Elmhurst History Museum explores history of amusement parks

  • A new exhibit at the Elmhurst History Museum explores the history of amusement parks in the Chicago area -- including the role of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

    A new exhibit at the Elmhurst History Museum explores the history of amusement parks in the Chicago area -- including the role of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Library of Congress photo Courtesy of Elmhurst History Museum

  • Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom was a landmark for many years in Oakbrook Terrace.

    Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom was a landmark for many years in Oakbrook Terrace. Courtesy Dispensa family

 
By Ann Piccininni
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 5/10/2019 6:18 AM

Before digital diversions like social media and internet surfing came along, there were amusement parks.

And while Ferris wheels, roller coasters, carousels and carnival midways continue to draw summer crowds, today's parks are notably different from their predecessors.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A new exhibit that opened Friday at the Elmhurst History Museum explores the Chicago area amusement park scene with photos, artifacts, advertisements, memorabilia and video. Titled "Worlds of Wonder: Remembering Chicagoland's Amusement Parks," it will remain on display through Aug. 18.

The exhibit includes a contemporary version of the old Skee Ball game, an old-time photo booth, funhouse mirrors and a chance to virtually ride a roller coaster, courtesy of high-tech.

"We're going to have a little device on which you can sit down and take a simulated roller coaster trip," said Dan Bartlett, museum curator.

There also will be parts of the exhibit aimed at learning about science, including a place where kids can explore the physics of a roller coaster.

The installation will give visitors a look at local parks and how they changed over time.

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"In general, we're talking about amusement parks in Chicago," Bartlett said. "Why do we have amusement parks? They were really popular in the early 20th century. We're talking about how and why they were so popular"

The exhibit primarily focuses on four parks.

Riverview Park opened in 1904 and was located at Western and Belmont avenues, near the current site of Lane Technical High School. The park closed in 1967.

"That was the crown jewel of Chicagoland parks for so many years. We're picking up the original freak show banner from Chicago's Riverview Park," Bartlett said.

Such sideshows featured humans and animals that purportedly displayed strange physical anomalies or talents, such as the two-faced man and the sword swallower.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Riverview had these kinds of shows all the way back to their beginnings," he said. "The banners themselves are very large and colorful."

The painted canvas mural banner in the exhibit measures 7 feet tall and 24 feet long.

Two major parks were located fairly close to Elmhurst: Kiddieland and Dispensa's Kiddie Kingdom.

Kiddieland, in Melrose Park, was open from 1929 through 2009. Dispensa's, in Oakbrook Terrace, closed in 1984, Bartlett said.

"Most of these parks had kind of a junior roller coaster and Ferris wheel," he said.

Santa's Village in East Dundee reopened in 2011 after ceasing operations for a brief period, Bartlett said. It originally opened in 1959 and was one of the first theme parks.

Bartlett said the introduction of cars and television were two of the most powerful catalysts to alter amusement park history.

"At Riverview, you didn't get in your car and drive there. Most people are getting on the trolley to go that way," he said.

Historic photos and videos tell more of the tale of the parks' evolution, he said.

"We're going to have smaller objects from these four parks. We're hoping to get the original North Pole from Santa's Village," he said.

Bartlett said Santa's Village was part of a chain of three such parks -- the other two in California -- that each had a refrigerated pole that retains its icy surface all year long.

"They still have one now. It's near Santa's house and it has ice on it," said Bartlett, who recently traveled to the East Dundee park to research the exhibit. "These were fun places. It has been a lot of fun to do."

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