Oaks Park at 101: Staking its future on the past
RUMMAGING THROUGH ITS CLOSET
While most other turn-of-the-century American amusement parks are but fond memories, Oaks Park survives with its cotton candy ambiance relatively intact, on the Willamette Waterfront just north of the Sellwood Bridge.
Now 101 years old, Oaks Park is the last remaining American amusement park where roller skaters can rumble along on an original, large rink to the music of a 1920s Wurlitzer organ. Its dance pavilion still exists, too; and, inside, during the Multnomah County Fair, tables are set with plastic-wrapped displays of homemade blue ribbon pies, cakes, and cookies. A few steps outside, the historic 1912 American carousel slowly spins its cargo of delighted children.
Most of The Oaks' other not-too-scary rides were made in the 1950s, and when their decorative decals--for instance--aren't original, they are exact replicas.
'Our rides from the '50s are expensive to maintain,' explains Mary Beth Coffey, Senior Manager of Oaks Park Association, the privately-held nonprofit that runs the park. 'Our ferris wheel is new, but we paid extra to have it look like the 1950s.'
Each year, depending upon the season, between 50 and 200 employees keep Oaks Park humming, generating the income to pay for those extra details that make the park unique. Enticed by such timelessness and family-oriented fun, a half-million guests file past the gate's nutcracker sentries each year. Visitors also are drawn by a variety of celebrations organized at the park: The Fourth of July, Armed Forces Day, Home School Day, the revived Multnomah County Fair, Science Day, and Oktoberfest.
Before each event, decorations are newly created, put up, and taken down.
For Oktoberfest in September, the grounds team moved hundreds of decorations. 'We try to make our decorations what children and mothers would like to see--flowers and fruits, rather than big-chested women,' comments Coffey.
As decorations come and go, some get stored away with other unused park items. From the looks of what's inside a dusty warehouse across from the parking lot, a fair amount of park relics have been relegated to storage through the years.
Amidst the cultural icons of a century which spanned both farms and rocket ships, a life-sized replica of a Clydesdale workhorse hooked up to a wooden cart looks like something belonging in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Long ago, someone stood inside that cart, reached through its open windows, and handed bags of popcorn to customers.
Stored nearby, old bumper cars and toy sports cars appear to have been placed there back in the days of shag carpets.
Weirdness has always played a part in the thrill of amusement parks, so it's not entirely surprising that on the warehouse floor, wedged between old light fixtures, paint-peeled sconces and a chain link fence are a pair of what appear to be human skeletons held together by wires. Perhaps these skeletons once glowed an eerie green in a dark corner of the House of Horrors.
And, consistent with the rest of the park's authentic decor, those skeletons look, not like plastic, but like the real deal.
It's a much-loved park, agrees Coffey--as, muffled by the grove of oak trees, the eternal sound of children's squeals and laughter coming from the park drifts upward, and The Oaks gently moves onward towards year number 102.