What has changed in Wells Overlook since the 70’s?

The tower in particular has been a target for vandals. Please do not violate park rules and keep the hill clean. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

Wells Overlook, the local smoke, picnic, drinking, and hiking spot at the center of Douglas County. Aside from being a popular canvas to illegally draw on, the park also has history to it.

In an interview with the Open Kansan, Ken Lassman, whose grandfather, William H. Wells, donated the land for the park, said that the land was originally intended to be given to the City of Lawrence, and not Douglas County. Lassman said the city referred him to the county because the land was in the middle of the county.

“The idea of the park was to keep it as natural as possible, and not turn it into a lot of other stuff,” Lassman said. “And because it was for the view, I remember as a child I would go up on the side fender of the tractor, on top of the hill, and really just be amazed by the view. And I think that was the inspiration for it.”

Lassman said the park was donated by Wells to honor his father and grandfather, Charles Wells and William Dougal Wells.

William Wells was also a pilot, Lassman said. “And I think, you know, the fact that my granddad was a pilot may have been inspired partly by that view from way up high. He really enjoyed that.”

In the thirty years since Wells Overlook opened, some parts of the park have disappeared, some were never built, and some have been added. The original plan for the park, aside from the overlook tower itself, included a restroom, many more picnic areas, and a frontier themed playground.  

A hand drawn map by Douglas county Public works showing the original plans for Wells Overlook Park. The map is dated April 1st, 1971.

The original plan for the picnic shelter to be star-shaped was dropped for unknown reasons. The shelter instead was built with a simpler arch design.

As for the individual picnic areas, Douglas County public works operations manager Doug Stephens said he does not recall ever seeing them in the park.

The 1974 dedication pamphlet provided by Douglas County Public Works and Ken Lassman.

The restroom at the Overlook disappeared in the early 90’s. Stephens said the building was a pain for the county.

Ken Lassman, whose grandfather donated the land for the park, said before the restroom was removed, the building caught fire.

“They removed it because it was, you know, pretty badly damaged,” Lassman said. “And there was no running water up there. So, it was kind of a primitive restroom, you might say.”

The playground in the park was removed around the same time. Stephens said the wooden playground wore out and was removed rather than replaced.

The wooden playground and sandbox are in the top left corner of this photograph from the dedication ceremony for Wells Overlook in 1974.
The original design of the tower used guywires attached to concrete blocks to stabilize the tower, Lassman said. Eventually the tower was reinforced to limit the tower’s sway and the wires were removed. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

“It actually was a little bit dangerous and had this big log that would rotate, and kids would get on it and play and fall off,” Lassman said. “Well, I mean, it’s great fun until somebody got hurt.”

The original metal safety rails can barely be seen on top of the wooden rails in this photo of the tower from the park’s dedication pamphlet.

There was a climbing area in the playground made out of wood that would move slightly as children climbed it, Lassman said.

“Once again, that was fun, but it was a little bit on the dangerous side,” Lassman said.

Lassman said the sandbox for the playground also ended up as a litter box for the pets brought by visitors and the local wildlife of the area.

The most recent addition to Wells Overlook is the new ADA accessible Passerine Pavilion. It was dedicated on October 15th, 2021 and the story behind the project can be found in The Lawrence Times.

Graffiti left on a new board on the tower in Wells Overlook Park. | Photo by Wesley Cudney

One thing that has not changed since the 70’s has been park visitors vandalizing the tower.

In an interview with the Open Kansan, Park superintendent Allen Hollinger said the graffiti happens the most in the spring.

Hollinger said the sexually explicit graffiti sticks out the most because families also use the park.

Vulgar language can prompt the county to clean the tower outside of scheduled times, Stephens said.

Removing the graffiti can cost $500 to $1,000 depending on the severity, Stephens said. “And that’s if we don’t have to replace a whole bunch of boards.”

Spencer Deines, a first-time visitor to the park who spoke with the Open Kansan, said the graffiti is disappointing. “It’s going to happen though. I’m not surprised how about that.”

However, not everyone is bothered by the graffiti. Ally Wheatman, a park visitor interviewed by the Open Kansan, said she does not mind the graffiti. “Some of the artwork that people do is kind of cool, there’s some cool pictures.”

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