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Vermilion's Crystal Beach amusement park commemorated with new historical markers

  • Thriller-png

    The Crystal Thriller, the wooden roller coaster at Crystal Beach Park, was located near Liberty Avenue in Vermilion and was opened to customers May 20, 1926. Made of 200,000 Alabama pine boards, it took one minute to climb the first incline and could travel up to 70 mph in the dip.

    PHOTO COURTESY VERMILIONOHIO.COM

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VERMILION — When you grow up on the grounds of an amusement park, your childhood carries some unusual memories.

For Marlene Feldkamp, it was running timed relays with her sister, Sandra Mueller, and her cousin Tom Ryan through the spooky-silly funhouse with its rooms of furniture on the ceiling, tilted walls and floors that gave way.

It was taking an amphibious duck car for a ride out to the Lake Erie shore following dinner -- and then driving the car, a military amphibious vehicle left over from World War II, into the lake.

And then there was the time Tommy Dorsey – the Tommy Dorsey, bandleader of his famous orchestra, the guy who first hired Frank Sinatra -- read her a story on the porch swing at her house, swinging in the summer breeze at the family’s sprawling home.

“He was taking a break between sets next door at the ballroom,” she said. “It was a wonderful time.”

Feldkamp’s family owned and operated the Crystal Beach Park from 1907 to 1962 on a 22.5-acre swath of lakefront property along Liberty Avenue. The property has long since been torn down, replaced by a bank, apartments, a gas station and retail plazas but is back in the spotlight this week as historical markers will be unveiled at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at its former site, the Crystal Shores Apartments’ flagpole on Nantucket Place, north of Liberty Avenue.

The markers will be installed on two remaining pylons on the spot. The project was sparked by the newfound interest of Craig Luther, a military veteran who does maintenance work at the apartment complex, Feldkamp said.

Luther found the pylons while looking for a place to install a flagpole, wondered what they were and started asking around in the community, she said.

The forgotten history of Crystal Beach Park, also known as Crystal Beach Amusement Park, resurfaced. Three markers will be placed, listing some information about the history of the park and some historic photos.

The largest pylon will have two markers. It was one of the remaining pieces that anchored the Tumble Bug, a series of coaster cars shaped like bugs that whipped around a circular track. After the park was sold at auction in 1962, the Tumble Bug was moved to Geauga Lake and ran until that park, too, went out of business.

Feldkamp’s grandparents, Josephine and George Blachat, bought the property in 1907. George Blachat was a Lorain businessman, an entrepreneur with a few restaurants in Lorain. He initially planned to build an amusement park to draw in visitors along the electric interurban car lines that ran along Lake Erie from Cleveland to Michigan, and scouted the area near Oak Point Road and U.S. Route 6, where Beaver Park Marina is now.

But providence found him when he soon heard of the Crystal Beach area being up for sale by its heirs. Known as Shadduck’s Grove, the heavily wooded area had a cove where area farmers would gather to swim the lake, go out in boats and picnic in a shelter. There was a dance hall on the shore, with a casino hall underneath.

Once Blachat bought it, he began to expand the idea of an amusement park. Eighteen tourist cottages, rides, a miniature train, a miniature golf course and concession booths were added.

There was a slide from the clifftop into the lake and ballfields. A merry-go-round decked out with hand-carved animals of all kinds and Jungle Larry and his exotic animals performed.

“One year he had a lion cub and he used its paw to sign all his contracts. Of course, it only lasted that one year,” she said.

A grand 15-room, nearly three stories-high home with a wraparound porch went up near the front of the property, along what would become Liberty Avenue.

Feldkamp, her sister Sandra Mueller, and her parents, Thelma Blachat Calvert and James Calvert, lived in the rambling house. Her grandparents lived next door in a home that was originally a stagecoach stop.

The family owned the area south of the road, too, where a shopping plaza now houses a Dollar General and a Goodwill. It was used for parking and an electric rail car would stop there to let off passengers coming to visit the park.

The entrance to the park was in the area of Nokomis Beach, west of Linwood Park. Electric railway cars would bring visitors from Cleveland out to stay at Linwood’s cottages or its grand hotel and come over to hear the bands and visit the park next door. Nationally famous big bands were on a regular circuit along the lake from the 1920s to the 1950s, stopping at all the dance halls along the coast.

Its biggest draws were the Thriller, a 61-foot-high wooden roller coaster that stretched to the Erie County line on the west of the property and opened in 1926, and the renowned Crystal Gardens, a spectacular ballroom that opened in 1925, next to Feldkamp’s home.

Over the years, luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey played there. Feldkamp said record attendance at the ballroom was once 3,200. Her cousin Ryan, who has since passed away, once sat at the bar and enjoyed a Coke with a fresh-faced 16-year-old singer fronting Les Brown’s band. Her name was Doris Day.

Back then, many of the amusement parks like Euclid Beach and Cedar Point were owned by families. Feldkamp said her grandfather would meet with other park owners before the season started to map out the touring performers schedules and discuss plans. In the early days of mass transit and no televisions, outings to amusement parks along the lake was popular among families looking to escape summer in the city.

A devastating fire sparked by lightning in 1947 destroyed the original ballroom and some storage buildings with ride cars inside. Feldkamp was 10 at the time of the five-alarm fire.

“There were five departments out there but they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t get to the lake to pump out water to put it out. It was terrible,” she said.

One thing that was spared was the park’s brand new rocket cars for its Rocket Ship ride. The futuristic cars had recently been delivered and became a popular ride at the park. One of the original rocket cars will be at the unveiling Saturday to give free rides from 11 a.m. to noon.

Feldkamp, 81, and Mueller, 73, and Ryan, were the last owners.

It had been passed on through Feldkamp’s mother, Thelma Blachat Calvert and aunt

Eleanor Blachat Ryan. The three cousins help their parents run the park and together wrote a book about its history.

They released it in 2007, the 100th anniversary of the park’s opening. The party was held at the Lorain Palace Theater, where they displayed memorabilia of the park and unveiled the giant mirror ball that once hung in the ballroom. It went through a series of owners before it was donated to the Palace.

Feldkamp, Mueller, and Carol Ryan, Tom Ryan’s widow, have reprinted the books to have copies available for purchase Saturday at the unveiling.

Feldkamp’s parents met in the Vermilion Schools, where they both were teachers. Her father continued teaching during the off-season. Feldkamp also became a teacher, teaching in Vermilion for 47 years and then another 14 at St. Mary’s School in town.

A former student’s mother told her once of moving to Vermilion into a quiet lakeside neighborhood, not realizing that come Memorial Day the screams of roller coasters next door and big bands would be nonstop until fall.

“Their dad couldn’t sleep for the noise, but they thought they were the luckiest kids in the world,” she said. “I guess it was a charmed life, but we just thought it was normal.”

The park always featured a big band concert on Easter, then officially opened on Memorial Day. It was open evenings during the week until Labor Day. Saturdays were generally reserved for company picnics and Sundays it opened at noon. Friday and Sunday nights concerts were held in the ballroom.

Attention to the park peaked again last year, when the “American Pickers” show from The History Channel came to visit Feldkamp and look through her stuff. The episode aired in January and is still shown in re-runs. Feldkamp didn’t have much from the park but the hosts Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz spotted a small plaster statuette of a collie in her stuff.

“I had a collie and I played that game so many times I don’t know if I won it or if I just ended up paying for it I played so much,” she said. “They spotted it and said ‘Oh, these came from amusement park games’ and I said ‘Oh yeah, that was from my family’s amusement park.’ They lit up.”

They ended up buying a car from her -- a 1926 Rolls Royce she had in a barn -- a high-wheel bicycle and an old cover that went on a gas pump. A stranger once recognized her in Florida from the show.

“They spent 12 hours here and had a heyday,” she said.

Contact Rini Jeffers at rjeffers@chroniclet.com.


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