Archival Adventures in Small Repositories

Life is a Lark at Willow Grove Park

Wednesday, 8/15/12

"When balmy summer breezes blow, and music fills the air . . ." these lines from the song, "My Willow Grove Sweetheart", conjure up thoughts of summertime fun and the endless amusements to be found at Willow Grove Park, an area amusement park well documented in the collections of the Upper Moreland Historical Association. 

Willow Grove Park, which opened in 1896, was originally a trolley park created by the People’s Traction Company (a trolley company that eventually became the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company).  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most metropolitan areas had trolley parks (think Coney Island, Palisades Park in New Jersey, and Dorney Park in Allentown). Trolley companies created these parks at the end of their lines, providing a destination to encourage riders.

Trolley parks were the forerunners of amusement parks.  While today’s amusement parks feature thrilling rides and screaming visitors, trolley parks were more genteel. Scrapbooks, pamphlets, advertisements, ephemera, and photographs in the collection of the Upper Moreland Historical Association showcase Willow Grove Park’s bucolic landscape, quite a contrast to urban Philadelphia.  The Park featured picnic groves, walking paths, lakes for boating, and pavilions for dancing and concerts.  Willow Grove Park even had a dress code and rules of behavior, enforced by Park guards.

Willow Grove Park became nationally famous for the concerts in its music pavilion, with many famous musicians and bands taking the stage.  John Philip Sousa and his band started playing concerts at the Park in 1901 and played almost every summer for 24 years, helping the Park earn the moniker the Summer Musical Capital of America.  
 

Willow Grove Park evolved over the years, adding new amusements and rides, like the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, gradually becoming a modern-day amusement park.  During the 1970s it became Six-Gun Territory, an amusement park with a western theme.   Like many trolley parks, Willow Grove was affected by increased use of the automobile, which freed people from dependence on the trolley lines, allowing them to seek entertainment wherever they desired.  Willow Grove Park closed after the 1975 season, was demolished in 1976, and is now the site of the Willow Grove Park Mall.

There are a number of trolley parks still in operation in the United States, five in Pennsylvania:  Dorney Park in Allentown (est. 1884); Lakemont Park in Altoona (est. 1894); Waldameer Park in Erie (est. 1896); Kennywood in West Mifflin (est.  1898); and Bushkill Park in Easton (est. 1902). (I know talking about old amusement parks in Pennsylvania makes you think of Knoebel’s, a great place, but it was not a trolley park!)

Obviously the Upper Moreland Historical Association has more information on Willow Grove Park than I can describe here, so pay them a visit to learn why “Life is a lark at Willow Grove Park!”

See all finding aids for Upper Moreland Historical Assocation

Comments

The Park

I wish the amusement was still there, instead of the mall!

Willow Grove Park

Thanks for the comment. I only moved to the area after Willow Grove Park was closed so I never had a chance to visit, but it looked like a lot of fun.

six gun territory, Willow Grove Park

Back in 1972 when Six Gun territory was established at Willow Grove Park I was hired there as one of the gun fighters and later became the Marshall, Johnny Slade. We used to do 8 shows a day. We all that was hired there were trained under Bob Chambers, he was a professional stunt man from some of the old western movies. R. J. Coburn was the main man in charge at that time. The shows were all scripted and we had a MC that would speak the dialogue during each show. Dee Lewis was the MC. As I mentioned above I played Johnny Slade, the Marshall,(I still even have the badge that I used to wear). Bob Templeman played the undertaker, John Frizzle played one of the gun fighters, they are the only names I remember because we were friends before hand. There was even a can can show with the girls and there was a fellow that was part of the show which I don't remember his name. It was a lot of fun doing these shows even though it was a job and we even got paid for it. There was even a TV Ad that would come on the television. The Park was closed on Mondays to the public, but we had done private shows, I remember one time that the postal workers booked the park for the day, about 3000 of them.We ended up doing 5 or 6 shows and we had to cancel the rest, things got a bit out of hand. One of our guns got stolen. We used real single action colts at the time, but of course used blanks. I remember one day all of us went to get some thing to eat at the bowling alley and we had kept our fire arms on our person in holster. As we were sitting at the snack bar we were approached by the township police, someone had called and said there were gun fighters at the snack bar in the bowling alley. Well we were escorted back to park and told not to leave there with our guns again. That was a close call. I just wanted to share this story with everyone. I am now 64 years old, that was 46 years ago when I did this. They were the good old days.

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