New book details Riverside’s history

July 25, 2011

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Editor

AGAWAM — It’s been the region’s leisure time mecca for nearly a century, but until now, no one has really told its story.

Lifelong town resident and avowed local history buff David Cecchi has changed that fact with his recently released Images of America book, “Riverside Park.”

“Riverside has been a huge part of Agawam for so long and other than a few little things over the years, there hasn’t been a comprehensive history of the park,” Cecchi said. “I thought it would just be a perfect subject for this format.”

He added that, at the time he conceived the book, he was unaware the popular destination — which opened as Riverside Park in 1912 — would be celebrating its 100th year as an amusement park in 2012.

“Riverside Park” is the third book on Agawam history from Cecchi, who chairs the Agawam Historical Commission. He said the first two books, “Agawam and Feeding Hills” and the follow-up “Feeding Hills Revisited,” were fund-raisers to help the town’s Historical Association establish a museum at the former firehouse on Elm Street and preserve the Thomas Smith House in Feeding Hills.

This book, Cecchi said, was a labor of love that sprang from his habit of collecting postcards and other ephemera about his hometown at tag sales, auctions and online.

“A few years ago there was an auction in Monson and I found an album of postcards,” Cecchi said. “I started flipping through it and there were all these postcards of Riverside and I said to myself, ‘I have to have that’.”

Among the postcards was a panoramic picture of the park’s original 400-by-200 foot pool, constructed in 1916. Cecchi said that photo prompted him to consider doing a book on Riverside. Within a year or two, he said he felt he’d collected enough materials to get started researching the park’s history.

Not far into his inquiries, Cecchi said he learned his penchant for acquiring postcards was, at least initially, going to become his primary resource for photos for the book.

“I had thought when the book got going, if I could get a hold of Ed Carroll [Jr.], his family would have a huge archive [of photos] and the Springfield Newspapers would have a huge collection and the [Connecticut Valley Historical] Museum would have a huge collection,” Cecchi said. But it turned out the Carroll family had lost its photo archives in a fire at the park in the 1980s, the newspaper’s photo archives had been edited in the 1990s — “they didn’t have a whole lot going back” — and the museum had some early flyers and newspaper clippings, but no photos.

Cecchi said he started publicizing the fact that he was working on a history of Riverside and would welcome photos from every era in hopes of filling in some gaps.

Calls, he said, came from a wide geographic area. “Everyone who worked there, danced there, swam there ... it’s all a part of the [park’s] history,” Cecchi said of the myriad family photos people shared with him as he worked on the book. “I think I spoke to Miss Riverside 1948, 1949 and 1950 ... to those women it’s still a proud piece of their lives.”

Cecchi also spoke to Carroll, son of the man credited with turning the closed and crumbling park of the 1930s into the region’s leisure time destination from the 1940s until the family sold the property to Premier Parks [now Six Flags] in 1996.

“He had some good memories and good insights into the [park’s] transformation and why the family sold,” Cecchi said, adding that the construction of the roller rink, bowling alley and racetrack were among some of the highlights of the Carroll years.

Cecchi said he was also surprised by how many people remembered bits of Riverside’s history before the Carrolls owned it.

“Everyone remembers the Sylvia [river ferry], even though it stopped running in the 1920s,” Cecchi said, adding, though, that the history gets murky in the 1930s when the Henry Perkins estate sold the park.

Still, Cecchi said Perkins was responsible for turning the former Riverside picnic grove into the site’s first amusement park back in 1912. Everything Perkins did in those early years was an attempt to top the entertainments of the year before.

“They built the first [roller coaster] in 1912, a few years later they tore it down and build bigger one. He was constantly upgrading, making it bigger, better, more thrilling.”

As he said, Six Flags, the current owner of the park, still does today.

“Riverside Park” is available at local bookstores, online retailers, through Arcadia Publishing at www.arcadiapublishing.com or by calling 1-888-313-2665.

Debbie Gardner can be reached by e-mail at debbieg@thereminder.com



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