Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel. Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.
All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!
To read Lorraine's archived posts, visit this page.
Travel Tuesdays, May 25, 2021 - "Amused"
Last weekend I visited the site of the old Plymouth County Hospital in Hanson. I had read about a nature trail that began at the property and wanted to check it out. The hospital, once called the Hanson Tuberculosis Hospital, had been a handsome building which housed a modern facility when it first opened in 1919. As the need for tuberculosis care declined, the building’s function shifted until it was entirely abandoned in 1992. Fires, vandals, and neglect led to demolition. Today, the site’s future is still being planned.
This walk reminded me of another tuberculosis hospital from my past, the former Bristol County Hospital in Attleboro. No, I’m not obsessed with hospitals, nor am I inclined towards ghosts or creepiness, though it is interesting to realize that, one hundred years ago, a different epidemic threatened lives and required special responses. In fact, I knew the Attleboro facility as Talaquega, an old-fashioned amusement park.
A local history class and a visit to the Attleboro Public Library’s “vertical files” led me to interview William Carnes, a man who kept the park’s memory alive through his interest, postcards, and the Talaquega News. In business from 1902 to 1917, Talaquega represents the era of trolley parks, entertainments that were built along trolley lines to increase ridership during weekends and summers. The Bristol County Electric Street Railway, which ran from Pawtucket to Taunton, chose the location at Brigg’s Corner because it was roughly halfway between these population centers. Until 1917, the park offered visitors a variety of entertainments including a dance hall, bowling alley, restaurant, bandstand, vaudeville theater, picnicking, skating, boxing, wrestling, and, at least once, a “country circus.” Beautiful grounds including a man-made “lake” enticed visitors . . . until the automobile gave them access to more options. As this short article in the Sun Chronicle states, “Trolley line-owned parks disappeared as automobile use became more common and residents became less dependent on public transit.”
With remodeling, the casino became first a tuberculosis hospital, then a nursing home, and today it is the site of the Grace Baptist Church Academy.
Credit: Grace Baptist Christian Academy
Some of the grounds, including Lake Talaquega, are now part of Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary.
Another trolley park named Mayflower Grove flourished near my home in Pembroke. Located on Little Sandy Bottom Pond along Route 27, it opened in 1901. This map from 1920 shows the east/west route of the trolley running from Brockton, past the pond, and onward to Plymouth.
Mayflower Grove, Pembroke, 1920
This park, set in a more rural area, offered plenty of summer fun: boating, swimming, music and dancing, swings, a merry-go-round, a tunnel slide, miniature golf and other games. There was a hotel, restaurant, soda fountain, and hot dog and ice cream stands. Theater companies performed three times per week. Roger Anttila, a former Pembroke resident, has written about the park in Mayflower Grove 1901-1945: Recollections of Forgotten Times: Bryantville, Massachusetts, a book that is available through the SAILS network. His reminiscences in an interview with Wicked Local suggest that Bryantville had been the “heart and soul” of the town during this era.
Pembroke Historical Society
Some charming details can be found in the reminiscences of Cyril Littlefield on the Pembroke Historical Society’s website. Cyril and his father owned and managed the park between 1919 and 1931. His notes are chatty and full of anecdotes that reflect the perspective of someone working at the park: “Operation of an amusement park is no picnic,” he says. Most of his stories describe the challenges: snow and wind storms, fear of fire, the search for fresh entertainment, the doings of local rowdies, the need for police details, bootlegging operations, drunkenness and more. Despite his laments and the park’s financial woes, he also describes a very popular place with an “open-air theatre seating around sixteen hundred” and a night when cars from “seventy-five different towns were represented, and many out of state cars.”
Trolley service ended in 1925. The park closed in 1945. Residential neighborhoods now occupy the land, but Little Sandy Bottom Pond can still be visited from walking trails on town-owned land.
During this same era, but on a much grander scale, Wonderland Park provided entertainment for Boston area residents. Inspired by the success of parks at Coney Island and the St. Louis World’s Fair, Wonderland was designed to be grand. According to the New England Historical Society, Floyd C. Thompson, the chief investor/organizer of the project, had hoped “to build the largest amusement park in the world in Coney Island.”
When those plans fell through, he directed his energies to Wonderland in Revere.
Beginning in 1906, the park offered state-of-the-art rides such as the Shoot the Chutes, the Descent into the Gates of Hell, and the Circle Swing. Other entertainments ran the gamut from wild animal shows to captive balloons. All of these are described in a new book, Lost Wonderland, by Stephen Wilk. The author’s website, which includes “supplemental material” to the book, is also a good introduction to the topic.
Unfortunately for Wonderland’s investors, the Panic of 1907, a major financial crisis, drove the park towards bankruptcy soon after its opening. It struggled until its closing in 1910. This location is now the site of the Wonderland Marketplace mall.
Closer to Easton, but equally short-lived, was a theme park called Cowboy Town, which was in business for only three years, between 1957 and 1960. Cowboys, Indians, a rodeo, gunfights, a stagecoach, the Gold Nugget Saloon, a feed store and a trading post all graced this Wild West theme park set in the lush green woods of Plainville!
The Plainville Historical Commission’s Facebook page displays Cowboy Town photos and memorabilia including striking juxtapositions of families and actors in 19th century garb. Today, it may seem silly to step from a 1950s car into the Wild West, but theme parks are all about fantasy and escapism. It was certainly no stranger than entering Hogwarts or the Magic Kingdom. This 2-minute home movie really captures the mood.
You can learn more about Cowboy Town through a free “virtual visit” offered by the Old Colony History Museum of Taunton on June 4. This is what Cowboy Town looks like today:
Former Site of Cowboy Town, Plainville
Credit: Google Maps
Whether grandiose or homespun, amusement parks aimed to please customers in a constantly changing world. Like other businesses, these parks experienced their ups and downs, responding to economic conditions, war, and changing tastes. Many did not survive the Great Depression or World War II, but a few had considerable longevity.
In Rhode Island, where I grew up, the big family destinations were Rocky Point in Warwick and Crescent Park in Riverside. These large, popular parks offered scenic coastal settings, mechanical rides, concessions, music for the adults, and famous “shore dinners,” which, for the uninitiated, consisted of clam cakes, Manhattan clam chowder, lobster, corn on the cob, watermelon and more. Both parks began in the 19th century when transportation, by steamship or trolley, enabled city dwellers to take day trips to the coast. The invention of mechanical rides in the 1860s and 70s supplemented the picnic areas and bandstands, thereby creating multi-faceted destinations. Crescent Park operated for 90+ years; Rocky Point for almost 150 -- not bad in the fickle world of entertainment.
Eventually, societal changes proved overwhelming. Automobiles and affordable airfare made distant destinations accessible, while television and suburban life offered new entertainment options. With fewer customers, the cost of updating rides often proved too much, and many parks fell into disrepair before eventually shutting their gates. For a better look at these once bustling Rhode Island parks, start with the Art in Ruins articles: “Rocky Point” and “Crescent Park.” They will provide a history of the parks as well as photo galleries which display the crowds, dinner halls, roller coasters, flumes, kiddie lands, arcades, and other attractions. A vintage commercial, “Summertime is Rocky Point Time,” mixes antique postcards with contemporary film clips. Though undated, it was clearly filmed towards the end of the park’s long life. Today, Rocky Point is a quiet state park with just a few remnants of its amusement park days. All that remains of Crescent Park is its crown jewel, the carousel.
Looff Carousel, Crescent Park
As summer approaches, some of you will plan a trip to the amusement park. These days, the park will probably have a national reputation, like Disney World or Universal Studios Hollywood. In Massachusetts, families might head to Six Flags in Agawam, to experience its thrill rides, “some of the fastest, tallest, wildest, most gut-wrenching rides in the country.” These big-name parks still attract millions of visitors annually.
You might also plan a different kind of trip, that is, a visit to a local historic site like those described above. History doesn’t live in a museum. Just like nature, it’s something that exists all around us.
I’m not nostalgic about my childhood, nor do I miss those “gut-wrenching rides” that triggered my motion sickness. I am, however, acutely aware of time and interested in my surroundings. Reading about these former parks and seeing their current locations is a reminder that life is constantly changing. The places and values that I know were, and will soon be, very different.
Remember that hospital site in Hanson? It currently has community gardens, a food pantry, a beekeeping association, and plans for an attractive community park. Someday there might be a woodland amphitheater, a canopied boardwalk, a playground, and outdoor pavilions. At least that’s the plan. Events do take us in unexpected directions.
The Conway School