|Growing up near Canadarago Park
The 1950s was a great, carefree time to grow up, but it was especially great for me because I lived just a two minute walk to Canadarago Park.
Before I tell of some of my personal experiences, let me give you a brief history of the park.
Canadarago Park was located on East Lake Road, about two miles south of the village of Richfield Springs and about one mile past The Lake House. The park was opened for dancing in 1905.
Skating was the “in” thing back in day’s of Don Urtz’s youth. (Photo submitted by Don Urtz. Design by Brandon Dawley)
Many people traveled to the park by the Mohawk to Oneonta Trolley, which made stops at Canadarago Park from 1909 until the trolley ended in the mid-1930s. If you look just to the west of East Lake Road, you can still see some of the platform in front of the park today.
In 1931, Canadarago Park was purchased by Joe Magoldi, who most knew as Joe Magee. Soon after, roller skating became popular on week nights and dancing on Saturday nights. During the ‘Big Band Era,’ some of the best could be heard from Canadarago Park echoing across Canadarago Lake. Some of the bands featured included Ray Anthony, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Vaughn Monroe, Gene Krupa, Guy Lombardo, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey’s band with his singer, Frank Sinatra.
Joe Magee’s sister had two granddaughters, Marie and Rita, who are about my age. A few years ago, Marie called me from her home in Arizona and shared an interesting story. When Frank Sinatra arrived at the park for a performance, her grandmother felt sorry for him because he was so skinny. After she fed him a good Italian meal, he asked her how far it was into town because he forgot to bring a razor. She told him it was two miles, but not to worry because he could use her husband’s razor. Later, when she told her husband she had let Frank use his razor, he became very upset with her for loaning it to another man and vowed never to use it again. Marie still has the razor.
In 1939, Ralph Yale was hired as organist. Ralph began his career playing the organ at silent movies.
In 1940, the Canadarago Roller Club was organized with approximately 75 members. Two of the members were Ralph Osterhoudt and his then future wife, Bessie Stoddard. The club met twice a week and had waltzing instructions with a staff of the best skaters as instructors. Members wore royal blue and gold club jackets.
The outbreak of World War II in 1941 was the end of the bands at Canadarago Park with the exception of a once a year appearance until the mid-1950s. The last band played to a disappointingly small crowd.
Before WWII, alcoholic beverages were sold at the park. I can remember that when you entered the restaurant if you looked up over the entrance you could just barely make out the words ‘tap room’ that had been painted over many times. I was told that one night two inebriated guys left the park and went out into the lake in a boat and both of them drowned. That was the end of alcohol sales at the park. I remember Joe Magee giving gentle lectures to young people who he had caught drinking in their cars in the parking lot.
After WWII and into my days, Canadarago Park opened in early May, closed in early October and was opened for skating every night and Sunday afternoons. Live organ music was played on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Having a camp on the lake only about one tenth of a mile from the park, I spent almost every day and night there. Just across the road, Magee owned over a hundred acres of hilly forest land, which I still love to roam to this day.
When I was about 12, I got my first job as a skate boy at the park. The job had me on call during skating hours and all I had to do was put on customers’ rented clamp-on skates with my trusty skate key. There was no pay, but I got tips and could always skate for free. The tips kept me in five cent candy bars, 10 cent sodas and chips.
Every day and evening you would find Magee’s sister, Angeline Casalere, working in the restaurant which sold great Mexican hots and her famous frozen custard which people still talk about today. I fondly remember that the restaurant always had two pinball machines, which offered five balls for a nickel and paid out free games for high scores. Skilled players could sometimes play for hours on a single nickel. The restaurant also had a bowling machine and a five cent (six for a quarter) juke box. If you looked carefully down into the jukebox you could see a counter that told how many plays each record got. I’ll never forget looking down to see that the counter for Elvis Presley’s “Hound dog/Don’t be Cruel” was up to the end. Tickets for roller skating were sold by Joe out of the candy stand which also sold many souvenirs and trinkets with the park’s logo on it. Joe’s niece (Angeline’s daughter), Mary, helped out at the stand.
This photograph of the skating rink taken back in the late 1950s was submitted by Don Urtz.
The park had a merry-go-round where you could ride hand carved horses for long rides that cost 10 cents each or three for a quarter. Today the horses are worth several thousand dollars each. They were purchased by Master Woodcarver Gerry Holzman in the 1980s. He is the carver that created the Empire State Carousel at the Farmers’ Museum, in Cooperstown.
The park grounds were always open free of charge, so families could swim at the beach Joe had filled with truckloads of sand every year. There were large swings, a bath house, picnic tables, barbecue pits and a large covered pavilion. There were three lake shore camps for rent along with boat rentals (a dollar a day). My older brother, Dave, was in charge of boat rentals for a few summers and was paid half the rental money. For a few summers during the 50s, Joe had country and western bands playing outdoors down near the lake shore on weekends, also at no charge.
During those years I made many lifelong friends. For many others it was more than friendship. Romance at Canadarago Park was always a big deal, resulting in several marriages. I am haunted by one sad memory. When I was about 16 or 17, one Sunday night three of my friends stopped at the park and asked me to ride down to Schuyler Lake with them. I wanted to go, but my instincts would not let me ride along. They never made it to Schuyler Lake. The car went through a bridge into Oak’s Creek, killing one of them.
Joe Magee died in 1964, and his sister, Angie, died in 1972. Modern lifestyles and the high cost of repairs made for the closing of the park. Angeline’s daughter, Jane Gardnier, sold the property in 1992. The skating rink was taken down in July of that same year.
Today I still have the nearby camp, and when I walk by the now empty lot I can sometimes still hear the organ playing “Sentimental Journey,” or “Moonlight Serenade.”
Don Urtz, is the town of Richfield planning board chair, and a life long resident of Richfield Springs.