Do you have a special place that inspires nostalgia? Somewhere you absolutely must go when you revisit your hometown?
One of mine is Bay Beach Amusement Park in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’ve been thinking about it this week because during my childhood, Bay Beach was the place to go for Fourth of July fireworks.
The park has been a recreation area for 120 years. In 1892, Mitchell Nejedlo purchased the land and built a dance hall, bar, and bathhouse. He hoped to sell summer cottage sites, but the road was impassable to horse-drawn buggies when it rained. In 1902, Nejedlo teamed with Captain John Cusick, who ran a steamboat down the Fox River to the bay. Cusick bought out Nejedlo in 1908. Frank Murphy and Fred Rahr acquired the park from Cusick in 1910. In 1920 they donated it to the city.
By the 1930s, Bay Beach featured swimming (soon phased out due to pollution), a roller coaster, shoot-the-chutes, a merry-go-round, baseball games, and dances. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the park as part of Green Bay’s tercentennial in 1934.
My Incomplete Passes companions frequented Bay Beach in the fifties and love to return. “Several times we’ve gone to Bay Beach to walk along the waterfront, but one year we also went to the small amusement park there. … The miniature train—once driven by my friend Judy’s father—still makes its rounds at the perimeter. With no grandchildren in tow, we passed up the tiny train, and Pam and I were leery of the Ferris wheel. But we couldn’t resist the carousel. It was shiny with a new coat of paint, but looked very familiar as we made our circuit. The young attendant assured us that it was the same one we rode as little girls in the fifties.” (It turns out he was wrong. That one was replaced in 1971. Oh, well.)
Judy’s father, Russ Widoe, held onto his engineer image and became a popular children’s TV host, Colonel Caboose. Until a few years ago, I had never realized that Russ was manager of Bay Beach until 1954. I simply knew him as Judy’s daddy, who drove the train. I did know that Russ put on a lavish outdoor production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the park. I was achingly jealous when Judy got to play a small part in the show.
My favorite attraction was the pony ride. I still have home movies of a tiny me, circling the ring on one of those ponies. As an adult, I felt sorry when I remembered the ponies, plodding monotonously in the sun. I assumed animal activists had done away with them. But the ponies are still there, operated by the third generation of the Van Bellinger family. I’m delighted that they evidently have been well-treated all along.
Fireworks displays began at Bay Beach in 1936, but moved downtown in 1988. Bay Beach was not only the first place I watched fireworks on the Fourth, it was also the safest. The showers of pink, green and gold sparks arced high over the bay and plummeted to extinguish themselves in its chilly, indigo waters. (Local joke: Explorer Jean Nicolet, who named La Baie Verte, caught it on an off-day. The water is normally blue. But Nicolet saved us from having to follow Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, in the atlas.)
Today the park is still a destination for locals and tourists, with forty-five acres, sixteen rides, seven shelters, a dance hall, picnic grounds, playground, and fields for softball and volleyball. A new roller coaster, the Zippin Pippin, was added in 2011. Happy Fourth, Bay Beach—I’ll see you soon!
Going to Green Bay? Want to know more about Bay Beach? Visit their website at www.baybeach.org/