The land on which Dickerson Park Zoo sits dates back to a 120-acre pioneer homestead established by Joshua Davis in 1837. By 1875, the tract of land had changed ownership twice, and around 1880, Swinea Hall was built as a summer resort hotel. In 1890, a private zoo – then the largest in Missouri was added to the resort facilities. It closed after only four years, but a legacy had begun.
The estate of Jerome Dickerson, Sr., sold the tract of land to the Springfield Park Board in 1922, and the City Park at Phelps Grove, complete with a small zoo, was moved there. During the late 1920s and 1930s various federal programs, including WPA labor and funds, helped build up the zoo. From then until the 1970s, very little development or support occurred. By 1975, the zoo had become a run-down liability to the City of Springfield. Dickerson Park Zoo was on the verge of being closed.
A commitment was made by the City of Springfield, the Springfield Park Board and a newly formed support group now known as Friends of the Zoo to save the zoo. The Friends organization developed a membership base, launched education programs and garnered support of donors for new projects and improvements. The City of Springfield committed budget dollars and instituted an admission fee to help offset expenses. The zoo, located on a beautiful tract of land with much potential, had been saved.
The revitalization of Dickerson Park Zoo coincided with philosophical changes in zoos nationwide, and a mission recognizing the objectives of recreation, education, conservation and research was adopted and used as a guidepost for charting the growth and purpose of the zoo. A master plan, adopted in 1985 and later revised in 1996, visualized a new zoo, utilizing geographic themes and phased development addressing the mission objectives as guiding concepts. Of the 70 acres available for development, 45 are in use, leaving 25 acres for future exhibit development, guest services and support.
Over the years, the zoo has become involved in several Species Survival Plans, most notably with Asian elephants, maned wolves, giraffes and cheetahs, finding success with each endeavor. Fun, family-oriented special events draw large numbers and gain additional support for the growing zoo. The growth of tourism in the region has also contributed to increases in attendance and offers visitors to Springfield and the region another attraction in the Ozarks.
Dickerson Park Zoo was first accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in 1986, and has been reaccredited in three subsequent reviews, most recently in 2002. The zoo enjoys a positive position in the cultural fabric of the community, and all indications are that it will continue to be treasured as one of the city’s crown jewels.