Benson's Wild Animal Farm Revisited
The gorilla politicians and wild beast weddings are gone, but Hudson's "Wild Animal Farm" lives on as a recreational park.
Wonder Woman couldn't save one of New Hampshire's most cherished childhood treasures. Neither could the Incredible Hulk or Mighty Mouse.
On Labor Day weekend in 1987, all three superheroes came to mourn the imminent demise of Benson's Wild Animal Farm, likely smiling through autograph sessions and family photo-ops as if nothing were wrong. Boasting more than 100 animal exhibits and 50 rides and attractions, Benson's combined the best elements of zoos and amusement parks and charged only $10 for an all-day adult pass.
Six weeks later, after more than 60 years of making Hudson a regional tourist attraction, Benson's gates were closed forever. No more dancing elephants. No more neon blue "rabbit's foot" souvenirs. No more gorilla candidates to run in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Nothing is creepier than an abandoned amusement park. Need evidence? Recall a drive past the eerie chained-up remains of Whalom Park in Lunenberg, Mass., or watch any Scooby Doo episode. After years of neglect the spacious park off Route 111 was no exception. Vandals had smashed up the elephant barn and the gorilla cage – home of the storied Colossus, who ran against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980 – and littered them with beer bottles and profanity-laced graffiti.
Weeds, overgrowth and erosion also gave "The Strangest Farm on Earth" the feel of an archeological site or neglected cemetery. Crumbling staircases were covered with thick layers of brush. With most of the animal cages long gone, many asphalt paths had now led to nowhere. Even the iconic "Old Woman in the Shoe" concrete sculpture, the only kitschy remnant left from the child-centric past, had giant gashes that no cobbler would touch.
The overall depressing vibe was perhaps best summed up at BensonsAnimalPark.com, which ran a live counter for how many days the attraction had been closed (it surpassed the 8,200 day mark in the spring).
To the delight of many sentimental New Englanders, that counter is now obsolete. As of Memorial Day Benson's has officially sprung back to life. Local Eagle Scouts are restoring the original ticket booth at the park entrance and bringing back a motor raceway for radio-controlled cars. Town road construction crews have torn up the paved roads to nowhere and hydroseeded the area with grass. The pond where hippopotamus paddle boats once swam will now be open for fishing.
Benson's has been reincarnated as another park, a more passive recreational park where picnic tables and hiking paths have replaced arcades and bumper cars. Harry Schibanoff, chairman of the town's Benson Park Committee, says there still is tremendous public confusion over what the grand re-opening means. The animals – at least the ones more exotic than turtles, frogs and deer – are never coming back.
"We need to change the perception," Schibanoff says.
Step One: Get rid of the apostrophe. The town committee insists on calling it "Benson Park," believing that the subtle difference will distinguish the new land use from the old.
So what is the grammar change ushering in? Well, the 168-acre park is now a place where you can hear yourself talk. Bicycles are welcomed. Motorbikes are not. Skateboarding, jogging, hiking, frisbee and picnicking are also encouraged. Plans are under way for an enclosed dog walking park, two playgrounds, a butterfly garden and possibly a memorial/prayer garden for area health professionals who work with patients with Alzheimer's Disease.
According to Nashua's Bob Goldsack, a circus historian and author of "Remembering Benson's Wild Animal Farm (1927-1987)," Hudson once served as kind of an Ellis Island for all zoo, circus and entertainment animals when they arrived in the United States.
Animal trainer and entrepreneur John T. Benson, a big game hunting buddy of President Theodore Roosevelt, provided the first chimpanzees used in the classic "Our Gang/Little Rascals" movies. In the 1930s he frequently rented out elephants and donkeys to respective Republican and Democratic political rallies.
Benson, who also helped establish Boston's Franklin Park Zoo in 1911, set up "live carousels" where children would be pulled around in a circle by spotted reindeer. For much of the park's existence it was more circus than zoo. Legendary animal trainer Joe Arcaris delighted crowds with a ferocious comedy show marrying lion Bob and lioness Betty – both dressed in formal wedding attire. He also did handstands with one palm balancing on each of the lion's backs.
Last summer, a temporary exhibit of vintage Benson's memorabilia drew hundreds of visitors to the Hudson Library. Owner Arthur Provencher, who ran the park from 1979 to 1987 and rebranded it "New England Playworld" for its last season, wants to sell his memorabilia to the town for a possible Benson's Animal Farm museum. He has had talks with the board of selectmen about the collection, but to date there has been no movement to buy it.
"As far as I know they are still interested," says Provencher, who won't publicly state his asking price.
"From what I understand, there might be a fundraising campaign to purchase the memorabilia."
At the Hudson Library event owner Arthur Provencher reflected on why he believed that Benson's ultimately collapsed: increases in liability insurance, high animal feed costs and high interest rates for loans to buy the newest and latest rides for fickle teens. Licensing fees for the Terrytoon characters (Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle) weren't cheap either.
Provencher's marketing strategy was the opposite approach of Glen-based Story Land, which has slowly added new attractions but has never wavered from its mission to keep families and the pre-tween demographic happy. Rival Canobie Lake Park in Salem has also focused on teens, but never had to worry about the costs of housing and feeding animals year-round. Yet it was that blend of zoo and amusement park that made Benson's a unique destination. This year's volunteer clean-ups have occasionally uncovered relics such as a buttoned red monkey costume from one of the animal acts.
For those who have no emotional connection to the monkeys or any of the other residents of "The Strangest Farm on Earth," the ongoing reclamation project represents an exciting expansion for recreational opportunities. But for pure amusement park fans, the rebirth is only bittersweet: The open space at Benson Park has become even more of a reminder of what kids and families lost. Perhaps it will make New Hampshire appreciate Canobie Lake Park, Story Land and Santa's Village even more. At a time when national amusement park chains like Six Flags face an uncertain economic future, there is no guarantee how long all of our small regional attractions will survive.
NH Get InvolvedYou can help keep the legacy alive by volunteering.
Benson's Wild Animal Farm will likely never be reborn as a zoo or amusement park, but people with fond memories of the place have two options to help keep the legacy alive. The Hudson Board of Selectmen are looking for volunteers to serve on the Benson Park Committee (residents only) and various Benson subcommittees that will strongly influence the future of the recreation area. Committee Chairman Harry Schibanoff said people from out of town are welcome to serve on the subcommittees, which cover communications, hiking trail maintenance, landscaping, volunteer coordination, building renovations and the planned dog park.
"Everyone has their own opinion about what they want to see happen here," he says. "We'd love to see a museum here, but that's a long way away."
In April Hudson's Ken Matthews also founded "Friends of Benson Park," a private fundraising organization to help the board of selectmen achieve goals that can't be realized through tax dollars.
"I don't want to see the history of this place disappear," says Matthews. "It's phenomenal to see everyone get involved to making it look nice again, but 23 years of neglect won't go away overnight."
For more information, visit FriendsofBenson.org or www.HudsonNH.gov.
More Info"Remembering Benson's Wild Animal Farm" (1927-1987), softcover, 60 pages with photos, (Midway Museum Publications, Nashua, N.H.)
Ironically much of the early history of Benson's Wild Animal Farm comes via the Midwest. Bob Goldsack, author of the most definitive book on Benson's to date, found most of his archival photos at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. "Remembering Benson's Wild Animal Farm" is stuffed with quirky photos, ranging from foolish tourists handfeeding the bears to the weekend "Jungle Train," MBTA cars that brought visitors directly from Boston to Hudson.
The book also recounts where key components of the park wound up in the afterlife. The roller coaster was bought by Santa's Village and the giant toy soldiers guarding the elephant barn now decorate Hudson town common every Christmas. Given the renewed interest in Benson's, Goldsack is now in late stage talks with Arcadia Publishing to write an updated revised edition.
"Before there was a McDonald's in town, just about every teenager in Hudson worked there when they were in high school," he says. "The legend of Benson's will live on for quite a number of years."
The Hudson Historical Society is selling Goldsack's book for $17 plus postage (rates vary). For ordering information, visit www.hudsonhistorical.com
Bridge to NowPassing memories of a giant red shoe on to the next generation.
"Benson's was great when we were growing up," says Peter Ripaldi, a Hudson construction company owner who is repairing and repainting the giant bright red shoe from nursery tale fame.
"I'm hoping our kids will enjoy it and bring their kids there."
Along with his 10-year-old son PJ and his friends from the Boy Scouts, Ripaldi has spent the last year giving the Old Woman in the Shoe her dignity back. He's cleared out leaves, beer cans, cigarette butts and fallen branches from her living room. He's also painted over graffiti, patched holes with wire mesh and cement and built a new pressure-treated observation deck. Out of fear of attracting more drunken trespassers, there will no longer be pedestrian access inside the shoe. Instead, a kitchen scene will be set up behind plexiglass. Restoring the park icon is deeply personal for Ripaldi, who used to work at the park as "Ham 'N Eggs," the unicycle-riding clown, when he was in high school.
About 200 volunteers have joined Ripaldi to clean up the park, including a die-hard crew of 30 who have showed up almost every weekend over the past year. Among them is Jennifer Richards, a registered nurse at Nashua's St. Joseph Hospital, who clears brush with her son Brandon.
"I grew up on the same block as Benson's. Driving down the road by the big shoe, the car was always slowed so we could admire the animals," she says.
"Unfortunately, as I wander the park now I cannot remember where the rides were. But I know that soon the nostalgia will bring back more wonderful memories!"