‘Community Builder’ Creates Grass Valley Memorial Park
James C. “Jim” Tyrrell, the 1921 founder of Grass Valley Memorial Park, was a man under oath.
Among the Freemasons, he swore to work for “brotherly love, relief and truth”. As an Aboriginal son, Tyrrell is committed to “friendship, loyalty and charity.” At the Elks Lodge, to “justice and loyalty”. At the Rotary Club, to “serve above oneself”. The story of his life shows that he kept his word.
Jim Tyrrell was born in Grass Valley in 1872 and never wanted to leave. After graduating from high school, he was a reporter for The Union newspaper. At 21, he founded and ran a Colfax newspaper. He’s been in real estate all his life.
He was appointed postmaster in 1904 and held the post for 32 years. He also owned the Mountain Oil Company, which sold fuel to homes and businesses. At one time he co-owned the Holbrooke Hotel and at another time he ran the Bret Harte Inn.
Tyrrell helped organize the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1910 and became executive secretary. For decades, he promoted Nevada County to the most populous areas of California. He lobbied for Highway 20, a trans-state artery that brought visitors and commerce to Grass Valley.
As car traffic increased after World War I, rural towns attracted tourists by building car camps, parking areas with simple shelters, fireplaces, and showers. In his house role, Tyrrell took on the task of building an auto camp in Grass Valley. And he saw the potential for a lot more.
From his travels across the state, often on Elks Club business, Tyrrell has seen many communities planning memorials for those who died in war. He believed that the best memorials served the living. He saw Oakland develop a beautiful park and San Francisco lay the foundation for an opera house. He believed his city could accomplish something great too.
Tyrrell saw that a site of about seven acres on Colfax Avenue could serve as an amusement park, which would include a car camp. More importantly, it would commemorate the spirit of sacrifice that citizens demonstrated during the war.
The site belonged to the Empire mine, so Tyrrell approached his brother Elk, George Starr, the general manager of the mine. Perhaps on the back of a towel in the club lounge, Tyrrell and Starr drew some preliminary plans. Shortly after, the owner of the mine, William Bourn, ceded the land.
Tyrrell has mounted a fundraising campaign with the help of Starr and Edmund Kinyon, editor of The Union. During the first months of 1921, hundreds of local families contributed up to $ 5 each (about a day’s salary) to the park. Tyrrell brought in engineering expertise and secured construction materials and labor from local mines and the Farm Bureau. Without using taxpayer dollars, Tyrrell, Starr and others built a park that has become a model for other cities.
Tyrrell presided as master of ceremonies when Grass Valley dedicated its Memorial Park on Armistice Day, November 11, 1921. Near the podium hung a scroll listing 457 Grass Valley District sailors and soldiers who served during the Great War. Tyrrell dedicated the cornerstone of a monument to 16 men who did not return.
Memorial Park was an immediate success. Publisher Kinyon reported that “children were playing all day long” in the park. He called it “Grass Valley’s greatest asset”. A well-illustrated feature article in a San Francisco newspaper showed the park as an example of what a great city could accomplish. Both adults and children have enjoyed the park for a century.
“Loving work means lasting work,” Tyrrell said at a lunch at the Women’s Improvement Club. He gave Chartres Cathedral in France as an example of what he meant. “No man knows his architect and no one knows his builders,” he said. It was erected by craftsmen “who did not care about their own glory… In the same spirit, Tyrrell served his hometown.
Tyrrell and his wife Win lived their final years in a building on South Church Street, where they hosted lively card parties. Friends remembered Tyrrell in his quieter years reading Shakespeare.
Tyrrell died at Jones Hospital in Grass Valley in 1960. “In the calm and peaceful dignity that characterized his life,” wrote The Union, “Mr. Tyrrell just closed his eyes in a sleep that never woke up. He was buried under the auspices of the church he served for a long time, Emmanuel Episcopal.
“A community builder, not by materials and machines, but by thoughts and deeds,” concluded The Union, “Jim Tyrrell’s impression on this community will last as long as Grass Valley lasts.”
Citizens will mark Memorial Park’s 100th anniversary with events Thursday, starting at 10 a.m.
Gage McKinney’s latest book is “Gold Mining Genius: A Life of George W. Starr”, available at local bookstores. Contact him on gagemckinney.com