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Bemidji's amusement park rides shutting down

Each year after the Fourth of July, Gary and Sandy Trueblood, owners of Paul Bunyan Amusement Park, have looked forward to Labor Day. That's when they can celebrate summer's end and take a rest from 10-hour days managing rides, miniature golf and concessions.

On this year's Labor Day, Sandy and Gary might feel less celebratory. After 47 years of Tilt-A-Whirl, Berry-Go-Round and flying fish rides, the Truebloods are going to close down their amusement park forever. Gary said part of their decision relates to being near retirement age, but diminishing tourist activity and the cost of insurance have pulled the business down financially.

"When it actually does come to that Monday night, it probably will be hard walking away," he said.

"We're very tired at the end of the season, and it's nice when it's over," said Sandy. "But when it's over for the last time, you don't know how you're going to feel. It's been our life."

Gary said they have a lease on the city property until 2010. They plan to auction off most of the rides, but continue operating the train, miniature golf and concession stand. The Bemidji Public Affairs Committee members agreed last week to recommend to the City Council that the Truebloods be allowed to pursue those plans.

"A lot of people stop and want to ride the train," Gary said.

He said Paul Bunyan Amusement Park is going the way of most small mom-and-pop parks.

"It's a place you can come and talk to the owners," Sandy said. "It's part of Americana that's going."

Historic site

The park was built on fill that extended the waterfront past the Paul and Babe statues that were once much nearer Lake Bemidji's edge, Gary said as he sorted through a selection of postcards that showed the landscape changes through the decades. He said Don Holmes ran some homemade rides on the site during the 1950s. Then Gary's father, Don Trueblood, took over the business and expanded it.

"When Sandy and I were still in college I bought it," Gary said, adding that the park had five rides when the couple made the purchase.

He said he and Sandy both worked at the park from the time they were students at Bemidji High School, and continued working summers during their years at Bemidji State University.

"We met and dated here," Sandy said. "My sister met her husband here. We've had quite a few romances, even with the employees."

She said their daughters, Eva and Jessica, also worked at the park from the time they were in grade school. And each met her husband at the park. Eva had her wedding on the lakeshore among the willows.

Gary said nine other couples who met at the park and later married attended the wedding.

"Some of the best times we've had is the kids who worked for us, watching them grow up," Gary said. "We've had all these thousands of kids here having a good time."

He said the park has changed considerably in 47 years. At one time, they had 15 rides and leased the land all the way to the Mississippi River fishing dock. Tourists could also ride on the Bemidji Belle steamboat and tour the area by air in seaplanes that took off from Lake Bemidji.

In the winter, Gary taught accounting. Up until about 2000, he said the park did well financially. Since then, he and Sandy have had to work at the park full time, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Varied entertainment

Other ventures the Truebloods tried at the park included horse-and-carriage rides around town, a 40-foot-high slide, popcorn wagons, paddleboats, canoes and an arcade. Gary said he changed the rides periodically through tradeouts with other parks. He sold the Ferris wheel because of insurance costs on a high ride and the training operators needed for a ride run with a brake and clutch. The operator also had to learn how to balance the load. The other rides are more push-button.

"The only ride we've kept from the beginning is the fish because it's the best kiddie ride ever made," Gary said. "People always remember the fish."

He smiled recalling a young girl who came to the park earlier this month.

"She had to ride every fish," he said. "She rode eight straight fish.

"We're most comfortable having the little children around," he added. "You can tell they're having a good time. For the most part, it's all smiles."

"The fish is the one ride, other than the train, children love," said Sandy.

Like the family vacation photos of generations of children at the feet of Paul and Babe, the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park is a place grandparents enjoyed when they were children and now bring their grandchildren for the afternoon.

Third generations

Last week Tillie Orear, who moved to Bemidji in 1918, and remembers the installation of the Paul and Babe statues, was entertaining her son and daughter-in-law, T.J. and Cindy Orear, with their children Cassian, 2, and Lillie, 5, visiting from Jackson, Tenn.

"(Lillie) came when she was 2 and just had a wonderful time," Cindy said. "So, we were glad it was still here."

"My favorite ride is the fish," said Lillie.

David and Joyce Thompson also brought their grandchildren, Jason, 14, Tyler, 6, and Arija, 3, for rides.

"This is our third generation," David said. "I came here when I was small and we brought our kids and now we bring our grandchildren. They ask about every third day to come here."

Sandy said they look forward next year to a summer vacation, something they have never experienced.

"It's so much part of your life you just accept it," she said.