Idora Park last opened its gates on Sept. 16, 1984. Two days shy of 30 years later, 80 people met in the parking lot of Lanterman’s Mill to go on a guided hike around the land where the park once stood and reminisce.
Ray Novotny, the outdoor education manager at Mill Creek Park, led the hike and reminisced on the place the park used to hold in the hearts of the children of Youngstown.
“I remember back when we were kids, every Sunday after church we would beg, ‘Can we go to Idora Park? Can we go to Idora Park?’ It probably happened once a year, but at least it did happen once a year,” Novotny said.
Rick Shale, a retired Youngstown State University English professor who co-authored the book “Idora Park: The Last Ride of Summer,” was there to provide historical context and regale hikers with tales of the hall-of-famers who played on the park’s baseball field during barnstorming tours and the great monkey escape of 1928.
Prior to the park’s opening day in 1984, a fire broke out that destroyed part of the Wildcat — one of Idora’s two roller coasters. At the end of the season, the park closed its doors for good, ending an 85-year run.
Shale said the park would’ve closed with or without the fire.
“It had been losing money since 1982. It had been on the market for two years before the fire, and nobody was interested in buying it,” he said.
The crowd Idora was bringing in changed and declined through the years, leading to its eventual closing.
“The heyday, I think, was around the ‘20s and ‘30s. The whole family would go to Idora Park — the kids, the parents and the grandparents — and you’d stay all day long, and you’d go frequently,” Shale said. “By the ‘60s and ‘70s, families didn’t go there anymore, teenagers went there. Then by the ‘80s, teenagers had so many other places to go.”
An auction was held to sell what rides they could — including a carousel that is now operational in Brooklyn, New York — but several remained until a second fire in 2001 led to everything being bulldozed to prevent future fires. The only structures that remain outside of some retaining walls and asphalt are a stone water fountain and a flight of stone steps that led up to the picnic area.
The park was bought by Mt. Calvary Pentecostal Church in 1985 with notions of building a “City of God” complex on the land. The church still owns the land, but Novotny was unable to obtain their permission for the hike.
“I thought I had official permission from the church, then on Friday at 4 o’clock I didn’t,” Novotny said.
The majority of the park is contained by fence, but there are openings on the east side, near where the park’s baseball field used to be.
Hikers headed across the field to see if the stone steps were still in existence, and after climbing them, made their way down to the entrance of the park and through the midway.
“When you’re on sacred ground, you can’t control the crowd,” Shale said.
Shale discussed the unique appeal the park still possesses.
“I’ve had so many people say ‘I had my first date at Idora,’ or ‘I met my wife at Idora’ or ‘I proposed to my wife at Idora,’” Shale said. “We kind of mourn the loss of the steel mills, but nobody thinks about steel mills the same way they think about Idora Park.”
Ken Brindle, who worked at the park in the ‘80s, found a piece of wood from the old Wildcat.
“I know it’s from the Wildcat. I remember that color,” he said.
But the park’s appeal goes beyond nostalgia.
“A lot of people who are too young to have ever seen Idora park, they’re still interested. This happens all the time, I give these talks and there will be young kids, I mean like 10 or 12, that are fascinated,” Shale said. “They have all sorts of questions to ask.”
He said it may have something to do with the fact that the land is still unoccupied.
“If something else had come in here, it wouldn’t still have the pull,” he said.
The 80 hikers that showed up greatly exceeded expectations.
“I printed out 20 maps. I didn’t know how many people would show up,” Novotny said.
After 30 years, Idora Park is still a topic of fascination and nostalgia for citizens of Youngstown of all ages.
“Whatever it is [about Idora Park], it’s in our Youngstown spirit,” Shale said. “It’s engrained in our memory in some way.”