The idea of new play equipment for the park started last year when a beloved cousin, Nancy Mills Howard, died in Texas at age 90. She had requested burial in Black River Falls, where she’d spent so many happy times. Among memorials that her family suggested was the Mills Park maintenance fund.
When the family gathered in Black River for her service, everyone, including those from California, Arkansas, Massachusetts and Minnesota, enthusiastically agreed to add to the fund so that a few new playground pieces could be purchased.
The plan to add became a plan to replace after it turned out that the largest piece of equipment was no longer safe- it had been well used for 22 years.
Seven new pieces were installed in September – colorful equipment for climbing, sliding, balancing and swinging, alone or with others. A new swing allows two people, such as a parent and young child, to swing facing each other. A big saucer swing accommodates several children. The large climbing structures simply spark imagination. It’s the second most used park in the city and the only one nestled in a neighborhood.
Two local family members, Gil Homstad and Carla Mills, worked with Nancy Howard’s children, Mary Alice and Jimmy, and Chad Duerkop, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director, for about a year to research equipment and finalize plans.
The total cost of $80,000 came from three sources: the city, the park maintenance fund and family donations.
Mills Park was originally John and Alice Mills’ backyard. He was president of what became the Jackson County Bank, to which he devoted 64 years of service. His father founded Millston. She was Alice Jones, granddaughter of Jacob Spaulding who founded Black River. Theirs was a busy household of 5 children, Dudley, Philip, Mary, Robert and Thomas. Those 5 would later donate the backyard land to the city, including a long slope for sledding and a flat area for skating.
On one side of the park, a large bronze hippo languishes under a blue sunshade. It was commissioned in 1999 in honor of the youngest of those five, Tom Mills. It’s eminently climbable, fitting for someone who loved children. He bottled CocaCola in what’s now Sand Creek Brewing. He was also chairman of the bank board and longtime executive secretary of the Black River Falls Area Foundation.
Nancy Mills was the daughter of the oldest, Dudley Mills. Her younger brother Tommy and his wife Rosemary lived in California but, like Nancy, came back to Black River frequently. The middle of the five children and the only girl, Mary, grew up to marry a local doctor, Bob Krohn. Their three children, Alice, Dr. Gene and Ann, also were active in the community.
The Mills family fondly recalls Betsy Thunder and her husband who would sometimes stay in an upstairs bedroom. The family was forever grateful to Betsy, a Ho-Chunk medicine woman, for saving the life of Tom’s father when he was a baby with diphtheria. When she heard that he was fighting to breathe, she came to the home, placed him on her lap face down, over a steaming kettle of wood-heated water and herbs. She kept the steam going all night and by morning young John was better.

*A ribbon cutting ceremony will be held at Mills Park on October 18 at 4pm to celebrate the new playground equipment Installed in September.

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