Remembering the fun of years gone by
By J. Chambless
‘Thrills, Hills and Spills: Lenape Park and Chadds Peak’ opens with a reception on April 5.
Anyone who visited Lenape Park or the Chadds Peak Ski Area from the 1950s to the 1980s will experience a flood of nostalgia when they enter the Chadds Ford Historical Society this weekend.
The society has painstakingly assembled the few remnants of Lenape Park, which – from the early 1920s until its recent years as the Brandywine Picnic Park – formed vivid summer memories for generations of families. There has been major research into the tangled succession of owners of the park, as well as conflicting accounts of what attractions used to be inside the place.
Text panels lay out the story, with photos of some of the treasured rides and attractions that will certainly spark some memories. The story is traced from the 1890s to today through postcards from the 1900s, a wonderful display case holding a Lenape knock-down figure, brass rings from the carousel, park tickets and more.
Newspaper articles reproduced on the text panels convey some of the excitement – and the exaggeration – about the park, as tiny as it was. There’s a carnival mirror that used to hang on the bumper cars building, so visitors can play with their distorted reflections inside the exhibit. The Fun House at Lenape is captured in photographs, including the “Laughing Lady” face that hung on the building, and the trick couch and conveyor belt that scooted visitors out of the building at the end of their tour.
There are photos of the carousel, which once had 48 Dentzel figures before they were sold in 1979 by the then-owner of the property, outraging the local community. Visitors will see a battered carousel horse from the first incarnation of the carousel, however, which predates the Dentzel figures.
Anyone who has been whipped around the track of Lenape’s wooden roller coaster will love the photos and stories about the 1,400-foot “Scenic Railway,” as it was called. The image of the first hill climb – when young riders could think about the deadly drop just over the peak – brings back all kinds of memories.
The swimming pool at the park is also documented, from its origins as a man-made swimming hole to a 1929 cement pool. The pool is gone now, filled in and covered over. And the legendary Old Fiddlers Picnic, which was held at Lenape for several years, is spotlighted as well in stories and photographs.
One section of the exhibit is devoted to the rambling dance hall building that remains as a ruin across the Brandywine Creek from Lenape Park. The convoluted history of the place is unraveled in the text panels, beginning in the 1890s as a dance hall to lure riders to take the trolley to the site. There’s a dazzling archival photo of the place in its original condition, with an extensive riverside boardwalk.
The exhibit traces owners John Gibney -- who hosted dances there until 1937 – and then T. Frank Walsh, who lived in the huge dance hall from the late 1930s until his death in 1968. Walsh sometimes repaired canoes for Lenape Park, and filled the building with broken paddles and hand-painted signs. A few of his whimsically named paddles are hanging in the exhibit, as well as the Ticket Office sign that once hung above the door of the dance hall.
After Walsh died, the building became the home and studio of artist Tom Bostelle, who created epic paintings and bronze shadow sculptures there, until his death in 2005. There are two shadow sculptures on display, as well as a Bostelle drawing of a tiger figure from the Lenape carousel.
The dance hall is now only a crumbling ruin, with an eccentric history that is finally set down in print in this exhibit for the first time.
The other half of the exhibition is devoted to the Chadds Peak Ski Area, which began in 1964 and entertained decades of visitors with its low-thrills slope. While the attraction finally closed in 1989 after warming weather whittled its operating season to less than two months, the photographs and text show a lively spot that once even hosted the West Chester Ski Team. There’s a mannequin dressed in a ski team jacket, with a painted mural by local artist Jacalyn Beam suggesting the scale of Chadds Peak in its heyday.
With all the reminiscing that visitors are bound to be doing, there’s a notebook to record your own memories of Lenape Park and Chadds Peak, as well as very fun mugs and coasters with images from the parks that are for sale in the gift shop. Taking home a souvenir is, sadly, as close as you’ll come to getting a piece of these two vanished attractions. Last month, it was announced that the present owners of Brandywine Picnic Park are looking to sell the property one last time.
“Thrills, Hills and Spills: Lenape Park and Chadds Peak” has an opening reception on April 5 from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit continues through the end of 2019. Admission is free. The Chadds Ford Historical Society is at 1736 N. Creek Rd., Chadds Ford. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit www.chaddsfordhistory.org.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.