Editor’s note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles highlighting the history of the area. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org.
For almost five decades, families in Bemidji and visitors to the area took the children to the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park -- to “the rides,” where the youngsters drove mini-race cars, airplanes and little boats (in real water); the older kids rode the Tilt-A-Whirl, Swings, Scrambler, Berry-Go-Round, and Rock & Roll; and people of all ages enjoyed the Ferris wheel and vintage carousel with real, carved-wood horses.
The Paul Bunyan Amusement Park, and Don Holmes’ Paul Bunyan’s Playland that preceded it, provided generations with entertainment and tradition at the Bemidji lakefront. The “You might be from Bemidji” Facebook page has nostalgic comments from several contributors about their recollections:
Tiffany Grace recalled the fish ride -- an all time favorite -- and her mother saying she’d rode it, too. Lauren Multhauf Beschta remembered riding the Ferris wheel and the train with her dad. “I’d go on the fish ride and boat ride by myself. These are some of my favorite memories!”
Susan Cross worked at the park: “Best job I ever had!” she posted. “We called it ‘the rides,’” Kirsten Pontius said. Pat Hamilton commented: “Many memories from my own childhood, my children and grandchildren. It was perfect for families. …Wish it was still there.”
Bonny Seagraves’ post referred to the park as “magical.”
Pat Sanford of Bemidji would ditto that. She described a summer evening she and husband Fred spent on their sailboat on Lake Bemidji, admiring the night sky, glowing with colorful lights from the rides. The Ferris wheel’s lights rotated in the reflection of the calm lake: “It was like being in a foreign country.”
David Cronemiller worked at the park. “I started when I was about 14. It was my first summer job.” He applied and wasn’t hired right away, but he kept going back until he got the job and ended up working at the park for about 30 summers.
The Amusement Park featured 10 rides for $1 on Friday nights and became a regular event for countless families. Cronemiller said, “On Friday nights, it was so packed you could barely see a few feet from the ride.”
Jolene Enerson and her husband used to take their kids to the park on Friday nights, but one day they decided to do something special and loaded up the family to spend a day at Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd. “The kids were pretty impressed when Brainerd’s Paul greeted them by name,” Jolene said, “but after spending the day there, we drove home, and, coming through Bemidji, as we passed the waterfront, the kids pointed at our own little amusement park and said, ‘That’s where we wanted to go.’”
A family business
Jessica Trueblood-Morey and her younger sister Eva Trueblood-Pearce, both grew up at the amusement park –-- where their parents, Gary and Sandy Trueblood, had met. “They tell me I used to lie on the rolls of tickets in the ticket box,” Jessica said. By the time she was 12, she was “actually working” there in the summers.
“I ran the rides, worked the concession stand, sold tickets,” she said. “I spent my entire childhood there,” and she continued to work there all through high school and college.
Her grandfather, Don Trueblood, and great-grandfather, Carl Larson, had started the Paul Bunyan Amusement Park in 1960. “They had traveled with a carnival for a long time and, when they came to Bemidji with the water carnival in the 1950s, they liked the area and decided they wanted to set up a permanent park here.”
Trueblood-Morey said, “My parents bought out my great-grandparents (the Larsons) in 1969.” In 1971, Gary and Sandy Trueblood bought out Gary’ father, Don, and in 1982, they bought out Don Holmes’ Playland. A sun shelter with benches was added around 1980 when the Truebloods added a concession stand serving ice cream, hot dogs and caramel apples.
“The concession stand had arcade games at first,” Jessica said, “and then they were moved out and we made it into more of a gift shop.” Her father had purchased both of Herb’s Popcorn Wagons and moved one of them to the lakefront. For a few years, horse and carriage rides were also offered.
“Someone else started it,” Jessica recalled, “and we took it over. Mark Hamilton was the driver.” Hamilton worked at the park for several years, as did Floyd LaDuke. LaDuke, Jessica said, enjoyed engineering. “He started in the mid-1970s when he was just 18 and worked there 30 years or so. We had so many employees who became friends and basically family. Lots of couples met there -- my aunt and uncle met there. My sister met her husband there.” As a matter of fact, they were married there. People often came to the park for special occasions and photo ops.
Cronemiller, too, commented on the greater Trueblood family that included workers who returned year after year. He attributed much of this atmosphere to Gary Trueblood: “He would do anything he could to help people.”
It was a fun place to work. Cronemiller described how a big three-dip slide was maintained: “We’d wax it up -- sit on wax bars on gunny sacks, and slide down. We could completely miss the second bump!”
In the 1990s, Trueblood started downsizing. The huge slide was taken down. Although the concession stand, kiddie train, and mini-golf remained open until 2010, the last of the rides left in 2006, and the title of a Bemidji Pioneer story on Aug. 20 that year asked, “What next for park?” For many locals and visitors, a family tradition came to an end.
Linda (Iverson) Autrey recalled going with her mother Carol, brother Robert and his young son, Tucker, to the park on the last day the rides were there -- three generations: “I think we all cried a little to see it end.”
The First Amusement Park on Lake Bemidji
Prior to the Trueblood/Larson Paul Bunyan Amusement Park, Don Holmes and his wife Francine (Achenbach) Holmes operated the Paul Bunyan Playground at the lakefront. According to a story from the Aug. 18, 1952 Bemidji Pioneer, Holmes owned and operated Don’s Repair Service located at Irvine Avenue and Fourth Street. A talented inventor and welder, Holmes built the Bunyan Bikes (paddle boats) and other home-made rides featured at the park.
The Holmeses had opened the repair business in 1945 and operated the waterfront park in the summers. The Dixie Belle, an excursion boat, operated for several years from the lakefront, as did the Bemidji Belle. The story lists several kiddie rides that were added in 1952: “The new rides include the Paul Bunyan Special, a miniature train, kiddie airplane rides, kiddie boats, a sort of aquatic merry-go-round, and a Ferris wheel.”
Holmes had built a mini-golf course approximately where the south end of the parking lot now is. When the lakefront was built up and extended, the golf course had to be taken down. The Truebloods built a new one farther to the north that operated until their park closed in 2010.