Carsonia Park, From the Bottom: A Historical Vignette
By CORRIE CRUPI
The area known as Custard’s Bottom was initially the property of Benjamin & Mary Custard, settlers who established a homestead along the Antietam Creek near Butter Lane in the 1700’s. The Custards erected a woolen mill and, sometime around the year 1800 , constructed an impressive Georgian-style home in the vicinity between Emerald and Harvey Avenues. This domicile eventually became known as the Carsonia Inn (as seen in popular vintage postcards). The cozy restaurant and sitting grove was tucked into a southeast area of the park. Chef Albert Kauffman steamed up colossal clambakes, often serving thousands of dinners per season. The Inn boasted a commodious public room and picnic grove boasting many statuesque locust trees. (This building was razed in 1953 to make way for the Byron Whitman Housing Development of Pennside, just off Carsonia Avenue.)
The property then passed into the ownership of Mr. William Schweitzer. By October 1894, John A Rigg and Robert N. Carson, wealthy Philadelphians who were shareholders in the Union Traction Company of Reading, purchased the farm and the outlying 145 acres and created an amusement park and grove. The plan was laid out to encompass the area between Harvey and Parkview Avenues from Carsonia and beyond Byram Street to Antietam Lake. (1912 maps showed Carsonia Avenue was listed as Almon Avenue). It was around this area that the immensely popular amusement resort named Carsonia Park came into being. Admission to the park was free and individual tickets were sold to park-goers at the rate of a nickel each. Tickets were purchased at a ticket booth, (one of which still survives and reposes majestically at the corner of Friedensburg and Lewis Roads). For many children, money was non-existent; however, they could just walk around the park and enjoy the views. They could spend a whole day having the best times of their lives without spending that nickel! Trolleys paraded up and down Carsonia Avenue throughout the season. The other mountain resorts were in full competition, courting the patronage of Reading natives and their guests. The popularity of such contenders as The Tower Hotels & Resorts, the Neversink Mountain Hotel, City Park, and Millers Family Park in Pendora Park, was being rivaled by Carsonia itself.
A “Name the Park” contest was announced in the Reading Eagle newspaper, and S. Emma Moyer, a teacher at the Rose & Washington School in Reading, is credited for winning the contest. On Saturday, June 20, 1896, all 577 pupils were picked up at 3rd and Penn for their treat of a free day at Carsonia Park. Jonathan Mould’s Busy Bee Department Store at 647 Penn Street gave away hundreds of children’s tickets for free turns on such old-fashioned rides as the Big Toboggan, the Grand Carousel, Circle Swing, The Venice/Old Mill, Little Railway, The (Haunted) Pretzel, A Trip to the North Pole, The Cuddle Up, Caterpillar, Hump Mobile Speedway, Noah’s Ark Fun House, Jack Rabbit/The Thunderbolt, Dodge-um Bumper Cars, The Whip, the Rowboats, and many more attractions crafted by the American Amusement Company.
Trolleys stopped anywhere between the new Carsonia Inn (now Klinger’s on Carsonia) and 735 Carsonia Ave (currently Adele’s Salon). When getting off the trolley, if you ran, you could be first in line at The Castle of Mirth Funhouse, grab your skates for a spin around the rink, or carry your ball to the bowling alley for some riveting afternoon activities. These trolley lines brought thousands of people to the park daily to enjoy the rides, listen to band concerts, take in theater shows, consume delectable food and drinks, or simply bask in the serenity of the picnic groves. Every Tuesday was Italian Day, and there was also a weekly German Day with a parade and banners proudly hailing “Deutscher Tag”. Abiding with the cultural heritage of the time, on Mondays the trolley was packed to the rafters with colored children going to enjoy the park. Eventually, need dictated the creation of two tracks for trolleys shuttling down the center of Carsonia Avenue, running every 90 seconds, at a 7 cent fare with a free transfer.
Imagine the adrenaline rush when jumping off the trolley and running toward the two towering white pillars that crowned the entrance to the Park (in the rear of today’s Redner’s parking lot near 25th Street). These columns that once announced the entrance still exist today at the Sally Ann Park, a country park in Pa. The sounds of summer were heralded by the whizzing of the rides, delighted screams from the Midway arcade, and swimmers raucously splashing in the pool.
The delicious aroma arose from the midway where a myriad of concession stands offered dozens of treats: hot dogs, hamburgers, cotton candy, moshie candy, popcorn crisp, ice cream waffles, salt water taffy, pretzels, French cake, or the tasty powder sugar puffles. The fresh lemonade was particularly thirst- quenching. There was an exceptionally ornate 9-headed public drinking water fountain off the midway to the right of the pagoda-style stand. Going past the fountain, following the sounds of calliope music from the merry-go-round, sat the park office. This was a very important building for all employees, as this is where they collected their paycheck. In later years this building was picked up and moved; today it gracefully reposes on Parkview Street (1st from Carsonia Avenue). Many a family photo was taken on the hand-carved wooden bridge that spanned the Antietam Creek behind 25th & Harvey. Walking over this bridge would take you to the Carsonia trolley stop. If there was time, you could continue along the foot path, across the trolley tracks to 730 Carsonia Avenue, known then as the Cheese Factory. Here you could try a Pennsylvania Dutch culinary treat called koch kase, or cup cheese, a spreadable dairy treat made with milk, butter, eggs, and buttermilk—it smelled stronger than limburger but tasted far better— and was always served with a chunk of rye bread.
Another architectural highlight was the Edison Building, which housed the penny arcades, Nickelodeon movie machines, and slot machines, which were all the rage in entertainment. Along the midway, participants would get 3 tries for a nickel. There were a variety of regular carnival games like darts, milk bottles and the popular go fishing game. Novelty prizes were awarded to anyone who played. At the end of the season, the general manager of concessions treated the employees to a day at Coney Island in the Big Apple, NY.
Down by the boat docks, just beyond the Jack Rabbit ride, loomed the Circle Swings, the scene of which is captured on many postcards and photos that survive today. Passengers would gleefully fly through the air in huge wicker gondolas with the vistas of the park spinning by at dizzying speeds. These were eventually replaced with wooden airplanes. As of a few years ago, it is noted, that remains of this ride can be found in the back field of Twin Grove park campsite, north of Lebanon. Here at this 10 ¼ acre Crystal Lake you could rent a motor boat, row boat or a canoe or take the walking path around the lake. Ten cents would get you a relaxing half hour or 2 times around for the family and a way to get some alone time with that special someone. In the winter the lake eclipsed to ice for skating. Mr. Lynch, a longtime park employee, ran the boat works. One of his favorites was the “Elba”, a motor boat purchased from William H. Luden. The boat repair buildings still stand back in the trees to the far left of the lake. One of the buildings was used to store township equipment and vehicles. (In 1960, when the Reading scuba team was practicing dives in Crystal Lake, one of the divers found a motor boat anchor. The anchor was presented to civic leader and mayor of Mt. Penn, Mr. John Becker, and is now on display at the Lower Alsace Township Building).
Overwhelmed by the traffic activity of their claim to fame, in 1922, Amos H. Wentzel, Chairman of Supervisors for Lower Alsace Township, proposed the opening of Carsonia Avenue on the north side of the trolley tracks. Funds were desperately needed for continued enhancement of this road. Tax collector Warren H. Yoder reported a long delinquency list meaning the money, at a rate of 4 mils. on the dollar, was not coming in as planned. Terms were accepted to install fire hydrants from the borough line to Park Lane this same year. Township Employee wages were reduced to .30 an hour for laborers and .35 for the road master. On March 31, 1923 notices were sent from George S. Diener, road master, to residents of the Avenue, who had placed plates and planks across the deep gutters on the Avenue so as to drive their automobiles onto their driveways, were instructed to remove them, due to creating a traffic hazard. State highway aid was received by 1924 and the township moved forward with the paving project; the road was constructed from waterproof macadam.
The Band Pavilion, sometimes seen decorated in a floral motif reminiscent of the South Seas, hosted special events which included professional opera singers, the mysterious gypsy act, and magic shows. Frank Piehl played in an accordion trio lead by Warren Orth. He often wondered how certain acts were not struck by a pellet from the shooting gallery that was across the way. Many marveled at the different hand-painted scenic backdrops, and in later years, movies were shown here as well.
The 900,000-gallon swimming pool constructed in 1932 was very refreshing, and for 25 cents you could swim all day. A colossal structure, painted white, housed a wooden grandstand with locker room areas at each end with locker attendants. Did you know that you could rent a woolen swimsuit? That explains why they all look alike in old photos! In the center of the sand bottom pool was a wooden cat walk that encompassed the pool which still exists today (replaced with concrete). The original filter beds still exist, and the pool remains and functions in the same location, currently maintained by Antietam Valley Recreation Community Center Board since July 1950.
After a long day at the park, the Carsonia Inn would offer guests a hearty meal, and in 1936, a beer garden was added with a beautifully landscaped garden maze that served as an entryway from the park to the quaint German-style Beer Garden Restaurant. The beer garden still exists as part of Anthony’s Trattoria at Navella and Byram Streets. Take a special look at the lamp posts in the parking lot: they once lined the midway and can be seen in many a postcard from that bygone era.
Melrose Park was a private picnic grove where Carpenter Steel, Textile & the Parrish (Dana) had annual picnics for employees in a cool wooded fenced off area next to the pool (near the Rigg Trailer Park). On special evenings there were water shows on the lake and fireworks; firemen could be spotted standing guard on the roof of the Crystal Ballroom to keep watch for errant sparks.
The Carsonia Casino Amusement Company built a grandiose wooden structure built in 1906 and was located along the 900 block of Carsonia Avenue. Prize boxing matches, marathon dances, nightly card games, and the European favorite—skeet-ball—were among the jolly pastimes conducted there. Amazing feats attracted visitors, including a woman who was buried alive in a plot below the building. Observers could view, by means of a periscope, Miss Emile Neumann a known daredevil, and watch her as she lay, corpse-like, in a coffin. It was said that this woman would lie there for hours, and food was given to her by way of another opening! This building was, sadly, razed in 1933. Carsonia Park was undoubtedly the most popular attraction in the township’s history. Many fond memories were created from the nostalgic good old days spent by thousands of Berks County natives at Carsonia Park.
People flooded in from miles around and built vacation cottages in what is now Stony Creek. Lillian Gish, a famous silent film star, was a seasonal resident of Cresia, who owned 104 Midland Avenue and the surrounding lots that were part of Sylvan Dell. Names like Pennside, Melrose Park, Sylvan Dell, Woodside, Reading Gardens, and Stony Creek were hollered out by the conductor as you approached the Park and beyond Taft Avenue. You could take the line to the end of Stony Creek and walk up past the Kraemer Mill towards Antietam Lake. With the availability of affordable automobiles, service to Carsonia Park was discontinued on October 16, 1939. Labor Day of 1951 witnessed the end of an era when Carsonia Park closed forever.
The Crystal Ballroom Dance Palace was impressive; constructed in 1923, it went on to attract and accommodate nationally-recognized artists, such as the Dorsey Brothers, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, Sammy Kay, Ted Weems, Ina Kay & Guy Lombardo, and numerous other jazz orchestras of the Big Band Era. Ozzie Nelson & his Orchestra, featuring vocals by Harriet Hilliard (whom he later married and went on to find fame on the big screen), performed there as well. There was a local child star, Jacqueline Ash, who returned home from Hollywood to perform at a benefit show. Every Wednesday night was open for a local band venue. Hundreds came to dance; they say a man could have a “girl in every state”, as each one of the 50 archways had the name of a state painted across the top. When the lights went out, it was ladies’ choice: the spot lights would shine on the crystal balls that hung from each end of the dance floor, creating a romantic field of glittery stars.
The stylish and fashionable Crystal Ballroom was enjoyed by crowds from all around—until a calm August night in 1968, when, at 1:30 a.m., a disgruntled gang of hoodlums, who had previously been refused entry, returned to the dance hall armed with a Molotov cocktail. In the early morning hours of Friday, August 29th, two explosions and raging ribbons of fire exploded out of the Dance Palace; unfortunately, it was too late, and the entire structure burned to the ground. The Lower Alsace, Mt. Penn, and Reiffton Fire Departments reported that 25 minutes after the call went out; the structure was fully engulfed, terminating in a total loss. Flames roared and smoke was visible for miles as the ballroom perished in the titanic conflagration. Regrettably, there was a tot lot picnic scheduled for this day which had to be held in the swimming pool area instead of the ballroom. Exeter Policeman Arthur Wittig and Mt. Penn officer Barry Cardell spoke to three youths who were walking home from night fishing at Antietam Lake. They recalled hearing glass breaking followed by an explosion and flames flared immediately. They yelled as they spotted two youths running away from the ballroom; the disintegrated pile of wooden memories smoldered for days.
The suburban sprawl, flanking the thriving Carsonia Park, brought intense residential development to the Pennside & Stony Creek areas. In the end, this was Caronia’s fate as well. Many still reminisce about the wonderful times they had in the park’s halcyon days, waxing nostalgic about Carsonia Park’s glorious era as a premiere destination for summertime fun- seekers. As a result, we will continue to grow and develop as we have in the past as a pleasant suburban residential area – and a GREAT place to live!