Portland's memory maker The Oaks Amusement Park refuses to budge from the family focus illustrated in its early newspaper advertisements

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - Makaio Joseph, 2, of LaGrande, Oregon makes some memories on the antique carousel with his father Dillon Joseph.For me, it was Safety Patrol picnics and watching fireworks from the bluff.

For my wife, it was a company event where friendly office rivalries were settled on the bumper cars.

For my neighbor Ginnie, it was the time spent on the roller skating rink.

Anyone who has spent much time in Portland has a story to tell about “The Oaks.”

Oaks Amusement Park makes memories. It has since the day it opened.

“You make a tradition and a memory for people and they will uphold you,” says Mary Beth Coffey, senior manager of the park.

Established in 1905 as a “trolley park,” visitors would arrive by rail and walk to the Jolly Gladway, as the park’s midway was called. In 1906, the roller skating rink opened, attracting as many as 700 people per night. It’s the largest rink in the West.

Oak’s Park been home to a zoo, rose gardens, and auditoriums for singing and dancing. John Philip Sousa played at the park 12 times, according to Coffey.

by: COURTESY OF OAKS AMUSEMENT PARK - In the early days, visitors would dress up to come to events at the park. Today's midway was originally known as the Jolly Gladway. In 1948, the Vanport flood destroyed the original rink floor that my neighbor skated on as a child. Walker Leroy, the park’s head of maintenance had the idea to install sealed oil barrels under the new floor to lift it in case of future floods. The idea worked, saving the priceless floor during 1964 and 1996 floods.

In 1955, the organ from the Broadway Theater was installed over the skating rink. “You need to skate to the live Wurlitzer,” Coffey says. “You need to feel that vibrating in your chest.”

If the skating rink is the park’s heart, the 102-year old carousel is its soul. All of the animals were carved in America, and have been restored to their original Technicolor glory.

“We’re not a thrill park, we’re a family park,” says Coffey. Many of the park rides are accessible to even the youngest visitors.

Through the years they’ve added some thrill rides. From a looping coaster to the Screamin’ Eagle, there’s plenty to get your adrenaline rushing.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN M. VINCENT - The midway keeps its historic feel, but all of the buildings and attractions have been updated. “We have to modernize, or kids just won’t come,” Coffey says.

The picnic grounds were an early draw, as groups from Portland’s ethnic communities would spend entire weekends picnicking at The Oaks. Now they host 800-900 picnics a season, from family gatherings to huge company and union events.

A shiny new train circles the grounds, and a miniature golf course weaves its way through a grove of Oak Trees. Coffey knows more change is inevitable.

“I’m going to guess in 10 years it will change. I hope it doesn’t, but I just hope the people keep in mind safe, wholesome, family fun. We get that we don’t own it, we’re the stewards until the next group.”

A big part of that strategy is keeping prices affordable. This newspaper partners with the park on a two-for-one ride bracelet promotion each Tuesday.

In 1985, the park’s owners gave their ownership to the non-profit Oaks Park Association with the stipulation that it must remain an amusement park. If it failed financially, the property would be turned over to the city. When Coffey was hired 30 years ago she asked board member Bill Naito if he would be selling condominiums or amusement rides. Naito reportedly responded “absolutely amusement rides. This park will never fail again.”

John M. Vincent is a third-generation Oregon

journalist. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He welcomes your suggestions for this column.

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