MOUNT VERNON -- “Arriving at Mount Vernon, what a sense of relief and thrill of pleasure you experience in leaving the warm, upholstered and heavily-curtained car of the steam railway, to find awaiting you at the depot elegant electric summer cars of finest design and finish.
"The equipment of this electric line is unexcelled, and the attention and courtesies extended to its patrons by employees and officers make you feel that you are their honored guest. Again, you realize a returning consciousness of perfect comfort as the the car goes speeding over polished steel rails, through shady streets, now leaving the city in the background and passing into country, catching the cool breezes laden with the perfume of sweet nature, and, after a 15 minutes' ride, you reach the grand entrance to Lake Hiawatha Park.”
So opens the lavish promotional brochure extolling the virtues of Lake Hiawatha Park, a popular resort and amusement park that operated for over two decades around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. It's not to be confused with the current Hiawatha Park, a public pool and park that takes its name from the historical one.
Nor are they on the same site, though not far apart.
Lake Hiawatha Park was one and the same as today's Knox County Fairgrounds.
According to research compiled by Knox County Historical Society Museum director James K. Gibson for the fair's sesquicentennial in 1999, local farmers began holding agricultural exhibitions in the 1840s. The first county-wide fair was held in 1849. For the next few years, the fairs moved from location to location, often struggling to happen at all.
In 1857 a big push was made to establish a permanent fairgrounds, when land was purchased and buildings built in an area now bordered by Pleasant Street Elementary on the north and Coshocton Avenue on the south. Those grounds were sold in the 1880s to real estate developers, and new land was purchased in the present location.
The fair organization faltered with the economic panics of the 1890s, and a Utica bank foreclosed on the property. In late 1894, Plimpton Beverly Chase purchased the land and began the creation of Lake Hiawatha Park. According to the figures in James Robert Hopkins' Knox Folklore and Fact, Chase paid $4,868 for 45.83 acres, equivalent to over $143,000 in today's currency.
The park development was no whim: Chase and his father-in-law William Bird ran the Mount Vernon Street Railway Company. Their ambition was to extend electric trolley lines to the park and make it a posh destination, as suggested in the marketing prose above. This was part of their overall strategy to expand the importance of electric transportation in Mount Vernon, because their company was also the main supplier of electricity.
For a time, the park succeeded handsomely. It boasted of a large toboggan water slide, two restaurants, a revolving chair ride, a boat house, a billiard-bowling-and-dance hall, a 1500-seat theater, a zoo, and no fewer than 30 cottages built along what is now Fairgrounds Road, all with the same popular Indian names used for everything in the park (and none of which had any local historical significance).
The electric trolley would come from Mount Vernon via Sychar Road, passing the Mount Vernon Academy that gave this crossroads its name, Academia. The trolley line ended at the main gates to Lake Hiawatha Park (today a little-used side gate), where the name of the lake was spelled out in shaped flowerbeds on the side of the reservoir. Directly across the lake, one could see the water slide and the boat house, where rowboats and canoes were available for those who wished to go out on the small, shallow lake.
The theater was further along the shore, and the pool hall, restaurants, spring-fed waterfall, croquet grounds, grotto, and zoo were all further up the slope.
The park received crowds of revelers and became the go-to site for large group gatherings, such as the Baptist Church, who would hold large assemblies there every year. The county fair also continued to be held here, with the agricultural association leasing the grounds for the week of the fair.
But as the century turned, the busy Plimpton Chase found an opportunity to move his activities to Washington, D.C., and create a theatrical establishment dedicated to “polite vaudeville,” a family-friendly form of entertainment. He was very successful in this, eventually becoming the president of the Association of Vaudeville Managers of the United States and Canada.
Though he maintained his summer home in Sparta, in Morrow County, he stopped being involved in the park, and it began a long, slow decline.
At some point during this period, automobile racing was added to the horse racing on the track that still to this day rings the lake. But it was to no avail. Lake Hiawatha Park fell out of fashion, the number of crowds fell, and the electric trolleys fell into disuse. In 1917, the tracks were torn up and sold for scrap during the World War I recycling efforts.
By 1918, the park was bankrupt, and it was sold back to the Agricultural Society for $7,000.
The agricultural group ran into more financial trouble in the early 1920s, and in 1924 was forced to sell the park again, this time to a mysterious organization billing itself as “The Hiawatha Park Association.” Though taking their name from the park, the company showed no interest in resuming normal activities of the resort.
Instead, it is believed that they were actually a front for the Ohio chapter of the racist terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, who held rallies at the grounds in the mid-1920s.
But they, too, fell into receivership, and the Knox County Commissioners ended the KKK presence by purchasing the grounds and making it permanently available for Knox County Fair use.
Oddly, Hopkins turned up one other curious bit of paperwork in his digging into the history of the site: In March 1929, the grounds were leased for a period of 20 years to a William Limbacker, who resided on East Gambier Street, for the purpose to re-establishing an amusement park.
Whatever Limbacker's plans may have been, the October stock market crash later that year soon brought on the Great Depression, and no amusement park has ever returned to Lake Hiawatha.