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'Continuing the tradition' State plans few changes at Midway Park to preserve Chautauqua County 'jewel'

Mardell Hanson was among many area residents with the same question this spring.

Would Midway Park, a 109-year-old park that has been a staple of summer for generations, suffer as it became what is thought to be the first state park in the country based on an amusement park for small children?

"It's been privately owned for years, and they did a wonderful job with it," Hanson said Wednesday as she watched her grandchildren scramble around what is now Midway State Park. "The state steps in and you wonder what is going to happen."

The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation purchased the historic grounds from members of the Walsh family, who owned and operated the park since 1951.

"It's a jewel on Chautauqua Lake," said Michael Miecznowski, the department's regional administrator. "It's a wonderful, family-oriented amusement park, and we'll always be focused on that."

It's also the first such park of its kind, according to Phil McNelly, executive director of the National Association of State Parks Directors.

"I am not aware of another state that operates an amusement park as or in one of their state parks," he wrote in an e-mail. "This project sounds like a good combination of resources protection and historic preservation."

For about $4.1 million, the state got about 44 acres of tree-lined property, 1,250 feet of waterfront, an assortment of rides geared to young children -- including an Allen Herschell carousel -- an arcade geared to older youths, and a huge, 92-year-old building featuring a roller rink on the second floor.

But it also bought more than that, said the park's manager, Andy Hillman.

"It's a piece of the local culture," he said. "You've got a tremendous amount of history here."

Midway, one of the oldest continuously operated amusement parks in the country, dates to the 1890s, when it was established as a picnic grounds for those traveling the train between Mayville and Jamestown.

Music, dancing, baseball, croquet and bathing on the beach were the activities when it opened in 1898. And with the addition of a pier and, in 1915, the roller rink building known as the Hippodrome, Midway bloomed.

Mementos and photos in a museum below the rink bring alive the park's heyday, when thousands came by car, boat and trolley:

A teenage brother and sister grin mischievously as they sit in a "toboggan" that plunged riders down a slide and onto the lake, skipping several times before slowly sinking to the shallow bottom.

A 1930s-era "Love Meter" on display had users grab a handle that promised to "measure your sex appeal" on a scale that escalated from "harmless" to "uncontrollable."

Amid signs advertising 35-cent hamburgers, a recently restored 1920 Seeberg Nickelodeon pumps out a ragtime tune.

Upstairs, the rink will remain idle for awhile, but it isn't hard to imagine hundreds of teens rolling past support beams still plastered with record covers from '50s artists such as Buddy Holly.

"These were your fast skaters out here, and then your slower ones in here," Hillman said, pointing to the outside and inside lanes. "This was the observation deck. It's a gorgeous view."

The roller rink spawned countless first kisses, broken hearts and lifelong friendships. Patrons, most of whom said they had been to the park numerous times, recalled formative moments here.

Hanson and Shirley Gustafson, both 69, grew up and still live nearby. They became fast friends as young children -- right around the same time they first came to Midway.

As they reminisced while watching their grandchildren run along the same paths they did, fond memories brought sparkles to their eyes and smiles to their faces.

"This is where I picked up my husband," Hanson said, laughing. That union has lasted 48 years.

"Every Thursday night and every Sunday night, this was the place to be for the young people," Gustafson said. "We had our parents drive us up and we didn't even know how we were going to get home."

Unlike most state parks, there is no admission fee. Instead, people pay for the rides, arcade games and concessions as they go, as was the case previously.

Hillman said he spent last summer watching and learning from the previous owners, coming to the conclusion that their well-honed operation needed very little tweaking.

Which isn't to say the park doesn't need significant improvements. While state inspectors have said the rides are in excellent shape, park officials say rehabilitating the park's electric and water service, as well as replacing a number of roofs, are priorities.

Parkgoers said they didn't notice anything really different from last summer, which is what the state is aiming for, Hillman said.

"Our slogan this year is continuing the tradition," he said. "It's the same kinds of things many generations have experienced here. We can continue that, and try to improve it and grow it and yet keep its historical integrity."

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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