A Playground Project Like No Other


When the topic of replacing the Penny Playground structure was first floated more than a year ago, there were mixed reactions from those who know and love the park. 

They felt joy for the thought of continuing a legacy and providing a new play structure, and at the same time, sadness for the passing of a community project that is, in many memories, without equal.

“I don’t think it could ever be done like that again. It’ll never be the same,” said Phil Small, whose late wife, Connie, led the push to create Penny Playground. “It was just a community coming together and everybody was involved.”

In May, Penny Playground turned 26. It is a local meeting spot, a destination for travelers and a piece of local history for the way it was created. Though he does not deny it, retired dentist John Henricksen is still pretty reluctant to take credit for the idea of Penny Playground. Others who were involved in the project, though, recall him as the “godfather” of Penny Playground. In the summer of 1992, Henricksen and his family traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to visit his high school friend Jerry Spady, whose family at one time owned a bakery in Chehalis. Spady, who was a woodworker, took Henricksen to see a playground he had helped construct.

“Jerry was not a religious person and he said ‘John, this is as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had,’” Henricksen said. “I saw this thing and I was just awestruck. I’d never seen a playground constructed like that in my whole life.”

The playground in Oak Ridge was a creation of Playgrounds by Leathers. Since being founded in 1971, Leathers has assisted 3,346 communities in building projects and those projects totaled 3,105,846 volunteer hours. Their concept is simple, from the planning to the funding to the actual driving of nails, the entire community has to be involved. Henricksen took his photos of the playground straight to the Chehalis Rotary, where he suggested the board consider a Leathers project for Chehalis. 

“It didn’t take a whole lot of arm twisting,” recalled Dave Campbell, chief deputy assessor for Lewis County, who was Chehalis City Manager and a Chehalis Rotarian at the time. “When people saw the pictures and the concept, it wasn’t difficult to get a lot of enthusiasm for it.”

That enthusiasm took on a runaway train quality when locals Connie Small and Lesa LeDuc were asked to spearhead the playground committee, a group dedicated to raising the money and enthusiasm for the project. Dubbed the “penny wrappers” the duo came up with myriad ways to get the community to pitch in. Penny jars were stashed at any local business that would have them. Fundraisers were held and shirts were sold. 

Connie Small and Lesa LeDuc’s work even included donning homemade penny costumes and singing and dancing for local kids to encourage them to bring their pennies to school. Phil Small recalled endless meetings for the year prior to the construction as well as many evenings spent wrapping pennies for the bank by hand (before Sterling Bank finally gave them an automated machine to use) and nearly bottoming out his car trying to haul too many 50-pound bags of pennies to the bank. But mostly he remembers the two ladies with contagious enthusiasm for a playground that had yet to be created.

“They got everybody involved. It was just amazing,” Phil Small said.

The City of Chehalis logged a piece of property near Dobson and McFadden Park, netting about $30,000 to help pay for Penny Playground. The rest of the park was funded entirely from donations, either of goods and services or actual monetary donations. Campbell said the park had about a $80,000 price tag but would have cost triple that without the volunteer hours and donated materials. Leathers insisted the project would be constructed from Southern Yellow Pine, though folks in Chehalis seemed a bit confused why the abundant local Douglas fir wouldn’t be chosen. Designer Robert Leathers said the pine would be a more durable materials and, with good maintenance, should last at least 20 years. 

“And it made it to 26 so I think that’s pretty good,” said Campbell.

When the time came to actually construct Penny Playground, the project took place over five days and about 2,000 volunteers gave 8,000 hours of work during that period. The Henricksen family was on a planned graduation trip for one of their daughters at the time of the construction so the idea originator did not get to participate in the construction. But he said Jerry Spady flew in from Oak Ridge to be part of the project. Henricksen said he has enjoyed watching his kids and grandkids grow up at Penny Playground and knowing he played a role, but said he doesn’t even know if some of them realize what role he played.

“That’s not why I did it,” Henricksen said of making the suggestion for the playground. “I just feel happy it happened. I don’t want a John Henricksen legacy attached to it.”

Phil Small’s recollection of his week vacation from his pharmacy work at Payless at the Lewis County Mall to help with the Penny Playground construction started unexpectedly. He was pointed toward a group of inmates on work release from the Lewis County jail and asked to work with them.

“But the real story is that two of the guys were going to be released the next day and they came back and worked for the rest of the week with us,” Phil Small said. “Everybody just had a desire to build this playground. We had people of all ethnic groups, all social groups, young and old. We had dentists and bankers and attorneys and teachers and kids.”

From donating their pennies to giving their ideas for the park (Chehalis boasted Playgrounds by Leathers’ first-ever slug slide) young people in Chehalis were hands-on with the Penny Playground project. There was childcare offered inside the V.R. Lee Building during the construction but many of the kids who came with their parents were put to work. Campbell, whose own children were ages 9, 7 and 5 during the construction (and whose own children are now the ones playing at Penny Playground), said his kids’ recollection of their time in the construction zone was rubbing soap on nails to make them easier to use. There were also endless lines of kids washing down the old tires that would become part of the structure.

“I’ve been in government for 40 years now and Penny Playground is the most memorable, the most fun, I can recall,” Campbell said. “There will be some sadness to see it demolished but it doesn’t detract from the feeling that this was quite a project. The heritage of this project is the volunteerism and the partnerships from all aspects of this community.”

The playground committee set a fundraising goal of $60,000-$70,000 for Penny Playground and ended up raising $105,000. Park organizers decided to put the extra money into a maintenance account for Penny Playground with the goal that it should never become a burden for the city. For 20 years after the construction, the parks committee continued to meet and allocate money whenever Penny Playground needed maintenance or repair. Lilly Wall, City of Chehalis Recreation Manager, who was on maternity leave with her first child from a different job with Chehalis Parks and Recreation department during the construction of Penny Playground, noted that there is still money in that account today. Until her death in 2014, Connie Small continued to be an active part of the playground committee and kept meticulous records of ever expenditure from the account. Wall’s eyes misted recounting that Connie Small called from her hospital bed a few days before she passed away to make sure that a maintenance project at Penny Playground was still moving forward as planned.

“That was her dedication to that park,” Wall said.

It was that spirit of volunteerism that inspired the next generation of committee members working on the next iteration of Penny Playground. Wall said one of the things she will miss most about the first Penny Playground is its silhouette and she was excited to hear the new design will incorporate some of the original aesthetics of the old Penny Playground structure.

“We tried really hard to honor the legacy of this project,” said Wall. “From young to old there is this huge connection to this structure we all love. But I hope that when the new one is finished, we will have created something people will love, as well.”

Wall reiterated Phil Small’s assertion that the scale and magnitude of the original Penny Playground effort is humbling and more than likely not possible to replicate. But she said those involved with the next generation of Penny Playground planning have the same dedication to the future of Chehalis that made the first Penny Playground a possibility.

“People in this community are amazing,” Wall said. “The Chehalis Foundation is remarkable what they can accomplish. Just how giving people are is amazing.”