Rats as big as cats crept from beneath decades of garbage every time the Mississippi River overran Davenport's infamous riverfront dumps.
Other times, rats would flee frequent fires that smoldered deep in the fetid debris. Long-time Davenporters recall stories of neighborhood kids waging wars against the slinking vermin.
"We'd look for the holes. Then we'd scoop up buckets of the water and pour it in. When the rats ran out, we'd whack 'em with baseball bats," Dennis Boettcher recalled Thursday. Boettcher stood at precisely the same site of his 1960s rat hunts. This time, he supervised a city crew sprucing up the Centennial Park for Saturday's big celebration.
Skaters, bands, kite-flyers, ballplayers and even a governor are expected to celebrate Saturday the miraculous transformation of Davenport's city dump.
It's a story that should make Davenporters proud.
Smoke and flames periodically erupted from garbage so deep that firefighters could only control, not fully extinguish it. Davenport firefighters had a surplus Army jeep dubbed "Slugger" to pull hoses in over the garbage terrain.
And oh, did it stink.
On sticky July days, the stench washed over downtown, or across the river into Rock Island, depending on the whims of the winds. Times columnist Bill Wundram remembers Mayor John Jebens canceling a ballgame at the city's riverfront park solely because of smell.
This isn't ancient history. The last dump officially closed in 1975 but Davenporters continued midnight dumping of trash and old appliances for years.
The remnants of the dump remain not far from the surface. Electrician Jason Schmooke was finishing final connections Thursday to the new, lighted basketball courts. He encountered decaying railroad ties and mussel shells within three feet of the surface while installing electrical lines through the park.
A new impression
To the skateboarders and ball players enjoying the sun Thursday, this riverfront area is a park, not a dump.
"Wow!" said Dylan Rohm, as he overheard Boettcher recount rat tales from back in the day. "It sure has changed."
Rohm knows this spot as the most popular in Davenport. He participated in design meetings for the skatepark and shows up at least twice each week.
Anne Brown of East Moline visits the skate park at least once a month. Her dad, a Davenport native, had regaled her with rat stories, which she couldn't quite fathom. To her, this is the site of the best skatepark she's ever seen.
Saturday's free celebration
On Saturday, Davenport's Parks and Recreation Department plans a wing ding Saturday that should erase any memories of Davenport's infamous dump. Parks marketing coordinator Tiffini Foglesong says a day full of activities begins at 10 a.m. and culminates with Gov. Chet Culver snipping a ribbon at 5 p.m. Then everyone, including the governor, can head to Modern Woodmen Park Stadium for a free Bandits game.
Saturday's formalities celebrate a park that already is making lasting impressions on Quad-City kids. The day marks the opening of the lighted basketball courts, concession stands and restrooms. Coming next year: a spray park.
Add that to the fishing, kite-flying, boating and picnicking already popular at the site.
The dump is history.
Long live Centennial Park.