FORT DODGE: Harlan & Hazel Rogers Sports Complex

50 years of memories at the park

Messenger file photo An aerial view of Fort Dodge's Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex from the late-1970s.

Liddy Hora still gets emotional when she visits Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex.

She knows her grandparents — the park’s namesakes — would be just as amazed if they could see it now.

“I don’t think they could’ve ever imagined all of this,” said Hora, the daughter of the late John A. “Jack” and Marilyn Rogers. “Never in our family’s wildest dreams would we have envisioned (the facility’s growth) to where it is today. It’s a place where people from all over Iowa and even the midwest come to enjoy sports and family time in its purest form.

“They’re looking down from heaven and smiling.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the park’s first full season. It was formally dedicated in June of 1969 — 30 months after Harlan and Hazel Rogers donated 13 acres of farmland to the city for the purpose of building an outdoor recreation complex.

Messenger file photo An aerial view of Fort Dodge's Harlan and Hazel Rogers Sports Complex from 2015.

“I look at their gift as a seed,” said Hora, a Fort Dodge Senior High graduate who has lived here since moving back with her husband, Gregg, 35 years ago. “Our family is still very proud of both their initial vision and our city’s commitment to taking a beautiful facility and helping it grow.

“My grandparents loved this community, and (Rogers Park) has been a perfect representation of their values and what they stood for. This started as a simple donation of farmland. I often have people ask me, ‘did (Harlan and Hazel) build this? Did they donate a lot of money for it? Were they heavily involved in sports?’ It was much simpler than that … it started with their generosity, but Fort Dodge leaders deserve the credit for what it is today.”

The life of Harlan Rogers

Harlan J. Rogers was born just southeast of Fort Dodge in July of 1907. After attending Pleasant Valley School through eighth grade, Rogers decided to enter the workforce full-time and help on the family farm.

In his 20s, Rogers joined John Grundon and John Saxton Sr., both of Fort Dodge, as co-founders of Standard Engineering Company. Using what became a well-known Stan-Hoist trademark, the operation manufactured and sold elevators, shredders, gears, wagons, loaders, field cultivators and front-end tractor loaders for midwest farmers through the 1940s.

-Messenger photo by Britt Kudla
Fort Dodge's Liddy Hora, a granddauther of Harlan and Hazel Rogers, stands by the Rogers Park sign at the front of the complex.

Stan-Hoist products reached over 1,400 implement dealers spanning six states, and by the 1950s, it served as the nation’s largest manufacturer of wagon boxes. In 1972, Stan-Hoist was sold to Bush Hog, a division of Allied Products.

Standard Engineering Company and the land donation for what became Rogers Sports Complex weren’t the only notable achievements of Harlan’s professional career. In 1959, he purchased 45 acres of farmland on the east side of town. The initial idea was to build grain storage buildings for Standard Engineering on the tract.

Plans changed. Flanked by local attorney Arthur H. Johnson and contractor Milton Will, the site became prime real estate for the development of Crossroads Shopping Center, which later became Crossroads Mall.

Harlan and Hazel had a son, Jack, and a daughter, Nancy. The couple wintered in Phoenix through the early-1970s, but decided to stay in Fort Dodge full-time from 1974 on.

“On our way back one year, Hazel mentioned that and I’d been thinking the same thing,” Harlan said in a 1981 interview about spending all of their retirement time locally. “We both just enjoy being in Fort Dodge with our friends.”

Harlan died in 1985.

“My grandpa just loved going out to the park and watching games,” Hora said. “He was always known as ‘Barney’ to his friends and family, not Harlan. Grandpa Barney had a big Cadillac he’d drive around nice and slow. He’d take that car with Hazel and drive it right up to the field (at Rogers Park) for a ballgame.

“They were true Fort Dodgers. I know they spent time in Arizona for nearly 30 years every winter, but they decided this was home so they were here full-time in their 60s and 70s. I moved away in college and didn’t necessarily think I’d be back, but we did in the mid-80s when only (Harlan and Hazel) were here from our family. Their loyalty to Fort Dodge had an impact on us and our kids, and still does to this day.”

History of the complex

Construction began on Rogers Park in the fall of 1967. The initial layout included a pair of softball fields and a baseball diamond. All three are still the facility’s main attractions to this day.

With a number of men’s and women’s fast-pitch teams desperately needing local fields to use for practice and games, Dean Williams — a 2002 Iowa Softball Hall of Fame inductee — approached the city about potentially finding a plot of land. After being appointed to the city’s recreation commission, Williams met with Harlan Rogers in the spring of 1967.

Rogers made his donation to the Fort Dodge, and the complex was built under the supervision of the local recreation department. City funds were to finance the project at a cost of $144,000 — the equivalent of $1.148 million today — covered by a $200,000 bond issued for recreational purposes and sold by the Fort Dodge city council in September of 1967. It was the first municipally-owned facility of its type.

The first official game played at Rogers Park was on July 11, 1968, between Sandy’s Distributing — a men’s softball team of Fort Dodge — and Webster City John Deere. The complex was used through the fall, then formally recognized with a ribbon-cutting ceremony the next summer. The Messenger called it a “dream of baseball and softball enthusiasts come true” at the time.

“One of my favorite memories is the day the ballpark opened and I got to help throw out the first ball to the first game,” said 65-year-old John Harlan Rogers — one of Jack’s sons who is currently an ordained Lutheran pastor in Minneapolis. “My grandfather and my father and I were there. Three generations.

“I’m very proud to carry my grandfather’s name, and I have a son named Luke Harlan Rogers.”

The 13-acre donation by the Rogers family more than doubled by 1975 to accommodate a bigger parking lot and three more softball diamonds. In 2005 and ’06, the “Mini-Major” portion of the complex opened; replicas of Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium, along with a dedicated Veterans Field, were introduced on the north side.

Today, Rogers Sports Complex covers over 100 acres of land. There are 11 baseball/softball fields and 13 soccer fields on the grounds. It is home to the Fort Dodge softball team, the St. Edmond baseball and softball squads, the Iowa Central softball program, local slow-pitch softball leagues, and numerous youth baseball, softball and soccer leagues and tournaments.

In an interview less than four years before his death in 1985, Harlan Rogers said, “it’s great to see so many people enjoying themselves at the park — either playing or watching. I didn’t know much about softball until watching the games out there, but I’ve played baseball and have always enjoyed it. When the park was first planned, I was thinking mostly about the baseball diamond. But it’s softball (that became) the really big draw.”

State softball tournament

Looking for an all-encompassing facility and a welcoming community to serve as a potential permanent host, Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union executive secretary E. Wayne Cooley visited Fort Dodge in 1969.

Many local leaders — including Fort Dodge Senior High athletic director Dutch Huseman, Fort Dodge parks and recreation director Jack Hardcastle, and city parks and recreation leaders Floyd Magnusson and Williams — were instrumental in selling Cooley on Fort Dodge. In 1970, the first state softball tournament was held at Rogers Park. A total of 5,532 fans were in attendance.

The event has been here ever since. Rogers Park is currently the longest-standing state venue in Iowa, and in 49 tournaments, a total of 857,562 fans — an average of 17,501 annually — have attended.

“This event is all about the workers, the volunteers and the fans,” current Fort Dodge parks and recreation director Lori Branderhorst said during a recent state week. “They are the face of state softball. Our staff is just fantastic. We have people who set aside vacation time at work, just so that they can be a part of it year after year. They love it.

“It’s a tradition here. And it’s not a tradition just because we’re getting close to our 50th anniversary. It’s a tradition because of the heart and soul our community puts into bringing this event to life and making it special for the cities and towns and school districts around Iowa who call Fort Dodge home this week. We don’t take that responsibility lightly, and we don’t take it for granted.”

Hora sees the past, present and future when she visits today. And the park will always hold a special place in her heart.

“Whether it’s state softball, or youth tournaments, or soccer — it’s a place that brings generations together to make memories,” Hora said. “I see the flags (down the boulevard of champions) at the main entrance, representing organizations, names, companies and businesses who have been directly involved in keeping the initial vision alive … it’s inspiring, thinking about where we are here 50 years later.

“That’s what my grandparents would want this complex to be to others: an inspiration to and for the people of Fort Dodge. This is community pride at its best.”