Since this weekend’s Plainfield Fest is being operated under the auspices of the Riverfront Committee for the benefit of redeveloping the iconic park site, it seemed appropriate to explore the 20th-Century history of Electric Park.
A Plainfield Patch reader asked, “What became of Electric Park after it closed in the 1920s?”
Many attempts were made to revive Electric Park and its brief—but unforgettable—popularity. Nearly all of the efforts were tinged with a bit of notoriety and a few with a bit of outright scandal.
Eighty-eight summers ago, the future of the storied park was more uncertain than ever.
An Ordinary Autumn
As October 1923 drew to a close, Electric Park was prepared for another winter much as it had been for two decades.
After serving its final meals of the season, the restaurant kitchen was cleaned; unused provisions and supplies were removed by the park staff; and dining room chairs stacked, upended on the tables.
As the summer residents packed their belongings, the local furniture and hardware merchants collected their furniture, lamps and stoves that they had been rented for the season. The camping cottage interiors were swept clean, and their canvas sides were dropped and secured for the winter months ahead.
Across the river in the bowling pavilion, balls and pins were neatly packed away in crates. In the nearby dance pavilion, the musicians’ stands and chairs were stacked. Lawn gliders, park benches, canoes, water toboggans and other items were packed inside the various buildings that, then, were closed up for the season.
The merry-go-round was dismantled, and its off-season canvas sides were installed and secured. The bath house was washed down, and the spigots were drained. The Mary Lee paddlewheel skiff was moored.
The auditorium was closed up and its high windows—that provided needed ventilation during the warm summer months—were secured against the approaching wintry blasts. The grand pipe organ console was covered with a canvas tarp, and its powerful electric compressor was well-oiled. The large doors were shut and locked.
The sunken gardens and landscaped grounds were pruned. The irrigation piping that pumped water onto the lawns and into the picturesque pools was drained. The mowers and garden tools were oiled and stowed away in the barn on the southeast corner of the grounds.
Near the streetcar passenger platform along Lockport Street, the iron gates between the pair of stone piers were closed and locked.
As it had been for twenty seasons, Electric Park closed with everything in order, waiting—apparently—for only the arrival of the next spring.
Calm In the Midst of Chaos
Amid the orderly preparations, the management of the streetcar line was in disarray. Like many streetcar companies of the era, the Aurora, Plainfield & Joliet Railroad was essentially bankrupt as 1923 drew to a close.
By then, Americans had become infatuated with their new-found independence provided by access to affordable automobiles. Streetcars had become obsolete.
As the park was being closed for the season, the former streetcar company re-organized as the Aurora, Plainfield & Joliet Bus Company. The former streetcar barn at Plainfield was transformed into a bus garage. By early 1924, the streetcars had been sold.
However, all indications were that Electric Park would continue to operate as an amusement venue into the foreseeable future.
An Unusual Spring
As spring emerged, the residents of Plainfield became increasingly curious about the lack of activity at Electric Park. The carpenters and painting crews did not arrive as usual. The groundskeepers were not hard at work, preparing for another opening day.
Before any official announcement was made, rumors began to circulate that the park would not open for its 21st season in 1924. Rumor became truth as spring turned into summer.
After Electric Park failed to open, the park sat strangely silent and quiet. Most of the buildings remained shuttered, and the camping cottages were not rented.
Although the familiar park amusements lay silent and the summer campers did not return, many of the local residents still enjoyed the park grounds that first summer. Few barriers prevented access to the park. Families still strolled along the crushed limestone paths from time to time. Picnics occurred with frequency beneath the mature trees.
During the summer of 1924, the Fort Beggs Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan organized a community festival at the largely shuttered park. More than 10,000 people traveled from near and far, swelling Plainfield to nearly 10 times its regular population. The community festival delivered entertainment, lectures and a carnival—complete with refreshments provided to the attendees without additional charge. Making their way to the Electric Park racetrack, a class of 200 candidates was initiated in front of a capacity crowd, seated in the grandstands.
As summer turned to autumn, most of Electric Park’s equipment and furnishings were sold off in piecemeal fashion. As 1924 drew to a close, the 20-acre park grounds were for sale.
As the luster of Electric Park—in its heyday—dimmed, the glorious stories of leisurely days at the resort along the DuPage River became the foundation of fond memories for generations to come.
Next Week: Electric Park: Wild Days of Jazz and Booze
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.
© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved
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