Thursday, May 13, 2021

Saturday In Avent Park, I Think It Was the 4th of July

Present day playground at Avent's Park - The project to build the children's playground was lead by Pat Lamar and other civic leaders with enthusiastic support from all corners of Oxford, as seen by the hundreds of plagues noting donors names. The project was organized and built with free labor and tools from the citizens of Oxford and has been enjoyed by 1000's of Avent's Park kids since the early '90's. - Photo courtesy Oxford Park Commission (OPC)
Present day playground at Avent’s Park – The project to build the children’s playground was lead by Pat Lamar and other civic leaders with enthusiastic support from all corners of Oxford, as seen by the hundreds of plagues noting donors names. The project was organized and built with free labor and tools from the citizens of Oxford and has been enjoyed by 1000’s of Avent’s Park kids since the early ’90’s. – Photo courtesy Oxford Park Commission (OPC)

For the bicycle-riding kids of Oxford who grew up in the northeast slice of town, Avent Park can’t help but hold a few Summer’s worth of memories.
I turned 5-years-old splashing around that old sprinkler pole. “It was a simpler time” meant simpler pleasures. For what was magical fun to us kindergarteners was just a 7 foot piece of pipe that the city workers had capped and drilled 50 holes in. A simple little square frame and a box full of material scraps and many a neighborhood mom smiled when she was presented with her pretty new potholder.  Fine examples of our works of art from the “early years” could be found on any neighborhood refrigerator. Summer mornings under the pavilion were easy and fun.
We were safer than safe, when the biggest fear at the Park was the yellow jackets, real or made up, that would get you for sure if you went in Burney Branch, “the ditch”. We were little kids then and what the Park meant to us was about to change with a kid’s right-of-passage. The day your momma let you get on your bike and take off for all points past the “do not cross line” and the last thing you heard as you peddled off your daddy’s property was, “Be careful!”
More than any others, the Bramlett and Avent families built this part of Oxford. Old Bramlett Farm backed up to St. Peter’s Cemetery and the big barn stood where Bramlett Elementary now stands. The farm stretched from the hilltop, down, over and beyond today’s highway 7 bypass.
The old fire engine that holds memories for every Avent's Park kid of the 60's and 70's - May '68, last day of school picnic for First Presbyterian Church Kindergarten - Photo from Corey Crowder
The old fire engine that holds memories for every Avent’s Park kid of the 60’s and 70’s – May ’68, last day of school picnic for First Presbyterian Church Kindergarten – Photo from Corey Crowder

As Oxford grew up, the old guard grew older and began to pass away and the next generation took stewardship. Such was the case when town father, “Old” Dr. Eugene Bramlett passed away after a life time of tending to Oxford’s families, and left the family farm to his daughter, Eugenia Bramlett McLaurin. The same citizenship taken seriously by her father was instilled in his daughter. She donated the farm hilltop land to Oxford where, for decades now, Bramlett Elementary School has stood. Mrs. McLaurin and her husband, Dr. John P. McLaurin, developed the area around the two schools into one of Oxford’s strongest neighborhoods. In addition the McLaurins built their home and raised 7 sons on the hilltop opposite the hilltop where Eugenia’s father’s barn once stood and where several of her children went to first grade, at the school named for her father.
One time Bramlett Elementary kids pose at the park for Oxford High annual photos
One-time Bramlett Elementary kids pose at the park for Oxford High annual photos

The Avent family name is found through Oxford’s history for generation after generation and like the Bramletts, they have always been an active part of growing the town and county. T. E. Avent’s farm stretched almost from Handy Andy to Avent dairy and clear to the by pass. After WWII, the family started Avent Acres as a neighborhood with affordable housing for Oxford’s returning vets. And that neighborhood has been the start of too many Oxford families to list here. With that civic pride that defined the old families of Oxford, in 1950, the Avents donated twenty acres of the family farm to the town, for a park.
In appreciation, Oxford named the park in honor of the Avents. As the Bramlett stewardship changed hands, so it was with the Avents and the passing of town father, Mr. T. E. Avent. Then, as with Eugenia Bramlett, Thomas Webb and Louise Avent built their home and raised their family on the big hill overlooking the park and the ditch bottom where generations of Avent childhood memories were made, and where now, generations of Oxford’s childhood memories were made, and are being made right now.
So Ole Miss grew, and so grew Oxford and soon we knew that the new roads and streets that had crept for years were wide awake now and weren’t stopping till they hit Highway 30 and the Bypass. So then our slice of Oxford was defined and for 50 years since, every Avent’s Park kid who’s peddled under the big Park arch has felt like they were riding back onto Dad’s property, on safe ground. And whether you were one of the McLaurin boys riding in from over there on their hill or if you peddled down from the last house before the gravel on Park Drive…it was all downhill and all trails, paths and ditches lead straight to the neighborhood’s back yard, to the Park. Mr. Faulkner’s, “…the center, the focus, the hub…” of our youth from our northeastern slice of his postage stamp was always, Avent Park.
A few years later those “probably made up” yellow jackets in the semi-dangerous ditch came to life and made their way up from under the old bridge and to a group of us banana seat bikers and our dogs and after a coupla good bites we scattered to the four corners! But no matter which corner of the Avent’s we headed for, the path there was a memory lane.

Thousands of little ‘oxens’ have swung in those swings and slid down the big slide. So many little ones have giggled with happiness that the ground around the swings has a little vibe all its own, if known only to 10,000 Oxford fathers who can close their eyes right now and go there and hear her sweet voice, “Push me higher, Daddy!” Higher was the name of the game for the boys, for sure.
The higher and faster you swung then the farther you flew when you flung yourself out of the swing at its peak and hit the ground running to join the rest of the junior firefighting crew on the Big Engine. On the way to the countless fires, we rode the running boards, manned the top turret, stirred the big engine and rode shotgun. After a million kid miles we finally just wore that old truck down and in the end I think it was near shapeless. Park Box Hockey was serious business in those days too, but at Avents it was best played wearing a hat. Sweet-gum balls from 50 feet up hurt! Brownie Scouts double-dutched and Cub Scouts explored the ditch banks and dark and surely snake-infested storm drains.
A kid’s adventurous spirit was there when Tom & Huck and the rest of us boys made a pact and struck out exploring Burney’s Branch all the way to University Avenue. And while nobody’s parents were cool enough to know,  the Avent’s kids all knew that just one bike peddle farther south and you were entering the Haley Park territory and there were a lot of those South 18th boys. So having already conquered Everest that day, we crawled out by the Kream Kup and headed back to where we were in the know. Where there were talents shows and bike rodeos! Where watermelon seeds and tobacco juice were spit, judged and ribbons awarded.
Pets were shown and judged and more ribbons awarded. But we weren’t “pet friendly” because after all, what was that anyway, and who wasn’t? Close by every bicycle laying in the grass at Avent’s was usually a boy & his dog. The Park was as much theirs as ours. More than once my brother or I had to peddle down to the park and get our dog. I’d throw my bike down at the end of Thomas Street at the pass where only the most skilled bikers feared to squeeze their handle bars through. He was just down there playing and he saw me when I hollered and came right on.
Five or six grades and summers went on by and our ole dog was too old to run in the Park and besides we weren’t the bikers we once were anyway. As Ole Miss grew, Oxford grew, and Avents grew. Playing games together turned into playing games against each other. Hotty Toddy to the grown ups who were in charge back then. Avent’s grew into our own backyard sports park.

Many a proud softball team has won the trophy and had the pizza party right there. Many a Saturday morning, at the basketball courts there was a line to get in either one of the pick up games. Asphalt running or riding or skateboarding tracks came and before long we saw that our park wasn’t just the neighborhood’s anymore, it was Oxford’s. And, didn’t we feel country clubish when the tennis courts were built?
Now, with the lights from the ball field and courts, Oxford’s park had a night life. Summer nights playing tennis and laughing with friends with all the car windows down and radios on the same station. A dozen cars hanging out at the basketball courts and again, always, same radio station. Avent Park was everything you could ask for in a local small town park…and more. More because after the last game was played and the lights were turned off and everyone went home…there was more. Avent’s had a late night life.
We were some juvenile delinquent wannabes, for sure. That is if you call sneaking out your window and walking down to the park and smoking cigarettes and cussing with your buddies, jailable. “Car!” was the word that made every tennis shoe run. Thirteen and peeking just above the weeds at the edge of the life-saving ditch as the cops took a slow turn around the court, and then eased on out. In time, and before long, someone swiped some of their dad or brother’s beer. Then the midnight parties graduated to the picnic table up in the trees.
There were a few clever Ole Miss boys who knew about our turf and detoured from their trip back to the girl’s dorm. We snickered when their cars swayed this way and that, for a few minutes, and then got the hell out of there. And, we wished we had a swaying car, too.
Four greatly modernized lighted tennis courts - Photo courtesy OPC
Four greatly modernized lighted tennis courts – Photo courtesy OPC

Five or six more grades and summers and we had those cars. But our best friend, who’d run off to play at the park and had to be fetched home, had walked off into the woods behind the house, found a soft spot and died. And, we couldn’t have told you just where the spiders were watching our dusty old bike rust. And then in May of ’76, Mrs. Tucker’s 1st grade Bramlett class had made it full circle and was across the street being cut loose. And, we jumped into our cars with our diplomas and pulled out of “Old” Dr. Bramlett’s farm onto his street and crossing onto Mr. T. E. Avent’s farm and past his park and onto Ole Miss and then we scattered to the four corners.

When we were 5, the park was magical playground fun. When we were 10, the park was a kid and their dog’s adventurous fun. When we were 15, the park was our juvenile playground fun. But, when we were 20 and back home for the summer and Mom said, “Awe come on, it’ll be fun,” there we went back to the old neighborhood’s backyard.
It had once been our slice of the town’s secret. Then it was Oxford’s…and a few Ole Miss student’s, too. But, when we parked at the end of Thomas Street and walked through the pass, there wasn’t a thought of strolling down my memory lane because laid out there in front of me was Rockwell’s Avent Park. The Park belonged to the whole county now.
“Saturday in the Park, I think it was the 4th of July” as Oxford’s children ran and jumped and swung and yelled and on and on. Toddlers waddling forward in the ‘Run to Mama’ race. Blankets and quilts and red and white checked clothes dotted the hillside while the baskets of “Grove” food were being picnicked. Frisbees, footballs and kites flew. At every turn a bicycle, and close by a boy & his dog. And, then, I saw him playing and hollered his name…and he came right on
The old pavilion where every Avent's Park kid's earliest memories begin - Photo courtesy OPC
The old pavilion where every Avent’s Park kid’s earliest memories begin – Photo courtesy OPC

And, there, my Avent’s Park ends with a real memory of pride at the sense of community that I’d never felt before. The Park was packed with Oxford’s families. The most people ever there then. We were Oxford and we were loving being us.
The bookend to that last time comes from 10 years earlier when I was the only person in Avent’s Park. It was the incredible 15″ snow in March of ’68 and after sledding down Webb hill all day, it was time to go. But while everyone else took a right on Thomas, I went left. I drug my Flyer to the dead end and slide it up to the fence and stepping through the pass I entered a winter wonderland.
I trudged along in drifts that were over my ten year old knees, as I headed up the hill. Up to where Avent Park’s signature buck and doe stood watch. Passing by, I had looked out the back seat window for them my whole life. Looking around the day’s dusk it was hushed and still and would have been spooky to a stranger.
I brushed the snow off the deer and headed home in the moonlight. Both memories are slow motion movies in my head, one color and one black & white. And it’s Americana and it’s us and it’s Mayberry…no, no it’s not really Mayberry RFD. It’s better than that, it’s Oxford, Mississippi.
– John Cofield is a HottyToddy.com writer and one of the leading folk-historians in Oxford.
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