By G. Michael Dobbs
Perhaps it was riding the rides, seeing Hal Holbrook introduce "Mark Twain Tonight" or dancing the polka to Larry Chesky's band. For almost a century, Mountain Park in Holyoke inspired memories.
And those memories are reflected in the new book "Mountain Park" (Arcadia Publishing www.arcadiapublishing.com) by Holyoke Community College Professor Jay Ducharme.
Ducharme worked at the park for 13 years and wrote his book because "one of the things that always amazed me is there are more good memories about Mountain Park than another park in New England."
With the knowledge of an insider and hundreds of photos, Ducharme tells the story of the park in his book.
Ducharme explained the park came about as an ulterior reason in the business plan of William Loomis, one of the directors of the Holyoke Street Railway Company. Loomis figured if he built an attraction at the end of his rail line he could get more people riding the trolley on their day off. So he bought over 300 acres of property that included the summit at Mount Tom and constructed a open-air pavilion and park.
For the thousands of people living in apartments near the paper and cloth mills where they worked, a trip to the relative cool of natural forests was only a trolley ride away. In 1897, Loomis received a state grant to build a resort and Ducharme noted that Mountain Park was formally born.
Loomis was the father of the park, but the succeeding owners put their own stamp on the place. The summit house built at the top of Mount Tom was rebuilt after two fires but was eventually abandoned as an attraction. The next owner, Louis Pellissier, brought in the park's first roller coaster.
The natural park element was maintained by Pellissier, and then by subsequent owner Jay Collins. Ducharme said that unlike some parks, Mountain Park was "geared towards families."
"What was different was there was stuff every member of the family could do," Ducharme explained. Grandparents could relax in the picnic grove while other family members played miniature golf or rode the rides. The park didn't charge for parking or admission, so people saw it as an affordable local get-away.
For Ducharme, working at the park was a family affair. His aunt started working there in the 1970s after she had retired and his father joined her after he retired. His father operated the rides and loved the place and encouraged his son to apply for work when he was in college.
Needing money for college, Ducharme applied and was hired. He was assigned to a ride other operators shunned: the merry-go-round.
While other people hated the loud band organ, Ducharme enjoyed it. He also liked how the job called for him to keep moving. Eventually he learned how to operate all of the rides and served as the "break man" the person who filled in for others while they took their lunch or breaks.
In the fall of 1987, owner Jay Collins closed the park. Ducharme said he was "just as shocked as anyone." He was working as a watchman for the park when he heard Collins made the decision to close the attraction.
"You don't think of something like that leaving," Ducharme said.
The park had been doing fine with attendance and finances, but insurance costs were eating up more of the profits and Collins, who surrounded himself with friends to help run the park, had found himself increasingly alone many of his closest friends had died.
Collins started selling off the rides one by one after not being able to find a buyer for the entire park. Of the attractions that thrilled thousands of people, the only one that remained was the merry-go-round. Ducharme was part of the group of people who successfully brought the historic ride to its present location at Holyoke Heritage State Park. Collins had offers up to $2 million, but worked with the local group and sold to them for $875,000. Calling it "a jewel," Ducharme said it is the only self-sustaining freestanding ride in the country.
Today, Ducharme said it's amazing to see the area transformed as nature has taken over much of what was once developed. Northampton businessman Eric Suhr has bought much of the property and has cleaned up the picnic grove and baseball diamond as well as preserved the miniature golf course. Ducharme said there is an intriguing sign erected reading "Mountain Park See you in summer of 2007."
Could Mountain Park survive in an era in which amusement parks are multi-million dollar extravaganzas that can take several days to go through? Ducharme said he believes the park's low-key qualities could have allowed it to reach the 21st century. He noted there are other picnic groves with amusement rides that have prospered such as Kanoble's Grove in Elysburgh, Penn., Waldameer Park in Erie, Penn., and Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn.
Mountain Park was a "common space," Ducharme explained, and has been replaced by shopping malls as someplace where people spend their free time. The change in state "blue laws" affected attractions such as the park, he said.
"I think there is a need for Mountain Park," he said.