Nothing Up My Sleeve
A Magical World Called Kiddieland
Back in the turbulent 1960’s, we could go out into our backyard on summer nights, look to the northwest, and be reassured that things in Galesburg were okay. Sweeping the northwest horizon was a beam of light, powerful enough to be seen from more than ten miles away.
It was the searchlight used by Kiddieland.
Kiddieland was a small amusement park located on North Henderson Street in Galesburg, approximately where the Asian Buffet stands today. The park operated from the late 1950s until 1972. Countless numbers of kids from Knox County rode the rides, ate the cotton candy, and had the time of their life in the family friendly park.
My parents always told me that Kiddieland was the result of a travelling carnival that went out of business shortly after arriving in Galesburg. I believed that as a kid, but then again, I also believed that when you heard a song on the radio, the singer was actually AT the station singing live (it’s amazing the kinds of things that get put into your head when you’ve got a brother and sister who are at least ten years your senior).
As it turns out, that story (the one about Kiddieland) is probably true.
In 1961, Saylor Conard took over ownership of the amusement park. Although records are somewhat sketchy, it appears that a Robert Green had ownership of the park before 1961. He had acquired it because the travelling carnival went bankrupt while passing through Galesburg.
The park itself seemed huge, but then again, I was a little kid. I remember the entire park was surrounded by a silver train that boarded kids on the north side of the park. For a dime (all rides were ten cents), you could circle the park once, taking in all the rides that you were about to ride, or for those on their way out of Kiddieland, remembering where you’d been.
The entire park was covered in pea gravel which served several purposes. First, it made it extremely difficult to get any traction at all, so running was difficult, but not impossible. Stopping, however, was a bit of a problem and usually ended up with a head over heels crash. This resulted in the intelligent kids being very orderly and polite. I, on the other hand, probably still have fragments of pea gravel imbedded in my knees.
The Northwest corner of the park was home to the Merry Go Round. Pairs of horses bobbed up and down as they galloped around their own circular track as a calliope tooted out its repertoire of circus songs. Just for the record, there was never a gold ring to grab, at least none in my recollection.
A bit to the east was a collection of rides for little tykes. There was a boat ride which featured little miniature jon boats floating in a shallow pool, making revolutions around a centralized pole. There was a race track of sorts which was non-electric. And it seems that there was a ride that let kids either “drive” a car or motorcycle around a very small track, much the same as the Merry-Go-Round.
The boat ride wasn’t the most exciting thing in the world. In fact, it wasn’t the most exciting thing in the park. Come to think of it, it probably didn’t even place in the top 100 most exciting things in the park which would have included burned out light bulbs.
The pool in which the boats floated was just a few inches deep, but what made it interesting, at least to a kid like me, was the fact that the water was colored. It wasn’t just one color; there were four or more sections of color which was accomplished with colored spotlights under the water.
I remember once, I wondered if green water felt any different than regular clear water. When the old lady who ran the ride put us in the boats each time, she warned us to keep our hands inside the boat. She must have been a mind reader in her spare time because she knew I was going to stick my hand over the side of the boat and into the water. I was determined to find out what green water felt like.
I watched her closely, waiting for her to look away while I was in the vicinity of the green water. She never did. I finally decided that I’d find out what red water felt like because she did glance away whenever I’d enter that portion of the pool. As soon as I stuck my hand in the water, she yelled and pointed a boney finger in my direction. My hand shot back in the boat like a slingshot and I fretted that the old woman would tell my parents that I’d violated her rules and would be forever banned from Kiddieland.
The red water seemed a little cooler than clear water, in case you’re wondering, but other than that, it felt the same.
The racetrack was one of my favorites. It featured little wooden platforms just big enough to sit on with a piece of wood that then stuck up a foot and a half between your outstretched legs. On this piece of wood was what made the whole contraption move: a hand crank. You had to rotate your arms much like riding a bicycle in order to get the little wooden cart to move. The faster you “pedaled,” the faster you’d go.
The thing was, the guy running the ride would always let the person in front of you get a good head start. My goal was always to catch the person in front of me and crash into their rear end.
It never happened.
The guy was just too good at knowing how much of a head start the person in front needed.
Once when it looked like I might finally catch the kid in front of me, a hand swept down out of nowhere, grabbed the back of my cart, and held me back just enough that the kid in front of me escaped. The guy running the ride just smiled as I gave him the evil eye.
A little further down was an airplane ride. You got to sit in your own little airplane and lifted into the air while you shot at imaginary bad guys with your onboard gun. The gun made an electronic ack-ack-ack sound providing your were lucky enough to get one that worked.
The east side of the property had the “big kids’” rides. There were the swings which did exactly that, and the bumper cars. I wasn’t allowed on either. I was too little. Even after I crossed into double digits age-wise, I was still deemed “too young” to ride these rides.
The swings are exactly the same as you’ll find at almost any county fair today. Even the small carnivals have a set. You sit in a swing, it lifts you up a ways, then it rotates and swings you around. Yippee. If you like getting dizzy, enjoy getting thwacked in the head by large flying insects, or find pleasure in losing your latest meal, then this ride is for you. I rode them once as an adult and suddenly had a greater appreciation for my parents’ decision to keep me off of them as a child.
The bumper cars, on the other hand, looked really cool. But my parents were professional parents. Every time I came up with a reason that they should allow me to get into one of the bumper cars, they came up with two reasons why I shouldn’t. I even tried to explain that it would prepare me for driving around the square in Galesburg, and even though that elicited quite a bit of thought on their part, the answer was still a resounding “NO!”
Near the center of the park was the main attraction – the Ferris Wheel. At the time, I didn’t know, nor would I have cared, that the inventor of the Ferris Wheel was from Galesburg. All I cared was that the thing was huge (maybe three or four stories high?) and you could see forever if you were at the top. It was a glorious ride, one that sent my stomach spinning and flipping every time our seat rounded the crest and started back down.
The Southwest corner had my favorite ride of all. My family always called it “the Tubs,” but most readers will recognize it as the Tilt-A-Whirl. I think I could have ridden this thing all night long, and still begged for more.
I remember the music from the Merry-go-round, and it seems that speakers were strategically placed around the park to broadcast circus-like music all over. The lighting for Kiddieland looked like something that was thrown together at the last minute. Bare bulbs (were they yellow?) hung low from electrical lines that were strung between the rides. It seems like the whole park was dimly lit and loud.
After the rides, it was time for treats. I only recall Kiddieland selling two different items: sno-cones and cotton candy. I’m sure soft drinks were available as well, but that was something that could be purchased anywhere. My dimes were reserved for rides, sno-cones, or cotton candy.
Kiddieland continued to hold prices at a dime per ride clean up till about 1972. It was then that inflation, rising insurance rates, and maintenance finally caught up with the family run business. Saylor Conard announced the closing of his amusement park. His gross revenue in the last year of operation (1971) was a whopping $26,000.
Scores of Galesburg’s citizens clamored to save the park. Petitions were signed and presented to the Galesburg City Council to purchase the rides and move them to the Lake Storey area. In those days, the Council was concerned about getting involved in private business and really didn’t want to set a precedent.
Fifth ward alderman at the time, Frank Johnson led the opposition to saving the park. He asked Saylor Conard at a city council meeting, “Do you want to save Kiddieland, or do you want to save Saylor Conard.” I’m not sure you could make a distinction between the two.
In the end, despite 2500 signatures to help save the park, the Council decided not to “commercialize city parks or subsidize private business.” The park closed for a final time on August 13, 1972. Rides were sold and dismantled leaving behind a pea gravel lot, perfect for a restaurant that would become the Golden Bear.
Years later, the operator of a Tilt-A-Whirl that my kids were riding on confided that part of the ride had been the one at Kiddieland. He was the one who told me that most of the park had been sold to independently owned carnivals.
Whenever I’d tell my kids about Kiddieland, especially after they got older and were going to places like Adventurland in Des Moines, or Six Flags in Gurnee or St. Louis, they’d just look at me like I was making up another one of my stories. There could never have been a magical place like Kiddieland, especially not on North Henderson Street in the middle of all those businesses.
But there was. And it holds a magical place in not only my heart, but the hearts of thousands of kids in and around Galesburg who spent part of their youth running through the pea gravel on their way to creating a memory that would last a lifetime.