Sunday, December 29, 2019

Chap's Amusement Park, Decatur, Illinois. (ca.1945-ca.1958)

Chap's Amusement Park was located one block south of the Junction of Routes 48-51 & 121, on the far North side of Decatur. Some of the rides included a merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, and a Miniature train that circled the park with an out-and-back through a field. Skee Ball was popular along with other games of chance. Besides the rides, Chap's had a roller skating rink.
I was contacted by Ms. Lucian Johnson who recalls Chap's from her childhood and wished to share her memories. She focused on the rides and the park's layout.

"These are all the rides I remember," said Ms. Johnson.

The Caterpillar: A somewhat rickety roller coaster with a gimmick. The cars were convertible. They had a cover, or awning, that came up and over from the left side and looked sort of like the cover on an old Conestoga wagon, or covered wagon.
A vintage covered caterpillar point-of-view ride.

Looking down through wooden slats that served as footrests, I could see the big black wheels and pulleys and a cable all spinning and sliding under the loops. I’d pull my feet up! After a pass or two around the track, you would start back up and the cover, the "cocoon" of the caterpillar would come up and over blinding you, and you'd do a pass enveloped.

I recall this as being fairly alarming. Also alarming to my mind was the train of cars swishing thorough some boughs of a near-by tree, and seeing a branch or two swaying under me with in the area enclosed by the top of the higher loop of the coaster. I remember that the cocoon wasn’t working on some of my rides. I think it broke and never got fixed.

The Airplanes: These were tubular metal frames of a biplane shape, pretty big to my young eyes with flat panels between tubes suggesting the wings and forming the body. Thick cables kept them suspended as they were twirled.  I recall the impression that they were both more crude and stouter looking, and just bigger than some other, more modern airplane ride I saw at some other fair. Possibly a fair or ride set up in the parking lot of Shoppers World?  I remember trying to figure out if the Chaps planes would glide to the ground or just fall should the cables snap. I think I settled on an optimistic view.

The Boats: Simple, yet cool and mysterious. It was just a big round tank of water with a number of wooden boats floating in it. A central turnstile revolved and projecting shafts had, each, one boat bow tied to it with a short length of rope. Around you went, bobbing and splashing just a little. Occasionally bumping. But the water was dark and greenish, and if you were around 5, it might have any number of strange forms of life lurking in its depths.
Picture from the Kiddieland in Melrose Park, Illinois.
The Train: Also called "the bumpy train." It was blue. I don’t recall anything unique about it. It would putt... putt... putt... around in a circle, but what joy to sway side to side in it as it went.

The Gas Powered Tractors: My memory of these is kind of dim. They were half-pint tricycle configuration tractors. Loud and powerful engines. They were enclosed inside a track area with a three-foot-high wall. The tractors all had an 8-ball on the stick shift. I was too small to be allowed to operate one.  I remember my dad setting me on a seat and operating it for me for one ride. What I do remember is being frustrated that I couldn’t make it go with the shift lever.

But the most memorable aspect of Chaps, was Mr. Chaps himself, zipping about his park on some sort of small golf cart or large riding mower. He was really overweight, and might not have been able to do the rounds on foot.

The Layout: As I recall, if you stood in the center of the park looking toward the parking lot, then the train was at your 12 o'clock, The airplanes at 2, the Caterpillar was at 4 or 5, the tractors at 8 and the boats at 9 or 10 o'clock. I know there was a Ferris wheel but I don't remember it too well. Probably it would be at 2 or 3 o'clock, out past the Airplane ride.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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