General

Good Old Summertime (1850): From picnics to sprint cars, Williams Grove has hosted a variety of activities | History

Good Old Summertime (1850): From picnics to sprint cars, Williams Grove has hosted a variety of activities |  History

First settled by David Wilson around 1750, the area was part of a land grant that spanned Cumberland and York counties. In 1779, Wilson sold the Cumberland County portion of the 148 acres to his son-in-law, John Williams, who built a stone mansion on the south bank of Yellow Breeches Creek about 20 years later.

Just north of the mansion is a 28-acre island in the creek. In the center of this island is a natural spring, surrounded by an oak forest. That island was developed into a resort for picnics and social gatherings, while the mansion became the center of a family business that once included a lime kiln, quarry and two mills.

The Williams Grove Amusement Park dates back to 1850, when the Williams family began hosting picnics on their property, according to Jim Futrell’s “Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania.”

The picnics grew in popularity to the point where people built cottages for summer residences. A merry-go-round became part of the landscape. Railway lines through this area have greatly improved access to the site. In 1873, the Cumberland Valley Railroad leased the area along the creek and developed it into fairgrounds that hosted the Great Grangers’ Picnic Exhibition from 1874 to 1916.

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In 1887, the Williams Grove site had a 2,000-seat auditorium, animal barns, a hotel, exhibit halls, and cottages and tents. In its heyday, the week-long agricultural festival drew more than 100,000 guests from more than 30 states, mostly by rail and horse-drawn carriage.

The funfair went downhill during the First World War and was sold to Charles Markley in 1918. Unable to revive the operation, he sold the fairgrounds to the Richwine family in 1924. The family turned the fairgrounds into an amusement park that thrived even during the Great Depression, Futrell wrote in his book.

Over time, the Richwines added new rides in 1933, including the “Zipper,” a roller coaster. In 1939, they expanded the offering by opening the Williams Grove Speedway on an adjacent farm. The family added more attractions in 1942, but had to close the park in 1943 and 1944 when World War II rationing took full effect.

After the war, Hersheypark expanded and became its main competitor. Williams Grove struggled until a group of local steam engine enthusiasts revived the Great Grangers Picnic, Futrell wrote. The picnic and speedway became the main attractions.

In 1971, Morgan Hughes came on the scene and bought the speedway and park for about $1.3 million. Hughes upgraded the amusement park for a reopening in early June 1972. Three weeks later, Hurricane Agnes swept through the area, causing Yellow Breeches Creek to overflow and flood the park with as much as 10 feet of water, Futrell wrote.

The floods severely damaged the amusement park, but it reopened for July 4 after Hughes worked with 250 people to clean up. Six years later, in 1978, Hughes added a show boat ride, a new miniature train, water slides and a miniature golf course.

A tornado hit the amusement park in 1980, but Hughes brought it back to life and added more rides in 1985, 1999, and 2000. By 2006, Williams Grove had 22 rides and other laser tag attractions.

Amusement park sale evokes nostalgia

Steam engine group buys 90 hectares in Williams Grove

In January 2007, the Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association purchased 90 acres of the Williams Grove tract adjacent to the amusement park. That tract has been the site of the annual steam engine shows since 1959.

As part of the purchase, the association announced the start of a Sunday farmers and flea market, in part to fill a void left after the Silver Spring flea market on the West Shore closed. A month later, in February 2007, the association held an auction to sell items left behind on the property, including many pieces of the old attractions of the now-closed amusement park. Those items include bumper cars, teacups, and stacks of wooden barrels from the fun house.

Meanwhile, the half-mile dirt road continues to draw fans. National champions such as Ted Horn, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti have raced in the Grove. The speedway will continue to host weekly programs from March through October, including performances by the World of Outlaws.

Hughes, 88, remembered as a racing pioneer

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Hughes died on April 12, 2008 at the age of 88. He is credited with transforming Williams Grove Speedway into one of the best dirt roads in the country for sprint car racing.

In the 1950s, Morgan Hughes Inc., which later became Hot Rods Inc. became responsible for importing many of the amusement park rides from European manufacturers to American amusement parks. It is believed that Hughes was the man who brought the first giant Ferris wheel to the United States.

Joseph Cress is a reporter for The Sentinel on education and history. He can be reached at [email protected] or by calling 717-218-0022.