OLCOTT – Sometimes the future is sparked by a memory of the past.
This is the case in Olcott, where Rosemary Sansone looked at a dilapidated carousel roundhouse, recalled blissful times as a child and saw promise where many others just saw neglect.
It took years, perseverance, money, luck and the work of many, many volunteers to make it work, but the Olcott Beach Carousel Park sold more than 100,000 ride tickets in its 10th year of operation last year.
The cost of these tickets? Twenty-five cents apiece.
The value of these memories? Priceless.
The new park’s 1928 Herschell-Spillman carousel has brought life back to the once-popular roundhouse that was built in the 1940s as part of the original Olcott Amusement Park but then abandoned in the 1980s.
The renovation of that roundhouse and acquisition of the carousel spurred the development of an entire park, as Sansone’s group also brought in painstakingly restored kiddie rides from the 1940s and 1950s, Skee-Ball machines, a duck game and an Erie Digger Machine.
Olcott has not returned to its glory days when it was a major trolley destination around the turn of the 20th century, with a dozen hotels, three amusement parks and large dance halls where big-band sounds skipped on the breezes of Lake Ontario. But with the help of Sansone and her volunteers, echoes of those sweet times are still captured here on hot summer days.
As the park enjoys the start of its second decade, Sansone explained how it all came to be and what lies ahead.
How did you come up with the idea for the Olcott Beach Carousel Park?
As a child, I used to go to the Olcott Amusement Park and the New Rialto Park in Olcott because my father worked for what was then Harrison Radiator, and his company picnic was there every year, and we really looked forward to it. It was free, and the family would go on the rides. It was a really happy memory for quite a few years. Olcott had a special place in my heart.
My husband and I bought a home in Olcott, and we thought it would be a retirement home, but we loved it so much that we sold our house in Lockport and moved here. It’s such a wonderful community, and the people are so nice and work so well together. We wondered why Olcott looked like it did.
I joined the Niagara County Legislature’s Krull Olcott Development Committee, and one of the projects was the empty lot and empty (carousel) building on Main Street. They needed someone to do this, so I got together with a few others and became the chairwoman.
I would hear people standing on Main Street, talking about the old days, and we wanted to do something about this before the memories were gone. So we started raising money, quarter by quarter, and we lugged around a cast aluminum horse to help us sell raffle tickets, and we raised about $1,000 – not much.
But many people started becoming interested, and we formed our own association and later became a nonprofit corporation.
What’s your background?
I had been a teacher for almost 30 years – elementary, and then later, a teacher for the gifted program in the Lockport School District. I have my doctorate in education, and I retired in 2003. We opened the park in 2002, but it was only the carousel, and it was only open on weekends then. But by 2003, we started getting the kiddie rides, and we needed to be open more hours, and we had more volunteers, and we needed someone to oversee things, so I retired from teaching, and it worked out.
Once you fixed up the abandoned carousel roundhouse, where did you go from there?
The Town of Newfane owns the property now, and we lease it from them. So, the first thing was to restore the carousel roundhouse. The money we first raised went for that. But then things went so quickly that it became a full park in a short amount of time. Things really turned around for us in 2001, when the Eastern Niagara Chamber of Commerce, under David Kinyon, took us on as a project, and people started donating in-kind services, like an architect, and someone to take a tree down, and someone to do the roof. Tom Kelley was our project manager, and Bill Eaton was the clerk of the works, and it all came together.
How did you find a carousel?
A man put a blurb in the Carousel Trader for us, with Jane Voelpel’s phone number in it, and Jane and I traveled around looking at carousels and going to auctions, so we knew they were pretty expensive. Jack Campbell, in Culver, Ind., saw our ad looking for memorabilia, and he called and said, “I don’t have any photographs, but I have a ride that was once in Olcott.”
I remembered that ride in the New Rialto Park as a child, and I said, “We’d love it, but we need a carousel.” He said, “I have one of those, too, and some kiddie rides.” So a few of us went out there to look, and I said, “Gosh, this is just what we’ve been envisioning.” I signed a three-year contract to purchase the carousel for $56,000 and the four kiddie rides for $12,000 apiece, and I wondered if I was crazy.
But we had the idea to put the horses on the carousel up for adoption, and you could get a lifetime park pass and framed picture of the horse and a plaque over the horse with your name, and they were all adopted in a month. Nelson Colley framed the photos for us. We saved the last horse and chariot for an auction and got $7,000 for the horse and $4,000 for the chariot, and since the idea worked, we tried it for our fire trucks and cars (kiddie rides), and it worked.
Now we knew we needed money to build shelters for the kiddie rides, because Jack had never had them outside. And we were still able to pay Jack on time. Voelpel Farms donated a tractor-trailer, and the driver, Brent Mank, donated his time and made three trips to bring the rides here. The community really got so involved and were so happy we were doing this and that something was actually being done here. I guess it was just the right time.
What else do you have at the park beside the carousel and kiddie rides?
We have a Skee-Ball pavilion with rocking chairs in it, and it’s always filled with people who want to take a break or mothers feeding their babies. There’s an arcade in the Boeckmann Building. John Boeckmann had a photography studio in the early 1900s (in what is now Krull Park). We have photos there that families have donated. There’s one there of my mother as a baby with her family. Nelson Colley framed those for us, too. And all of the flowers are donated by Zehr’s in Burt, and Sally Guido and Bill Rosenberg plant them, and the place looks fantastic. We have a new garden and fountain area named for Joanne Kelley, one of our volunteers and a founding member who passed away last year.
Explain the Tom Kelley Rustic Theater.
We wanted to do old-time things there, like marionettes, puppet shows, magic shows – things kids might not have seen before, and I’d love to have an old-time radio theater, but I can’t find anyone to do it. It’s a vintage park, and we want to preserve that culture.
Tom Kelley designed the theater after a theater that was in Krull Park in the late 1800s, called the Rustic Theater, and Dan Horanburg and Dave Hedley built a smaller replica just by using photos and did a great job. Tom didn’t live to see it, but we named it for him.
You have two upcoming benefits. What are the details?
King Harvest is doing a benefit concert here on the Rustic Theater stage for us on Friday – they originated in Olcott, and a portion of the proceeds from that evening will go to the park. I went to see them last year, and it was just fabulous. You know Ron Altbach is an Olcott native. Everyone had a great time. They’re only selling 200 tickets, so people had better get them! (Presale tickets are $25 for live music, 40th anniversary show commemorative T-shirt, concert DVD and two drinks.)
The Jazz-Sea Sunset event is coming 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 13 at the Olcott Yacht Club. Doloros Stinson has chaired that for years and raised lots of money to allow us to do so much at the park. My husband, Jim Sansone, has a band, the Sophisticats, and they will play at this, as well as Kevin Clark, who plays piano and does a sing-along.
One of the best features of the park is that the rides still cost only 25 cents. What’s the thinking behind that?
As long as I am president, they will be 25-cent rides because we want to make it affordable for families. We want people to come down here and support the businesses in Olcott. We don’t sell anything here at the park. The concession stand is privately owned. This helps our gift shops and restaurants in Olcott, because a family can spend the whole day here on the rides and still have money left for a souvenir or dinner in Olcott. We sold over 100,000 tickets last year. Our treasurer is Gary Cammarata, and he and his brother own Cammarata’s Restaurant, and he has such good business sense and has really helped us out. When we started, we didn’t have a mechanic and things kept breaking down, and now we have Tom Hahn, and he keeps everything in great condition. His wife, Debbie, has also been very active here.
What does the future hold for the park?
We’re trying to get to the point where the park is maintenance-free. We try and keep everything neat and clean and picked up.
And we’re trying to get to the point where we’re just maintaining the park on what we take in, without having extra fundraisers. We’re doing pretty well now, and we have a grant to help pay part of the salaries for 13 high school students who work here in the summer. Except for those students, we are all entirely volunteer. Barb Colley is in charge of scheduling, if anyone is interested in volunteering, and her number is 778-8284. We’re always looking for volunteers!
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The park is open noon to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and from noon to 8 p.m. Saturdays through Labor Day Weekend. On Labor Day, it will be open noon to 6 p.m. For more information, call 778-7066 or visit www.olcottbeachcarouselpark.org.
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