Unearthing history: Could a piece of suffragette movement be hidden beneath a parking lot?

The National American Woman Suffrage Association chose Zantzinger’s Park in Hyattsville as the rallying point for the July 31, 1913, motorcade to Washington, D.C. The baseball diamond and grandstand can clearly be seen. Courtesy of Preservation Maryland.

By ANDRA DAMRON — Celebrating Hyattsville’s 132nd anniversary of incorporation is the perfect opportunity to honor its rich history. But who would suspect that a cracked and crumbling, vacant parking lot might conceal elements of our national and local past? Covered and protected by a layer of asphalt, the remains of one of Hyattsville’s earliest ballparks may be waiting for archaeologists to reveal its secrets. Known historically as Wine’s Woods, and at a later date Zantinger’s Park, the site is more familiar as the inauspicious parking lot of the former Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters. Evidence indicates that the floodplain may hold the remains of an early 20th-century ballfield and mark the site of an important women’s suffrage event.

Wine’s Woods was named for early Hyattsville developer Louis Wine after Wine and partner George Johnson platted their first of three subdivisions in 1882. Wine generously donated land to the Masons and to St. Jerome Catholic Church, as well. Hyattsville baseball predated the city’s 1886 incorporation, with the earliest reference appearing in 1874 in the Prince Georgian listing a Washington, D.C., opponent. Wooden benches and a weedy field were soon transformed into a solid grandstand and a regulation baseball diamond as regional baseball rivals regularly filled the park with their fans. Developer Otway B. Zantzinger continued Hyattsville’s growth circa 1910, and a name change in the press to Zantzinger’s Park reflected his local prominence.

Along with its local significance as one of the city’s earliest formal recreational areas, Zantzinger’s Park was the key site in a long overlooked event of national significance, as well.  On July 31, 1913, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) chose the park as the rallying point for its motorcade to Washington, D.C. Many consider the motorcade to be one of the most significant advancements in the women’s movement since the first American women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. NAWSA was striving for passage of the Susan B. Anthony amendment giving women the constitutional right to vote. Former Hyattsville resident Dr. Cora Smith King had been a prominent Washington state suffragist who served as a key rally organizer.

More than 60 women drivers and hundreds of supporters arrived in Hyattsville before 10 a.m. on the morning of the rally, their cars flying flags and pennants announcing each delegation. Mayor Harry Shepherd welcomed the guests and presented NAWSA Executive Director Mary Ware Dennett a key to the city. Alice Paul, NAWSA’s legislative committee chair, spoke to the enthusiastic crowd. The motorcade assembled and proceeded to the U.S. Capitol, carrying 85,000 signatures from across the country, to open the first congressional debate on women’s suffrage in almost 20 years. Zantzinger’s Park served as the springboard for the final dramatic push towards ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Three years later, the park was closed with the platting of the Hyattsville Hills subdivision.

On March 3, 2018, a Maryland highway marker commemorating the suffrage event was dedicated on Route 1 next to Melrose Park. Event preparations drew Dr. Matthew McKnight, a research archeologist with the Maryland Historical Trust and former Hyattsville city councilmember, into the search for Zantzinger’s Park — as no historic maps recorded its location. He began his quest with newspaper articles describing events held in the park, followed by reviews of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

A break came when McKnight found a July 4, 1914, Washington Times article giving the Independence Day parade route by street name with a celebration ending in Zantzinger’s Park. McKnight finally had a general location. It was Hyattsville’s proximity to Washington, D.C., that led to his ultimate find: a 1928 photomosaic map taken by the U.S. Army Air Corps out of Bolling Field. McKnight’s expertise paid off when he spotted an apparent baseball diamond in the aerial photo where he suspected it should be.

McKnight wrote in an email, “I can’t say for certain that the site is still there beneath that parking lot, but the document record strongly suggests that the ballpark was in that location. An intact site that is both an early 20th-century baseball park, (a rarity in Maryland) and associated with important events in Maryland and national history (women’s suffrage), would be a pretty amazing find.”

Since the parking lot’s flood plain designation has precluded development, and the lot has remained open space, intact archeological remains of the ballpark may still be present. McKnight’s discovery has coincided with a proposed redevelopment of the parking lot to high-density residential housing. Given Zantzinger’s Park’s national and local significance, an undisturbed archeological record would be vital in substantiating its history.

“Archeology is important because it provides insight into past human behavior and interactions beyond what is recorded in documents,” said Dr. Justine Stabler, archeology planner coordinator with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. “Our knowledge of the past can also help us to inform our decisions about the future.”

Andra Damron is the author of Hyattsville, Images of America series.

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