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Ah, Nostalgia! Wenona Beach Amusement Park Closed 40 Years Ago

Bayside Mecca Lasted 76 Years, Provided Memories for Many Localites

October 23, 2005       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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The Wenona Beach Jackrabbit was installed in 1914 and got more and more rickety as it clanked through the years carrying thrill-seeking passengers on its roller coaster course through the trees.

J.R. Watson published a little book in 1988 entitled simply "Wenona Beach," a local bestseller that remains a nostalgic gem even though it is now out of print.

The book documents the rise and longtime popularity as well as the demise of the local amusement park that was turned into a mobile home village 40 years ago, beginning in 1965.

It takes readers who had visited the park in their youth down on a heart-stabbing trip down memory lane.

Recollections are different, butno doubt include the girls or the guys you had gone there with, the colorful folks who worked the place, the train, bus or car travels to the beach and back on moonlit nights with soft summer breezes wafting off the bay.

Wenona Beach was preceded by the O-at-ka Beach, later called the Bay View Resort. The resort was developed in 1876, just after 15 years of legal prohibition of alcohol ended.

Bay View was where Fabian Joe Fournier brawled with Blinky Robertson before his murder on the Water Street steamboat dock. Despite his unsavory antics, Fournier's exploits furnished the raw material for writers who came to Bay City and conjured up the Paul Bunyan legends.

It all started with the Bay City Traction and Electric Railway Co. in 1887. Stemwinders were Henry Aplin, Theodore F. Shepard, and Spencer O. Fisher. They hired John Rabior to design and construct the park. The waterfront Mecca opened in 1889, providing lots of passengers for the railway.

Wright's Cafe, the ice cream parlor, boardwalk and other facilities came along as crowds flocked to the park.

The beachfront resort drew media attention to the 1907 speedboat race between the Arrow and W.J. Oulette's Secret. A world record of 26.6 miles per hour was set by Secret, author Watson reported.

First in the entertainment spotlight at Wenona Beach were the vaudeville acts, droll comedian W.C. Fields, the slapstick Marx Brothers, Marie Dressler and local boxer Billy Maxson belting away on stage.

The blaring horn of Harry Jarkey, a park regular from 1935 until its closing, can almost be heard by readers. Dancing across the waves are the melodious strains of famous orchestras that performed at Wenona Beach: Guy Lombardo, Ted Weems,Woody Herman, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies, Bob Crosby, the Dorsey Brothers, Isham Jones . . .

How about the comedians and variety acts? Jack Benny, Ozzie and Harriet, singers like Perry Como and popular local bandleaders like Dick Jessup.

The book features mainly pictures of the park and its attractions like the Jackrabbit, Circular Swings, dance pavilion, roller skating rink, Roloplane and Ferris Wheel.

The Pier Ballroom, Carousel, Bath House, Old Mill, Centodeon, shooting gallery and laughing gallery (house of mirrors), merry-go-round and Flying Scooter were all part of the park's multi-faceted allure.

Local historian Marv Kusmierz of Bay-Journal tells attending Bay City Times paperboys' picnics and of riding the Bullet: "It felt great having met this challenge in spite of falling a couple of times as I was leaving from being so dizzy." This ride consisted of bullet-like canisters that rotated one way during half the ride and the other way for the balance. Two people rode in each canister end of the canister, that could be pivoted sideways by riders who wanted extra thrills.

Watson recalls the park's characters including Chico Leo, chorus girl Mary Beth, boxing coach and promoter Bobby Johnson, and dance pavilion manager Tyler McVey, who went on to Hollywood and dozens of bit parts in movies.

Frank A. Cliff, who had operated Bay Welding and Machine, steel and pipe fabricators, for about 15 years beginning in the early 1950s, was the entrepreneur who took over the park.

At the time it seemed as though amusement parks were old stuff and trailer parks were hot stuff. I remember meeting Frank and his wife Mickey when they were flush with enthusiasm about the new venture. They were friends with the County Prosecutor at the time, the garrulous Marty Legatz. Remember Marty? He was always working on cleaning up pollution at the beach or on the Kawkawlin River that ran in front of his home on Bay Shore Drive.

The equipment was getting old and difficult and expensive to repair or replace, author Watson points out in the book. So, gradually, trailers were moved onto the 50 acre park.

The half-century old Jackrabbit and other rides were condemned by the BangorTownship Fire Department and burned. Thousands of memories went up in smoke.

Time had marched on. But the park was not forgotten, mainly because of Mr. Watson's book, that is still prominently displayed at the Intermission Deli on Third Street. That copy and those in local libraries are as well worn as any in the collection.###

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
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