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Named after one of the most colorful and unique figures of the city’s early history — the incomparable teacher, Oregon Trail pioneer, gold prospector, newspaper editor, attorney, politician, farmer and Supreme Court justice Aaron Emmons Wait — Wait Park has long been a center of Canby life.
I mean, it is, literally, located pretty much square in the center of town. It’s also, in many ways, the city’s cultural center, playing host to many of our most popular and well-known events from the Canby Independence Day Celebration (once known as General Canby Days) to Light Up the Night, which draws thousands to downtown Canby each year to help ring in the holiday season.
The property that would one day become Wait Park was part of the original 1870 plat for the city of Canby, filed 150 years ago. It was originally part of the donation land claim of Canby founding father Philander Lee, who deeded the land for the city’s first 24 blocks, which he laid out with the help of his son Albert and a team of oxen.
You see, it was once part of the Canby Municipal Code that streets be wide enough to turn around an ox-drawn wagon, and Philander put this to the test back when the streets were being measured out. I don’t want to tell you how long that old law stayed on the books here in Canby; suffice to say, it was well into the Age of the Automobile.
Anyway, at some point the land that would become Wait Park became part of the 596 acres of prime farmland acquired by Judge Wait after his legal career ended and he dabbled in realty. He ultimately retired there to work his land until his eventual death on Dec. 12, 1898, at the age of 85.
Another part of the judge’s land was donated to build the “white school” by William Knight, while 40 acres would be bought by a citizens’ organization in 1908 and later transfer to property of the county. Today, we know that little parcel as the Clackamas County Fairgrounds, but that’s a story for another time.
Before all that, the land passed to his only surviving son, Charles Nicholas, more commonly known as C.N. Wait. And though Wait Park is named after the Judge, it’s really his son to whom we owe our thanks that the park ever became what it is today.
C.N. Wait was one of the city’s first mayors after Canby was incorporated in 1893, serving from 1900 to 1902. He was also the longtime city attorney and, of course, a judge.
You can tell exactly how exciting life in Canby was during the 1920s, when this story makes the front page of the local newspaper: That of C.N. Wait, seemingly being the only Canby citizen to witness the fall of a meteor on Sunday, July 15, 1928.
Here’s the Canby Herald’s breathless description of the encounter: “He happened to be up late that night and was looking out toward the highway, where automobile lights were seen in long strings moving in either direction, when suddenly the whole sky became light as day.
“Above him, the meteor could be seen, tumbling westward. It appeared to fall in the Willamette River, Mr. Wait said, but it probably went to earth or water, hundreds of miles away.”
A huge, ravenous, bloblike creature invaded the town soon after that. But that, too, is a story for another day.
Wait did see the occasional colorful episode as Canby’s city attorney. Not the least of which was the time, in 1936, he was called on to referee the question of whether Fire Chief Fred Larson could continue in his service, despite not being a naturalized U.S. citizen.
City Attorney Wait expressed his opinion that “there’s nothing in the statutes to prevent an alien from holding appointive office.” But Larson’s rival, councilman Peter Hornig, was determined to get his vengeance in the long-running political feud.
As recounted in the Herald: “Carrying out his threat to seek higher authority, Hornig searched the city charter and finds that section 9 provides: ‘No person is eligible to hold office in the municipal corporation who, at the time of his election or appointment, is not entitled to the privileges of an elector.”
Checkmate, chief. Conceding that “the city charter is the foundation of all municipal government,” Larson tendered his resignation.
C.N. Wait himself resigned on July 7, 1938, and for unknown reasons. He died the following year. But, just before his death, he set into motion the first steps in securing the city’s first park.
Wait Park was at that time occupied by several strange structures, including the “Band Hall.” Built in 1912, the Band Hall was located at the corner of what is now Wait Park.
It was owned by the Canby School District and used for graduation, basketball games and gym classes, while the Canby American Legion Post 122 used the back half of the building.
On June 5, 1939, C.N. Wait sent a quit claim deed to the city of Canby for seven lots in downtown Canby, with an option to purchase the remaining three lots in the block from George Cummings for a cool hundred bucks apiece.
The deed was not without strings attached, however. To take title to the property, the city had to agree to pay back taxes on the Wait land, to the tune of $556.
By the 1940s and ’50s, the property featured a roller skating rink and baseball diamond (which had lights and seats installed in 1953 just in time for the summer baseball and softball seasons). Wise car owners soon learned not to park around the perimeter when a game was in progress — or at least when a long-ball threat was at bat.
The park also boasted a Quonset hut, a former Army structure that was surplused after the Second War ended in 1945. It was used as a youth center, then later by Boy Scout Troop No. 258.
With all this activity, it’s remarkable that the block did not officially become a city park until the late 1960s, and wasn’t formally dedicated or named until 1972. Perhaps the city council was too preoccupied with checking the immigration status of its prospective fire chiefs. *Shrug emoji.*
The city had razed many of the old buildings to clear way for the park, and had acquired a few more lots to fill things out, including gifts from William and Eva Herman and the estate of Daisy Van de Moortele.
It happened on a clear, beautiful July day, when over 150 people turned out to hear then-City Attorney Wade P. Bettis dedicated Wait Park “to all the people of Canby and those of the future — for your enjoyment.”
According to the Herald, some of those in attendance were from Canby’s earliest families — the Lees, Waits and Knights among them.
The plat was unveiled by Portland resident Aaron E. Wait, son of C.N. and grandson of the Judge. Bettis introduced him to the crowd as the “son of the donors of the land on which you now stand.”
The iconic gazebo was added in 1984, a gift from the Canby Arts Association. Its use for the Slice of Summer concert series, and many other musical events throughout the year, recalls the earlier days of band concerts in the city’s first park.
“What the heck is that weird rock on Knights Bridge Road?” Could it be the meteor Charles Wait saw all those years ago? Spoiler alert: No, it’s not. But we’ll tell you all about what it really is next time, on Canby Then.