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Idora historian revives memories of Youngstown’s amusement park

Published: Fri, April 13, 2012 @ 12:01 a.m.




There were smiles and nods of remembrance and appreciation all around the room as Youngstown State University English professor Rick Shale talked about the rides and the biggest of the big bands and entertainers that made Idora Park the place to go here for 85 years.

There were the aptly named Wildcat roller coaster and the famous Idora Park Carousel, now Jane’s Carousel named after Jane Walentas who purchased and spent 22 years restoring it after it was damaged in 1984 in a fire at the park.

Shale said there were some 20 nationality and ethnic days a year at Idora.There were so many Italians in Youngstown that three groups of Italians celebrated their heritage annually.

“We had a Polish Day,” said Bill Tabaka of Boardman, who grew up in New Middletown. His said his favorite rides were the Jack Rabbit and bumper cars.

The Jack Rabbit, a wooden roller coaster, was built in 1910 and had a ride time of two minutes and thirty seconds. As an adult, Tabaka said he went to the Idora Ballroom to listen and dance to the big-name big bands of the era.

“It brings back fond memories,” he said.

John and Dorthea Ulrich Becker, who grew up in Youngstown and live in McDonald, said they danced at the ballroom to Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey and other big bands.

Becker, who worked for Ohio Edison, said they took their six children to Idora for the company picnic. “We always had a good time.”

Waldean Thorndell of Youngstown, who grew up on Warren Avenue, had passes for the swimming pool and said she really enjoyed the roller coaster. “On 3-cent days, we’d ride it over and over again to see how many times we could,” she said.

“One girl had a car, and eight of us would pile in to go to dancing at the Idora Ballroom,” said Anne Vianello of Youngstown. “We saw Frank Sinatra. It was a great place,” she said.

Eileen Duffy, coordinator of marketing and admissions at Park Vista, had an insider perspective of Idora Park; her grandfather, Patrick Duffy Sr., was president and part-owner followed by her father, Patrick Duffy Jr.

Eileen and her brothers, Patrick III and Michael, and sister Kathleen West, all worked at the park, Eileen from age 15 until it closed in 1984, in such venues as the candy apple and popcorn stand, the Lost River water ride and Cheyenne Shootout, a western shooting gallery.

“It was good for people-watching, and the picnics were always fun. We worked all day and got all sweaty and then we’d sneak into the ballroom and watch the bands. That’s how I learned to jitterbug,” she said.

“What was way cool for a teenager was that I got to meet David Cassidy and the Monkees, Bobby Sherman and Maynard Ferguson and lots of others,” she said.

“We should be sorry it closed, but we should also celebrate that it lasted as long as it did,” said Shale. He attributed Idora’s longevity, including through the Great Depression when a majority of amusement parks closed, to strong local leadership, including the Duffys.

Shale said the company picnics generated 50 percent of Idora’s revenue.

Idora, which became popularly known as Youngstown’s Million Dollar Playground, opened on May 1, 1899, which was then called Decoration Day.

It was built by the Youngstown Park and Falls Street Railway Co. and named Terminal Park because that is where the trolley tracks ended. In the early days, most people either walked or took the trolley to the park. It was later renamed Idora. The park closed in 1984 after a fire damaged or destroyed several major attractions.

Shale said there are several theories about the origin of the Idora name, but none is definitive.

“My best guess is that Idora is a Native American word,” said Shale, who has co-written “Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer” with Charles J. Jacques Jr.

Shale said not everybody remembers that many sporting events occurred at Idora, including boxing, wrestling and baseball.

He said professional teams played exhibition games at Idora while traveling between cities, and that once the Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer Earl Averill hit a home run that went into or over the Jack Rabbit.

The Negro League professional baseball teams also played there regularly, he said.

Idora attracted people from all social and economic classes. Immigrants who came to Youngstown to work in the steel mill did not have to speak English to enjoy it. The park was a place where the rules could be broken, said Shale who wore a shirt with a message: “Idora: Still Open in Our Hearts.”

“It’s kind of how we feel. I love to talk to audiences whose members are old enough to have Idora memories,” he said.

“Idora is in our minds and hearts so much because we have happy memories of a time when families did things together and you didn’t have to lock your doors, and Youngstown was more prosperous,” Shale said.


1biggee(43 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Worked at Idora in 1978 and 1979. Living in massilon when it burned. Was tragic the area lost its little jewel on the southside.

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2Lifes2Short(3882 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

What memories. The best job I ever had, worked at Idora 79-82.
Mr. Duffy was a class act all the way.

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3kensgirl(1060 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Idora Park was my favorite place on earth. I have countless memories of it. I remember riding the Caterpiller when the rope broke and we almost fell out (Yes, I said rope. Seat belts were almost unheard of back then!) One could go to the Park and never spend more than a couple of bucks and have the time of their life. There was never any trouble - never. You can never have something like that nowadays in Youngstown. Thank you to all who made the memories possible. Thank you Rick Shale for writing the book. I bought several copies and give them out as gifts. I also have the video and it brings back the most wonderful times.

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4greene(167 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

It is not the Fun House Mirrors, your butt realy is that big...

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5redvert(2239 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Be interesting to know how many people recognize themselves in the picture accompanying this story.

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6gripmadlock(16 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

I love the bumper cars, where you can rear end someone, legally.

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7thinkthentalk(310 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Wow, this is great. My wife worked there, she has tons of Idora memorabilia, fond memories. A couple years ago they had an Idora exhibit near gate D at the Canfield fair. We hung out there for a long while, and people seemed to stream in and emotionally exchange fond memories.

How about if we can organize an All-Year, Idora park reunion? It would be nice to use the Idora park property for a weekend, vendors could set up, and Idora alumni just stroll through, meet up kids you worked with.....

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8mdir2011(1 comment)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Well I was the person looking back at the camera at the bottom of the picture, I worked at the park for years and ran both the Jack Rabbit and Wildcat...And Yes the entire Duffy famiily was fantastic. Wow the memories are to many to count. I am living in Pittsburgh area and visit the area often, How neat it would be to ride the wilcat again, If you think riding it was fun you should have walked the tracks of them!!!!!!!!!

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9DOLE2(595 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Did everyone forget blacks were not permitted in the pool? All these wonderfull memory lane stories....admit you all stopped going there!!!

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10Buckeyebill(3 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

I was a member of the knot hole gang back when the Youngstown Athletics Baseball Team played at Idora. When a ball was hit outside the stadium if I got the ball and turned it back to them I got in to watch the games free. I remember one player by the name of Chuck Harig. He was a short muscular guy that on occasions would hit a ball over the right field fence and it would bounce off of the Jack Rabbit.
My wife and I were at what was Rock Ridge in 1984 playing tennis and we saw the smoke from the fire which was on the Wildcat. The best thing that I remember about Idora Park was their wonderful greasy french fries. Pour vinegar and salt on them and you would have been eating like a king.

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11Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago


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12paulydel(1607 comments)posted 4 years, 3 months ago

Loved Idora park. I am also sorry that Idora didn't rebuild. My parents took my brother and I there and when I started dating I took my girlfriends there. My buddies and I would go there also. I am signed up with the friends of Idora Park. I have pictures in my mind of where everything was at in the park. Funny how you remember certain things.

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