson Park and University Park.” Seley also platted what became the village of Eau Claire on the east side of the Chippewa River (what is now downtown and the Eastside Hill) and named many of the streets there. It’s because of Seley that most Eau Claire residents can name all of the early governors of the state of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Territory, including guys like Barstow, Farwell, Dodge, and Doty.
Like Seley, the park that would be named for him is often overlooked. More of a strip of green space than a park you’d kick a ball around in, it’s bordered by First Avenue, the Chippewa River, the Lake Street bridge and the Grand Avenue footbridge. The park is across the street from the new county jail, and its most prominent feature is the Chippewa River Trail that snakes along it. A few years ago it was informally nicknamed “Peace Park” by kubb players who used the strip of property when Just Local Foods was across the street.
Some improvements, including benches and trees, were planned at the park this summer, so Duax believes now is the time to give the park a name and erect a small monument there telling Seley’s story. (He’s in the process of exploring getting donations to pay for the monument.) The city’s Waterways and Parks Commission was expected to consider the monument at its March 27 meeting, while the commission likely will tackle the naming issue on April 24. Duax first brought the idea to the parks board on Feb. 27, but the city has a policy of waiting 60 days for public comments before acting on park names. Any commission action would still require City Council approval.
Between 1855 and 1858, Seley founded a bank, served as the chairman of the town of Clear Water, was instrumental in having that township transformed into Eau Claire County, and then became the first chairman of the Eau Claire County Board.
Duax’s park-naming proposal hasn’t been universally popular. Several local residents have raised objections, saying the process has been treated like a done deal and that other names should be considered. Among them are Mark Ruddy and Jackie Christner, two members of Building Bridges, a diversity committee associated with the Clear Vision community planning group. Ruddy has challenged the naming of another park after a rich white man, particularly one who didn’t live in Eau Claire for very long. Meanwhile, Christner says the park should be named in honor of the nearby Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild and its founder, Bob Carr. In a letter to city Parks Director Phil Fieber, Christner says the piece of land should be named Little Grand Park, after the guild’s theater, and that a monument should be erected there to celebrate Carr, not Seley. She also believes Carr’s name should be given to the proposed amphitheater the guild hopes to build in the area.
Despite such objections, Duax says he’s ready to stand up for Seley.
“I think he’s been ignored by history largely because of what happened with his bank,” Duax says. “His bank failed, and he left town.”
However, Seley still was pivotal in the area’s history, and went on to prominence elsewhere. After careers in Pennsylvania, Kansas, and the southwestern Wisconsin city of Prairie du Chien, Seley eventually settled in Waco, Texas, where he founded another bank and became a major financial player. A biography written after his 1891 death lauded him thusly: “No banker in Texas enjoyed higher credit in the moneyed centers of the East than he. His word was considered as good as his bond.” Now his word, or at least his name, could live on in Eau Claire.