Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday April 17, 2004

Postcard 240: 1909 Pushball in City Park 


A “farmer’s pushball contest on Farmers Day . . . at the city park about a mile out of town” 
is displayed by a 1909 postcard which bears the explanation its reverse side. 
The 50-pound rubber ball which is six feet in diameter is visible just left of center in the 
foreground of this card from the Hibbs postcard collection.


By Bob Hibbs

City Park was “a mile out of town” in the opinion of the writer of a 1909 note on a postcard displaying the image of a “farmer’s pushball contest on Farmers Day.” The writer, who signed as “Wm.,” probably referred to the approximate distant to the business district since actual corporate boundaries were relatively unimportant then.

The University of Iowa President’s House, which looks down on City Park from the south, was built that same year, so urban development actually wasn’t far from the park.

Before 1909 folks accessed this new 78-acre City Park using the 1876 Centennial Bridge at Iowa Avenue, then used what now is North Riverside Drive to Koontz Avenue, now renamed Park Road. Sold to the city in 1906 by the Terrell and Sanders family, the park was later expanded northwest to its present 105-acre size.

The first river bridge at Park Road was a triple-span high truss built the year before the postcard was mailed. It was replaced by the present four-lane concrete span built in 1960 immediately north of the original span, which creates the angular jog in the street alignment at the west end of today’s bridge.

Controversy erupted at the new Park Road bridge in 1911 when steel was delivered to the adjacent upstream riverbank for an adjacent Iowa City Electric Railway bridge. Trolley tracks already ran north from the downtown in Dubuque Street for service which turned east along Church Street to Oakland Cemetery at Center Street.

Tracks were to be extended from Church Street north in Dubuque Street two blocks to the bridge site, then cross the river to serve the park and a developing Manville Heights neighborhood. With arrival of the steel, area residents quickly developed a severe case of what today is called “nimby,” meaning: not in my back yard.

One bridge was enough, Bella Vista residents claimed in 1911, and as a result the steel rusted on the riverbank four years while a compromise ran the tracks across the existing structure. The steel was then sold.

The pushball postcard, a recent addition to the Hibbs collection, carries a one-cent stamp cancelled at Iowa City on Oct. 10, 1909. It’s addressed to Waverly, and is an actual photographic print rather than an engraved image printed on a press.

The event probably was sponsored by the Iowa City Commercial Club, the predecessor organization to what now is called the Chamber of Commerce. The earlier club was housed upstairs in a building located mid-block of Washington Street between Clinton and Capitol streets near what now is the north entrance to Old Capitol Mall.

The Guzeman’s Garage sold Chevrolets on the main floor of the building back then.

Pushball is played on a large field – officially 140 yards by 50 yards wide – using an inflated rubber ball which is six feet in diameter and weighing in at 50 pounds. Goals looking much like football goalposts sometimes were used, with posts 20 feet apart and a crossbar 18 feet above the ground.

The game was played informally just moving the ball to the ends of the field with as many playing on each side as wanted to participate. Official rules called for 11 on each team; and, if goals were available, scoring was five points for passing the ball under the crossbar, or eight points for getting it over the bar.

Invented in 1894 by one M.G. Crane of Newton, Massachusetts, it was sometimes played on horseback. It was first popular at Harvard University, and was played as a freshman verses sophomore contest in Iowa City during the dawning years of the 20th century.

Pushball at the park, anyone?

Next Saturday: Horse power for Jessup Hall.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and other historic ephemera and researches history related to them. 

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