Life in Our Foothills – February 2024 – Saluda’s McCreery Park

Published 1:07 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

Downtown Saluda’s McCreery Park has long been a city centerpiece. It’s a gathering place for family picnics and play and a venue for arts festivals and music concerts. You could say the park is the heart of the city. 

“Because of its central location, it’s just a way of building a sense of community,” says Scott Cardais, President of Friends of McCreery Park. “The activities we have there bring people together and I think it’s a major factor, if you will, in the sense of community that we have.”

But in the park’s early days, the gatherings weren’t garnishing the sense of community that city leaders wanted.

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“In the early 1920s the Saluda Civic League filed a complaint with the city because of ‘abominable dancing and drunkenness in the city’ so the league decided that Saluda’s young people needed a place to gather,” says Cardais. 

The league got funding from the Harmon Foundation in New York City to build a playground, tennis courts and a pavilion for public use, which was all completed in 1929 and was known as Harmon Field, not to be confused with nearby Tryon’s Harmon Field, which was also backed by the foundation. That transformed the area from its rather ratty reputation to a place for family-friendly fun. Much of the park’s history is hazy but Cardias believes that sometime in the 1950s or ’60s, after the wife of retired wrestler and Saluda resident George McCreery passed away, he made a donation to the park in her honor and the city renamed it McCreery Park. 

“There is one thing I can vouch for, the park, no matter what you may call it, it has always been a mainstay of Saluda,” says Cindy Tuttle, Chair of the Historic Saluda Committee, which sometimes holds meetings at the park. “I have some of my best childhood memories playing on that swing set. Even my daughter loved those old swings. We had picnics up there all the time. When you’re a kid, that’s where you bug your parents to go.”

Over the decades activities at the park have evolved. There was a putt-putt golf course there in the 1930s and square dances in the 1960s. Today the park hosts the annual Saluda Arts Festival every May, which features the work of nearly 100 artists from the Carolinas and Tennessee, as well as children’s activities and live music at the park and around downtown. The park also hosts the Top of the Grade Concert Series on the Ella Grace Mintz Stage on the third Friday evening of the month during the summer.

Now this city centerpiece is getting a good polish. In October the first phase of improvements to the park began which will include enhancements to the playground, an amphitheater, a garden terrace, a ropes course and other outdoor amenities along with additional parking. The park improvements will be conducted in several phases and should all be completed by March 2025.

“It’s just a hub for civic activity and a sense of community and I think the redesign and the investment that’s being made in the park is intended to just increase that, just to make it even better for more community gatherings,” says Cardais, whose organization is studying possible additional activities to bring to the park. 

“The City of Saluda Board of Commissioners and the community are recommitting themselves to investing in an asset that will be the focal point for years to come and the gateway to the Saluda Grade Trail in Polk County,” says Steven Orr, Saluda City Manager, referring to the 31-mile proposed rail trail that would extend from Inman, S.C. to Zirconia, N.C. and pass right through downtown Landrum, Tryon and Saluda.

“I think it’s going to be transformative for the community. That’s for sure,” says Cardais, who adds that the Saluda Grade Trail will bring growth to Saluda. “It’s going to be a challenge to handle the growth but I think it will be worth it.”

The final phase of the McCreery Park improvements will include ways to accommodate and integrate the SGT which will be right next to the park where the railroad tracks are now. 

“This is also an economic development project for the business community as an underutilized space is transformed into a city center that draws people to the community hub which promotes the business’s ability to prosper,” says Orr.

“I do think it’s important to take full advantage of that park. It’s kind of the hub of Saluda. It just seems like it’s a go-to for so many things in Saluda,” says Tuttle, whose family roots in the area can be traced back to the 1700s and who has visited McCreery Park her entire life. “It’s just a sweet place. It’s just so important to Saluda.”