Idlewild, Ligonier Valley History, Pennsylvania History, Western Pennsylvania Amusement Parks, Western Pennsylvania history, Westmoreland County history

War and Pandemic: A History of Idlewild Closures

Ad from the May 22, 1943 issue of the Latrobe Bulletin announcing that Idlewild would not open for that season.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has certainly made the 2020 season an unprecedented one for Idlewild and SoakZone, with the park’s nearly two-month delay in opening and its new health and safety protocols for guests and employees. Originally scheduled to open on Saturday, May 16, Idlewild will now open to the general public on Saturday, July 11, after invite-only and season passholder days during this upcoming week.

However, 2020 isn’t the first year the park has been closed for a partial or even a full season.

Pennsylvania’s oldest operating amusement park closed for the entire 1943 and 1944 seasons due to World War II rationing and economic difficulties, reopening on a limited basis in 1945 before returning to full operations the following year.

The 1943 season would be the first time that Idlewild had closed since it was established by the Ligonier Valley Rail Road (LGV) in 1878 as a scenic picnic grove along the line. By that time, gasoline rationing had halted pleasure driving. Although Idlewild was located along an active railroad line (the LGV would not disband until after its final run on August 31, 1952), automobile traffic to the park had been steadily increasing.

Even in January, park management wasn’t sure about the park’s fate that summer.

“Don’t know as yet if we will open Idlewild this year or not. Time will tell. In either case will write you full details of our plans before anything is made public,” C.C. Macdonald, former Idlewild manager and later owner wrote in a January 1, 1943 letter to Harry Whiteman, president of the Latrobe Bulletin. The letter was published in the newspaper later that week.[1]

The Idlewild Management Company’s (IMC) inevitable decision was to close Idlewild for the 1943 season. Macdonald, whose family had managed the park since 1931, voiced his regrets for the necessary step in the May 12, 1943 issue of the Ligonier Echo. The same announcement would also appear in other regional newspapers:

“Due to conditions over which we have no control and which would cause us to lower the high morale that has been maintained at Idlewild for many years, we have decided to keep the park closed for the 1943 season. We regret very much to take this action and can only state to our friends and patrons that, when the war is over, we will endeavor to show them a bigger and better Idlewild along with our usual clean, wholesome fun and entertainment.” – C.C. Macdonald

The annual Ligonier Valley Reunion, which had been held at Idlewild Park since its beginning as a Sunday school union picnic more than 50 years prior, was one of the many traditional group picnics hosted at the park forced to cancel that year.

The 1944 season was a bust as well. Idlewild remained closed for a second consecutive year.

Management made some necessary business decisions during the park’s closure for these two entire seasons. The IMC’s board of directors reduced some officers’ salaries. They also sold off some rides, including the Skooter cars and the Custer Cars. Contracts with the Ferris wheel and popcorn stand concessionaires were discontinued effective at the end of 1943.[2] The park’s five black bears in their small menagerie were split up and sold to the Pittsburgh Zoo, Brackenridge Park Zoo in San Antonio, Texas, and another unnamed zoo in the U.S.[3] Lake Bouquet was drained and about 30,000 bass, bluegills and catfish were transferred to a hatchery and restocked in streams.

Financial difficulties notwithstanding, the Macdonald family was also dealing with personal difficulties during the park’s hiatus. In January 1944, younger son Richard (Dick) Macdonald, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, was injured in an airplane accident during his time as a test pilot in England. He would eventually return home in May to continue his recovery. [4]

Air Raid Warden Picnic 1942
This panoramic photo shows one of the last group picnics for the 1942 season – the Air Raid Wardens picnic on August 15, 1942 – before Idlewild Park completely closed for the 1943 and 1944 seasons during World War II. Image courtesy of Mark Clemens.

There was little news about Idlewild in the media until the fall of 1944, when it was announced that the park would be coming back to life for the 1945 season.

“We may not be able to open all the rides and amusements, but if enough help is available, activities will be on the same scale as previously,” Mr. Macdonald promised.[5]

Ad from the Latrobe Bulletin, August 8, 1945.

In 1945, the Idlewild Management Company formally voted to reopen the park during holidays and weekends until the termination of hostilities in Europe. [6] Idlewild opened on June 2, 1945, just missing its traditional Decoration (Memorial) Day grand opening, with the swimming pool following on June 15. At first, Idlewild was only open three days a week (Wednesday, Saturdays and Sunday), but eventually returned to a six-day schedule, being closed on Mondays).[7] There was limited free entertainment for a while (Slim Bryant and his Wildcats and the Mt. Pleasant Girl Band appeared on the park’s outdoor stage in August). Some of the amusements and refreshment stands remained closed due to a labor shortage; beginning in July, rides were only operated three days of the week because of the lack of help.[8]

Nevertheless, Idlewild was open! Picnics were once again scheduled at the park, including the Ligonier Valley Reunion in August. Crowds swarmed to the Ligonier Valley – including Idlewild – to enjoy the Fourth of July holiday:

 “Thousands of people jammed Idlewild Park. There the swimming pool as at Ligonier Valley Beach was filled. Hundreds stood in line to buy amusement tickets and then waited their turn at the rides. From noon until late in the evening the roads were bumper to bumper extending from the entrance to Idlewild to the Kingston bridge and east as far as the eye could see. Cars were parked on both sides of the road. Many seeing the park filled to the gates with autos stopped at the roadside and walked, carrying their heavy picnic baskets with them.”[9]

Gas rationing would be lifted in August and park-goers would set record attendance numbers for Labor Day, leading to a “very satisfactory” 1945 season for the park, all things considered.[10] The IMC invested more than $50,000 into numerous improvements for the 1946 season, which included adding new buildings and revamping existing ones, refurbishing the swimming pool, replacing the sold Skooter cars, renovating the Penny Arcade, buying new refreshment stand equipment, converting a picnic pavilion into a butcher shop and cold storage building, and adding a new gate and expanded road at the park’s entrance. [11] Since then, the park has operated for full seasons under the Macdonald family, Kennywood Park Corporation and Palace Entertainment, until now.

Idlewild has endured another pandemic in its history: the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. However, since the second wave of the illness and resulting social and economic restrictions didn’t hit Western Pennsylvania full force until the fall, the park’s traditional summer operations weren’t affected much, if at all, by the pandemic. The deadly flu epidemic would pass by the following spring. Idlewild was open as usual for the 1918 and 1919 seasons, hosting picnics and moonlight dances, although not as many as usually scheduled, due to World War I. The war affected the park more than the pandemic, chiefly because of its impact on railroad transportation; Pennsylvania Railroad company cars that would typically be used for picnic excursions were instead used to transport soldiers. For three consecutive years, Idlewild did not hold a picnic on Decoration Day, “because of the inability to get cars” but still hosted picnics for Independence Day and the Ligonier Valley Reunion.[12] Around 10,000 people were reported at the annual Ligonier Valley Reunion on August 15, 1918 alone.[13] The picnic’s proceeds would be given to the Ligonier Military Aid organization “to use for the health and comfort of the young men from this section who are in the service of their country fighting and ready to fight to conquer the Huns.”[14]

What obviously makes the current COVID-19 health crisis so different for Idlewild is that the global quarantines and economic shutdowns implemented to help slow the spread of the virus happened during this spring and summer, hampering the park’s off-season preparations and operating schedule. Not only that, but we haven’t seen at amusement parks until now such health and safety precautions that the park is taking to protect its patrons and employees, including limiting the maximum numbers of guests each day, requiring facemasks and social distancing, taking temperatures, and installing hand sanitizing stations and Plexiglas barriers. We likely won’t see the park’s typical regular stage entertainment or special events this year. The pandemic has created an unprecedented time for amusement parks, which in turn have had to take unprecedented measures to keep people safe. The 2020 season will certainly be one to remember in Idlewild’s long and storied history.

If you’re planning on going to Idlewild and SoakZone or any other amusement parks this season, please have fun, but also take care to stay safe and healthy.  Please refer to Idlewild and SoakZone’s comprehensive list of COVID-19 safety measures on the park’s website at https://www.idlewild.com/healthandsafety.

 

[1] “Idlewild Plans For 1943 Undecided. Latrobe Bulletin. January 6, 1943.
[2] Idlewild Management Company Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, May 18, 1943.
[3] “Bears at Idlewild Park Being Sold.” Latrobe Bulletin. November 26, 1943.
[4] “”Lt. Dick Macdonald Hurt in Plane Accident.” Ligonier Echo. March 3, 1944. “Returns to States.” The Ligonier Echo. May 19, 1944.
[5] “Idlewild Will Reopen in 1945; Has Been Closed Two Seasons.” The Ligonier Echo. October 6, 1944.
[6] Idlewild Management Company Board of Directors, Special Meeting Minutes, April 19, 1945.
[7] “Beginning June 15, Idlewild Park will re-open on a six-day basis, it was announced today by Jack Macdonald. The park, which has been closed for the past three season, has been operating on a three day a week basis since last week.” – “Idlewild Re-Opens.” The Ligonier Echo. June 8, 1945. However, advertisements later on in the season indicate the park returned to a three-day weekly schedule for the amusements, which operating the pool all week except on Mondays.
[8] “Rides To Operate Three Days a Week.” Latrobe Bulletin. July 6, 1945.
[9] “Many Vacationers Spend Fourth In the Valley.” The Ligonier Echo. July 6, 1945.
[10] Record Attendance At Idlewild Monday.” Latrobe Bulletin. September 4, 1945.
[11] ”Idlewild Plans Big Improvements For Next Season.” Latrobe Bulletin. August 28, 1945. “Idlewild Park Plans Big Improvement Program.” The Ligonier Echo. August 31, 1945.
[12] “No Picnic At Idlewild Friday.” Latrobe Bulletin. May 28, 1919. “Newsy Paragraphs.” Indiana Weekly Messenger. May 29, 1919.
[13] “The Ligonier Valley 27th Annual Reunion. At Idlewild Park Thursday, August 15, 1918—Usual Big Crowd Present.” The Ligonier Echo. August 21, 1918.
[14] “Ligonier Valley Annual Reunion. Twenty-seventh Annual Gathering at Idlewild Thursday, August 15.” The Ligonier Echo. July 24, 1918.

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3 thoughts on “War and Pandemic: A History of Idlewild Closures”

  1. So interesting! The more I look at things from my line of work from 100 years ago, it’s clear how these waves of pandemic varied from region to region when they hit. The one common denominator I keep finding from a century ago that’s different from today is that due to a lack of medical treatments/vaccines/antibiotics people knew how and why they had to quarantine back then, and communities were much more supportive of each other. If someone in a household got scarlet fever, the whole family would go into quarantine and the community would rally around them, bringing them food, supplies, etc. I’ve heard older folks talk about Polio in the 1940s/50s before the vaccine came, and how if there was an epidemic in their community how they could only play with so many kids, pools, and movie theatres were closed, the list goes on.

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