By Diana Kohn
With little fanfare this summer the park former known as Jequie Park officially became Belle Ziegler Park, heralded by the posting of a new sign.
Jequie is a small town in Brazil and Belle Ziegler was the indomitable spirit of our Fourth of July festivities and all things recreational. Yet the town and the person shared a history.
Takoma Park’s connection to Jequie came about as “sister cities” under the international People-to-People program initiated by President Eisenhower. The idea was for American towns to pair up with foreign ones for the purposes of cultural exchange. Takoma Park jumped in wholeheartedly, choosing Jequie, a city of 51,000 in the state of Bahia, Brazil, over more famous cities.
The renaming of Jequie Park honors Belle Ziegler shown here in an Independence Day parade from yesteryear.
hoopla in the local papers to cement the affiliation with Takoma Park
Mayor George Miller. Several other official visits followed but the
heart of the program was the student exchanges. The first Brazilian,
Arly Britto, came in August 1964 for a year-long stay while local
student Lesley Zark traveled to Jequie. The exchanges continued through
Gracinha Barretto, shown here with Mayor John Roth in 1978, was the seventh student from Jequie, Brazil, to visit here in the Sister City days.
Although the Sister Cities program had official city support, it was
fueled largely by the enthusiasm of residents. In addition to hosting
the students, volunteers raised funds to defray travel and living
expenses by turning an abandoned gas station at Takoma Junction into the
Sister City Thrift Store.
One key volunteer was Belle Ziegler, a single mom raising two children
on Sheridan Avenue. She hosted several students, and served as
unofficial den mother. In 1971, her daughter Dolores made the trip to
Jequie. Connections forged in those years remained strong even after
interest in Sister City activities waned at the close of the 1970s.
At the height of Jequie fever in August of 1965, Takoma Park turned the
grounds of the park at Albany and Takoma Avenues into a Brazilian “Festa
Caipira.” A life-size replica of a Brazilian country village offered
visitors a chance to sample native food, and enjoy Brazilian and
American folk music, as well as American square dances and “quadrilhas,”
their Brazilian counterpart.
After the close of the festival, sentiment called for renaming the park,
long called Washington Park, in honor of our sister city. And Jequie
Park was born.
Belle Ziegler’s Sister City role fit well with her day job as coordinator of city recreation activities. In the early 60s the city had a nominal Recreation Deptment but only to oversee roller skating and basketball at the fire station gym. Sports were organized by volunteers like Lee Jordan in his Boys and Girls clubs. The six summer playgrounds (including Jequie) were split between Montgomery County and Prince George’s County supervision. And civic organizations joined the city to sponsor Easter, Halloween and Christmas celebrations.
In 1962, Belle was delegated to coordinate this patchwork and by 1965 she had pulled together all the jurisdictions into a Recreation Council to plan a year-round program. Two years later the City Council officially appointed her Director of Recreation.
Over more than three decades until her retirement in 1990, Belle used her unparalleled powers of persuasion to marshal staff and volunteers alike to expand the activities offered. Square dances were held at Jequie Park, art and flower shows blossomed, and City Hall was turned into a haunted house, just to name a few of the innovations.
Back when the land at Albany and Takoma Avenues was called Washington Park, it was the scene of frequent political rallies like this one in the 1930’s.
Ever the consummate volunteer, Belle herself joined the Independence Day Committee, which had been organizing the Fourth of July events since 1889. For her part, she mobilized local kids at the playgrounds to decorate their bikes for the parade and encouraged quirky neighborhood floats along with all the fire engines, horse units and flashy bands that anyone could want.
Then, Belle helped coordinate an afternoon full of sports activities including a marathon and baseball games, closing out the day with a fireworks show everyone could walk to.
When she retired from the Recreation Department, she turned her attention fulltime to the Fourth of July celebration, and spent nearly 20 years ensuring the best possible celebrations.
Belle was planning for the next parade when she passed away in December 2008. A year later the Committee petitioned the city to rename Jequie Park in her honor. Two former exchange students from Jequie voiced their support for the change. And with the posting of the new park sign, the legacy of Jequie and Belle Ziegler are officially intertwined.
Diana Kohn is President of Historic Takoma, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting and promoting the heritage of Takoma Park MD and DC. Past columns are available online at www.takoma.com.
Takoma Park Elementary School with its new 16-classroom addition (above) was ready to welcome students on opening day.
Construction vehicles have disappeared, buses have a new entrance from Philadelphia Avenue, and all that remainis is for the sod to settle in on the new playground.