, Salem, MA


April 22, 2013

McAllister: The Willows, 'genteel' through the years

April has arrived, and with it the reopening of our beloved Salem Willows amusement park. While the history of the wonderful waterfront park has been well-chronicled, there is still the occasional little-known tasty tidbit that deserves to be brought to light.

The Willows was designated a city park in 1858, a decade after the contagious disease hospital, a fixture in the area now occupied by the Salem Willows Yacht Club (1932), burned to the ground. City officials and local residents were protective of their parks, and by city ordinance, no alcohol was to be sold or consumed within their borders. When the Juniper House opened in an old farmhouse near the intersection of Fort and Columbus avenues (around 1877), one half of the building fell within the boundaries of the park. According to Sallie Belle Cox, in a 1941 magazine article about the Willows and its famous “shore dinners,” the inn’s popular bar was carefully placed in that part of the building that lay outside the park boundary.

When the Willows amusement area opened in 1880, there was widespread fear that it would attract the wrong element. In an 1881 “The Willows” column in the Salem Evening News, the reporter noted that while some felt the waterside park was “too democratic,” the editorial staff believed that everyone should be allowed to “mingle in the same pleasures so long as they behave in a decorous manner.”

A few months later, a serious breach of said “decorum” was reported in that same column. “A big fat woman,” not seeing any empty seats on the trolley car, “deliberately sat down on the leg of a rather medium-sized young man, completely extinguishing him ... he crawled from under the mass of fat and impudence, looking much as though he had been hit by a pile driver.”

Generally, the crowd was a bit more genteel. Many locals were drawn to the higher-brow shows at Willows Park Theater, a forerunner of the present-day band shell. The original version could seat 1,000 patrons and offered everything from concerts by Jean Missud’s beloved Salem Cadet Band (limited to sacred music on Sundays) to opera.

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