Saturday, June 25th, 2011
By Amy Kronenberger
Coaster, boardwalk one time graced Grand Lake's shore
GRAND LAKE - The shores of Grand Lake were once home to a 13-acre amusement park, compete with a boardwalk, dance pavilion and wooden roller coaster, the Devil's Backbone.
Gordon State Park, built in 1924 on what is now the Villa Nova housing subdivision near St. Marys, was a main tourist attraction years ago. On July 4 and 5, 1926, the park saw crowds reach 45,000, according to "History of Gordon State Park" compiled by St. Marys historian George Neargarder.
Residents from Lima, Dayton and beyond would travel by railway to get to the park.
Harold Neely, St. Marys mayor at the time and son of oil tycoon Lemon Neely, owned the park throughout its seven-year life. He named it after the land donor, Congressman Robert Gordon Jr.
Rides included a 60-foot ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a miniature railroad, the Old Mill Coaster and the Sea Plane. The Devil's Backbone was 90 feet high, 2,500 feet long and was the second largest roller coaster in Ohio.
"The first plunge could knock your socks off," Walter Benson of St. Marys wrote in an article for Neargarder's history. "By the end of all those 50 mile-per-hour curves, the Devil's Backbone at Gordon State Park left riders breathless but thrilled beyond imagination."
Benson, who died last year, was the son-in-law of Charles Millisor, the ticket-taker for the Devil's Backbone and a ride called Custer Cars.
For visitors who wanted a more leisurely visit, they could picnic at one of the three pavilions, relax under the brightly-colored canopy umbrellas that ran along the edges of the 30-foot-wide boardwalk or take a tour of the lake on The Mary Jane.
"This colorful passenger boat carried 40 people ... (creating) many fond memories," Neargarder said.
Five or six permanent lunch stands were built throughout the park and were mostly owned by local people. A large athletic field provided for organized sports, such as baseball tournaments, foot races and horseshoe contests. The beach also was a favorite spot for visitors, who could slide down water slides and swim in the lake on hot summer days.
Despite these many attractions, one attraction stood above the rest - the dance hall, according to Benson. Called The Pavilion, The Pier or The Palace, it was one of the largest in the state at 50-by-300 feet.
The popular dance hall featured some of the most famous bands of the day, including Joe Kayser and his band, Sammy Kay, Guy Lombardo, Paul Whiteman, Saxi Holtsworth Orchestra and Peewee Hunt.
The hall also featured attractions like the circus and dance contests. An advertisement for a circus on July 2, 1926, boasted "sideshows, freaks, clowns, acrobats, tumblers, wild animals and oriental dancing girls." Admission to the circus was free, but the price to dance to Joe Kayser's band that night was 5 cents.
The advertisement promised a "mirth-provoking evening. A regular riot of fun."
"I danced there at The Pavilion many times," said New Bremen native Lloyd Laut in a 2000 interview with Benson. Laut would be 107 if alive today.
"Once I placed second in the waltz," Laut said. "My partner was a friend of my sister ... She went on to another partner and won first prize. I guess I wasn't at top form that night."
Despite its high popularity in the late 1920s, the start of the Great Depression in the early 30s forced increasing numbers of people to stay at home. The falling numbers, mingled with high operating expenses, threatened the life of the park.
"There's no way to know how much business the park lost because of the Depression," Neargarder said. "His (Neely) mortgage may have been too high. He may have been pretty deep into the place and needed a lot of business to stay afloat."
In 1931, a fire destroyed the dance hall, the Devil's Backbone and some concessions. Neargarder said after the fire, the Depression and a tornado that hit in about the same timeframe, Gordon State Park ceased to exist. The mystery of what caused the fire was never discovered.
A smaller dance hall was built to replace The Pavilion. It then was converted to a roller rink, which also was destroyed by fire in 1941.
Despite its short life, Gordon State Park provided memories to last a lifetime.
"There was no comparison," Laut said in Benson's article. "Gordon Park was the best around ... It was clean and had such a nice atmosphere ... Oh, it was such a lovely time."
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