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Looking Back / The story after the story Bunyan statue evokes memories

A summertime symbol for many Western New Yorkers emerges each year during a decidedly unsummerlike period.

But it's a welcome sight. For the past 16 years, the giant Paul Bunyan statue that once greeted Crystal Beach visitors has taken up seasonal residence on Sheridan Drive, evoking nostalgia and excitement in passers-by.

"People are happy to see it; they talk about their memories of Crystal Beach," said Phil Arida, whose family owns the statue. "And they take pictures with the statue."

The 16-foot, fiberglass statue has become part of the Arida family's Christmas tree business. During the holiday season, Paul Bunyan stands tall among the display of trees next to Anderson's on Sheridan Drive.

"He's there because he was a lumberjack; Paul Bunyan was an environmentalist," said Tom Arida, Phil's father.

When the Canadian amusement park closed, Tom Arida's brother, David, bought the statue at an auction. He said the statue is about 40 years old.

"He bought it because of the great memories," he said. David Arida recently died.

For generations of Western New Yorkers, visits to Crystal Beach were a summertime staple. The statue, which was situated near the Ferris wheel and just before the entrance to the famous Comet roller coaster, welcomed visitors with a sign asking if they were "having fun at Crystal Beach."

By the late 1980s, when Canada's Wonderland near Toronto and Darien Lake in Genesee County were growing in popularity, Crystal Beach attendance waned. The park closed in 1989.

"Crystal Beach was a special thing for us when we were kids," Tom Arida said. "It was a sad day for us when it closed."

Judging from the daily response the statue receives, area residents had similar feelings for the park, which was replaced by condominiums. Phil Arida said it was his uncle's idea to put the statue on display.

"My uncle wanted to give it back to the people, so they'll be able to see it," he said.

Phil Arida said that at least four times a day, he finds himself listening to his customers' old memories about Crystal Beach and the Comet. They routinely snuggle with Paul Bunyan for pictures.

The statue receives paint jobs every few years. And when the Christmas season is done, the statue is stored at RT Jones Lumber in North Tonawanda.

Tom said his family is very dedicated to the annual display of Paul Bunyan.

"We enjoyed Crystal Beach, and Paul Bunyan was the first thing you saw when you got there," he said. "We keep him for the memories, and in memory of my brother, too. It will never be for sale. Never."

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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