As I promised last week, this week I want to take you back to an era at the turn of the 1900’s when the electric trolley cars were still running in the city. A time when Summer was a time that Somersworth came to life and even the poorer folks that worked at the mills could visit the then thriving Central Park.
What follows is a fascinating story as told by Leola J. Pepler of Berwick. At the time she took this trip electric cars were the only major form of public transport in Somersworth and they moved passengers to Central Park. This was so they could share in the program of entertainment that was provided by the dance hall, the penny arcade, the outdoor theater, and Willand Pond.
Mrs Pepler Recalls Cherished Memories of Central Park, USA. Taken from The Somersworth Free Press: May 15th 1958
There is no form of modern transportation that can possibly create the same thrill that came from a ride in an open trolley car. The steps were high; the seats, hard and smoothly polished and there were stripped canvass curtains that could be hauled down if it rained.
Of all the seats not one was more eagerly sought than the front seat where the motor man guided the car and regulated the speed.
Clang, clang, clang went the trolley and let all in the way beware, for the car did not stop quickly or easily.
A ride on the front seat with the wind blowing long braids against your face was equivalent to any ride in a convertible of this day and age. As we rolled along folks would wave from the doorway.
A well-behaved horse would suddenly rear in the shafts as the noise of the trolley car roared in his ear.
Chicks Would Scamper
A lone chicken, trying to cross the road would lift its wings and fly back to the barnyard. To them the trolley car was still a monster.
The smell of popcorn, dripping with butter, was the first indication that our journey was ended. We alighted and lingered at the refreshment stand, wistfully hoping for a treat before we to the winding path to the theater. If it was evening, a few dim lights guided us to the slab-enclosure, with roof open to the sky.
Built on a hill, the setting was natural. Most of us never were privileged to sit anywhere except on the high wooden benches which were backless.
Here our dime was the price of a seat. Of course there were twenty cent seats further down, with backs, and at the front, on a wood platform, the choice seats were thirty cents. In fact, these so-called shows were called “10,20 and 30 cent shows.”
We greeted our near neighbors, talked about the weather, and commented on what folks had said about the previous night’s performance. We could not relax; any moment the show might begin and we did not want to miss a single word.
At last the somewhat “tinny” piano, a player model, gave forth with a fast moving tune. The lights went out except on the stage and on came the chorus of “girls”, some good and some not so good, but singing loudly a popular ditty of the day.
Vaudeville was at its height. No one was too critical; the jokes had to be snappy, bordering occasionally on the risque, but always received with much laughter and often whistles of delight.
Pat and Mike jokes were all the rage and there was much pushing around and slapping of the so called “stupid” member of the twosome. A buxom lady of uncertain years would sing a doleful Ballard and a younger miss might dance around an equally youthful partner.
Often an animal act with clever little dogs or a trained pony would perform to the delight of the young fry. Very seldom was there any rhyme or reason to the entire performance and none was expected.
We were country folk who wanted an expected to laugh. If the acts were not up to par, no one went the next night. There was no TV or radio to compete and the memory of the night lasted until the next time.
The program usually was the same every night but Saturday was the night preferred by the working folks. Half way through the Saturday evening performance was the time chosen for announcements of the coming attractions.
A ridiculous comedian would quickly doff his wig and in a senatorial manner describe the appeal of luscious Letty Brown, or the spectacular acrobatic act of The Three Jacks, both on the bill for the next week. The audience was always profusely thanked for their “kind attention.”
All too soon the show came to an end. The ride home was no less thrilling for the stars lent an added excitement to the night. This was no anti-climax.
We had been to the Park, we had laughed; we had our buttered corn and there was always a Tomorrow!
Little remains of this era in or around Willand Pond. There are two exceptions however, one is the bear cage that can be found at the entrance to the park from High Street, the other is what is now the Riverside Garage. Once upon a time this building was used to house the very electric trolleys that Mrs Pepler describes riding here. The bear cage was restored through the hard work of an eagle scout some years ago and serves as a reminder as a time gone by.
I hope you enjoyed this account of a journey back to a forgotten time.