Joyland; Wichita's Lost Legacy
Entrance to Joyland Park
Losing a Legacy
Last night, after arriving home from work, I spent a little time on the web surfing through some of my regular sites. One of these is the local newspaper for Wichita. Having lived there for a number of years, I periodically check in to see what the local news and weather are, and generally finish with the feeling that I made a good move when I left.
Even so, I still feel a little nostalgic when I read an article like I did last night. The story told that a fire had somehow started at an abandoned amusement park known as Joyland. It destroyed a building before firefighters managed to extinguish the flames, and would have spread to others if it hadn't been contained. As I read the account, I recalled the times I visited the place, and the fun I had.
I was not born in Wichita, nor did I live there during my childhood, but the school I attended for my elementary education had a tradition of taking the seventh and eighth grade students to the city for a field day each year sometime late in the spring. The idea was at least partially educational as on those days, the mornings were spent touring different businesses and learning about the things they did and the way they operated. Everyone took a lunch and it was eaten in the park located in the mid-town area near the river. The zoo was located nearby at that time, and provided an added element to the trip.The stop at Joyland was right after lunch and took up the rest of the afternoon. It was free, paid by a school fund, and each student was given enough ride tickets to either have a real good time, or make themselves sick depending on each individuals propensity.
The article gave all the known details of the fire except the unknown cause, it also mentioned the park had been closed and abandoned since 2006. Since then there has been a large amount of vandalism going on there, including graffiti on nearly every building, and at least one other fire. Some buildings have been totally destroyed and it struck me then that another piece of Wichita's history and that of her people is visibly slipping into oblivion.
At the time of my visits to the park, it was a much different world. I'm probably dating myself, but this was a time before self-service gasoline. Most places offer full service, which included at the very least a windshield wash, and an offer to check under the hood. Any needed maintenance could be taken care of then. Prices were around thirty cents per gallon, and tires were checked and inflated for free. AM radio was king of the airwaves, and blasted rock and roll music through the open windows of the cars as kids cruised the streets, ate hamburgers at the drive in restaurant, or went to drive in movies.
Now nearly every state in the country, has gone away from the full service model for the most part and you see people pumping their own gas, checking their own oil, power steering fluid and coolant, or inflating their own tires. Traditional gasoline stations have either gone out of business, or evolved into convenience stores, offering a wide range of products to supplement the fuel sales. The drive in restaurant is now the drive through and as far as drive in theaters go, well that subject could be another hub. Joyland fit well with that older time and era.
History of Joyland
The park originally was built at 1515 E Central a few blocks northeast of Downtown Wichita in 1949. It was started by Lester Ottaway, and established in an area that is currently occupied by commercial businesses. A few years later, the founder passed away, and his son's moved it to the current location at 2801 S Hillside. It was at that location where I first visited as a twelve year old.
The park was in continuous operation from 1949 until 2003 from spring through fall. 2003 was the year I left Wichita, and it was well known that as a business, Joyland was struggling. They re-opened in 2006 for a single season, then closed once again, and remain so to the present.
In the late sixties, or around the time I first visited, the Ottaways sold the park to Stanley and Margaret Nelson who operated the place until it closed. They made new upgrades, and added some new attractions during that time, as the Ottaways moved into a different phase of the business. Ottaway Amusements located a few miles southeast of town now operates a mobile carnival that travels around the central parts of the country, setting up at county fairs, local festivals, and other events where their service is in demand. But the establishment of Joyland turned out to be a real jewel.
One of the most popular attractions was a 1949 era roller coaster. It was all wood construction on the frame and is one of the few left. A group calling themselves American Coaster Enthusiasts ranked it as an ACE coaster classic.
The park also boasted a classic miniature railroad train, an old fashioned carousel, and a huge Military Band Organ. The roller coaster and carousel were built in 1949, while the train's date of manufacture was around 1910 and the organ's approximately 1905. These in themselves represent a huge chunk of American culture, and gave years of service to the enjoyment of park visitors. Pictures of some of these rides in their current condition can be seen at http://www.joylandwichita.org/photos.html
A School Tradition
I went to elementary school in a town that is a mere visage of what it used to be. It wasn't always that way; prior to the thirties era depression there were two banks, a nice department store and a number of other businesses providing a strong economy and services to the residents. The earliest memory I have is of a small town with a grocery store, drug store, cafe, locker plant, hardware store, gas station, lumber store, and grain elevator. The city services included a library, community building, and sports fields. There was no municipal water system or sewer, and only occasionally, a City Marshall. The schools consisted of a grade school, grades one through eight, and a high school with nine through twelve. The phone system was a locally owned cooperative with service to "central" and calls were made by turning a crank. It probably wasn't too different from most of the smaller rural communities across the state during that time. Today, so far as I know, none of those business are still open. The original grade school building was closed during the seventies, and classes moved to the high school building since high school students were being bussed to another town. Then the relocated grade school subsequently closed during the nineties. The original grade school building no longer exists, but the high school building is still there so far as I know.
But as small and limited as the town was, there were a lot of activities.Students enjoyed things like summer baseball, and basketball during the school year. High School students played football in the fall, and basketball during the winter. In the spring they competed in track and field events. At the grade school level, all students took music classes, and a number of school programs were scheduled while the school year was in session. They performed for the audience, mainly consisting of families and neighbors, the songs and an occasional play. On the last day of school, the final program was held to showcase the years accomplishments. It was a celebratory atmosphere and a large livestock watering tank was brought in and filled with ice, water, and several cases of ten ounce bottles of soda pop. Afterwards, kids and parents were allowed to drink for free until their stomachs sloshed. It was something we looked forward to all year, as summer vacation started the day after.
But then, In the seventh and eight grades, the added activity of a Wichita field trip became the highlight of our school experience. For younger students, shorter more localized field trips featuring skating parties or something similar were offered, but the Wichita trip was looked forward to by everyone, as those returning from it were full of stories about all the fun they had. I listened to the accounts of my older brother and sister, and stories from friends about the things they had seen and learned. At twelve years of age, I couldn't have been more excited.
I don't remember all the businesses we visited on the two trips we took, but I do remember a bank, a TV station, a dairy processing plant, and a 7UP bottling plant. We were also lucky enough to take a tour through one of Cessna's airplane factories, but the noise kept me from getting much out of that one. Before going to Joyland, we ate our lunches, and afterwards on the way home, we would stop at a restaurant for dinner. School buses weren't used for these excursions since they were too big, slow, and awkward to maneuver in city traffic. Rather, a number of volunteer parents would each take a carload of rowdy anxious students in their private vehicles and try keep together as a caravan while navigating the busy streets. And yes, I do remember the parents had to sign some sort of permission slip even back then. It probably included a liability waiver.
Wichita TV Station
After a long time of looking forward to it, finally arriving at Joyland seemed a dream come true for most of us. We were generally just a bunch of unsophisticated country kids who were a lot more acquainted with cows and chickens than the more urban offerings of an amusement park. There we were, a bunch of first timers thrown in the mix with the city kids who had been going there all there lives. We must have seemed like a bunch of hicks to them, wandering around staring at everything.
The approach to the gate led down a sidewalk from the parking lot. A swimming pool was situated just inside the park fence to the right, and trees to the left shaded the walkway as it crossed a small footbridge over a creek. Once inside, we were given ride tickets, and told to pair up in a buddy system. Perverts weren't unheard of back then, although not as common and bold as today. I and another kid took off trying to take it all in. A midway consisting of several arcades stretched out to the left of the gate as one entered the park, and it was in this direction we went first. It led right to the roller coaster. This ride was one of the few wood framed roller coasters in the country. When the operator, in this instance a high school kid pressed the button, the drive chain drawing the cars to the apex of the first hill made a clattering/clanking sound. I couldn't wait to get on. A lap bar held us in place and the high school-er checked each one to be sure it was locked, then walked back to a long lever by the end of the cars and pushed. The brake released, the cars gently rolled down to the first curve causing the wood to creak and groan. Then the chain grabbed the first car and we were dragged up a steep hill for nearly ten seconds. The down side of the hill was next and few seconds later, I couldn't wait to get off. A video taken on the ride had been posted on YouTube, and can be seen here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqvYA9BPhqA
It was that down side of the hill that was the problem. It was an eighty foot drop during which the speed accelerated from a crawl to nearly fifty miles per hours. I had always liked speed, but it was the fall that bothered me; that weightless feeling. In spite of that, at the insistence of my buddy, we wound up riding the thing three times. It never got any better. But there were other rides that offered fun without the implied threat to life. We rode something called a Tilt-a-Whirl, and then the Scrambler. It was a particularly fun ride, but a little difficult to describe. All I can say without writing something close to an operators manual, is that through a combination of rotation and spinning, the buckets where we sat were yanked one direction, and then back. It would then be thrown in another direction and yanked back. At one point during that brief instant before it changed directions, we could look down into the water in the swimming pool, and in the next instant see it replaced by pavement. I probably liked it the best.
Another popular one was the bumper cars. They sound safe, but there were a surprisingly large number of minor bruises and bumps accumulated on them. It's a good thing kids that age aren't prone to whiplash. And of course what decent amusement park would be without some sort of haunted house, carousel, and Ferris wheel. Joyland's haunted house ran small two person cars through a dark building with sudden twists, turns and macabre displays. Although there were a few thrills and surprises, it couldn't be considered frightening. As a bunch of pre-teen thrill seeking boys, we didn't even slow down at the Ferris wheel or carousel.
Then there was the worst ride in the park. It was even worse than the roller coaster if that was possible. I don't remember what it was called, but it was similar in design to a Ferris Wheel, but instead of open seats, it was fitted with oval shaped enclosed cages.These cages were weighted on the bottom to hold them upright as they were simply free wheeling on their mounts. Inside the cages were bench seats fitted with some sort of lap restraint, and as the large wheel rotated around the smaller cages were subjected to a series of forces that caused them to rock violently at first and then start spinning.
We stood in line. My buddy was anticipatory, but I was dubious. My doubts rose from observing one of the cages. It had been spinning most of the time while we watched, and now that the ride was unloading, it continued to spin. It seemed to me it was spinning pretty fast too. And the sound coming from within was uncontrolled laughter. Like a Ferris wheel, this ride had to be loaded and unloaded evenly, so the laughing cage went around at least one full revolution before the victims were released.
I watched part in fascination, and part dread, as the operator slowed the cage and stopped it in an upright position. He opened the door, and a young couple managed to climb out. I couldn't understand how since their laughing couldn't help but make them short of breath, but they did so, and even stood up without staggering. I don't remember her, but he was wearing a white long sleeved shirt, that contrasted sharply with his fire engine red face. We were ushered into the same cage while they laughed until they were out of earshot.
By then, I had my own problems. Upon being seated inside we discovered the cage could be controlled to an extent. A bar ran across the car at about shoulder height, and something resembling a steering wheel was welded to it. We found out that by pulling on the wheel it would set some sort of brake and prevent the car from spinning. From that point on it became a test of wills and strength between the kid that wanted to ride the roller coaster three times and the kid that didn't. I was the kid that didn't. Through much of the ride, though, my muscle prevailed over his. I pulled on that wheel like my life depended on it, while he pushed as hard as he could. It wasn't my life I was trying to save nearly as much as my dignity which would have been sacrificed if I had "tossed my cookies." My dignity and I both survived.
Then for some reason, my trip the following year wasn't as memorable as the first. The only thing I remember for sure was riding the roller coaster, but limiting it to one time, and avoiding the other horror altogether. Otherwise it was probably pretty much a repeat of the first time. Ironically, even though I walked away disliking roller coasters, and hating Ferris Wheels with rotating cages, I rode something called the Octopus a few years later, and loved it. By all accounts it should have been worse than any of them.
All too soon, time passes. I grew up, got married and had kids of my own. When I moved to Wichita, my oldest was eight, another one almost five, and we had a baby between two and three. One afternoon we decided to take them to Joyland and let them experience it for themselves. At the time they had something called Ride-O-Rama, that let people ride unlimited times with the purchase of a button. That's the last time I remember riding that roller coaster. My oldest was in the front seat naturally, waving her hands over her head the entire trip. I sat with my five year old, and had concerns it might be too intense for her, but I think she actually had more fun than I did. I seem to recall going back out there a few more times, but by then, the kids were old enough to ride by themselves and I stayed off. We moved away shortly after that for a few months but even after our return, never visited Joyland again. By that time, places like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, or Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO. were attracting visitors from the Wichita area, and we were included among them.
In the end, it was places like those that probably caused the park to decline. It was only a three hour drive to Kansas City, about the same to Frontier Land in Oklahoma City, and although Branson was at six hour drive it offered much more. Attendance at the Joyland park dropped until revenues made it difficult to keep up with maintenance, and impossible to add new features. Finally it shut down the same summer I loaded all our belongings in a truck and made way for the West Coast.
During the last year I lived in the Wichita area, plans were tentatively being made to build a new theme park more on the order of those larger newer places, to be located a few miles north of Wichita. It too, would have a western theme, given that Wichita was originally a cow town. It would be large, much more so than Joyland, and would be placed a short distance from the Interstate Highway, so people would find it more accessible. Joyland was located on an arterial traffic way, but within a residential area, and not as easy or convenient to get to as something on the outskirts of town. Another advantage of the new park, was that it would be near other attractions including a pavilion where concerts, circuses and other shows played, and a dog track where para mutual wagering was allowed. Construction began, and interest in Joyland faded.
But the new theme park didn't last long. The first season they were open, the weather turned unually wet and cool. That kept people away, and reduced their running time by several weeks. They must have been on a razor thin margin of profit, since the poor attendance reduced revenues enough that owners went broke the first year.It closed and efforts to infuse enough cash to operate a second season failed. The last I heard, the banks were forcing sales of some of the rides and fixtures to try to recoup part of their investment.
Today, Joyland sits abandoned, with rides partially disassembled, some buildings damaged and others demolished. The swimming pool and a nearby skating rink are both closed, and the entire place is off the entertainment radar.
At the same time, the school I attended back then is long demolished, and the town where it was located declines a little more each year. At some point it will likely become a ghost town or possibly be just a small cluster of homes situated on the flat Kansas prairie.
Gasoline stations in the area no longer have bright colored streamers blowing in the endless wind to attract customers, and the uniformed attendants who pumped gas, checked oil, and adjusted tire pressure have been replaced by clerks sitting behind a counter, accepting payments and making change when necessary. A low tire requires a driver alert enough to recognize it, ownership of a pressure gauge and the know how to use it and the air hose. At some places a little pocket change might be necessary to deposit in the air compressor as well.
And gone also with those pictures of a gentler, slower time is a place where nearly every Wichita kid for several generations fell in love with roller coasters and bumper cars. A place where the reality of life during the turbulent sixties and seventies could be forgotten for a few hours as the carefree atmosphere of fun and fantasy prevailed. Gone is a hometown original where the owners worked to serve their community by observing special events such as July 4th, or Halloween. The town where Pizza Hut was started, where Coleman Company built camping equipment, Mentholatum was developed, and White Castle sold their first hamburger is losing another iconic landmark as people lose interest and wish for something better..
Margaret Nelson continues to own the tract of land where Joyland was located. It is a fairly large plot, possibly as much as fifty acres, and is certainly well suited for something, It should hold significant value based just on the property itself. But as vandals continue to trespass, damage, and cause problems, the burden to the owner and the city will increase. It doesn't help either, that across the street from the park lies an area of low income housing known as Planeview. A declining neighborhood with many of the social ills common in poorer areas, Planeview is home to peoples of various national origins, and suffers from ethnic differences in addition to poverty. Crime there has always been a problem, and one man I spoke with twenty-five years ago who lived nearby attested that he moved out because the frequent sounds of gunfire scared him. Gangs are common too, and they may be a source of the vandalism that is taking place inside the park.
So places like Worlds of Fun, Branson, Six Flags, and even Disneyland continue to reign as the destination of choice for families in the area. Frontier City went out of business a few years ago leaving Oklahoma City out of the loop. And with the failed attempt to build a theme park near Wichita, some residents are thinking it might have been a better plan to purchase the Joyland property at a lower price, and then invest wisely to expand and upgrade it. It certainly would have been less expensive, and would have left a little more cushion in the operating budget. It might even have sparked a new hometown pride in Wichitans, and encouraged them to support it. At this point, we'll never know for sure.