Little Amerricka
July 21, 2011

copyright Jay Ducharme 2011

The final park for Karen and me on our Wisconsin trip was Little Amerricka in Marshall. Over the years, I had heard about this place from other park enthusiasts. There had been a rumor for many years that the park was going to rebuild the long-dormant Comet roller coaster from Lincoln Park, a Fall River, MA, park that was a sister to Holyoke's Mountain Park. I also knew they had a really long railroad.  But I knew little else.

The drive to the park took us through wide open farm country and into the center of Marshall, a town that seemed a throw-back to a simpler time with small shops and a hardware store. A short drive past the town center, large brightly colored objects appeared to the right of the road. We had arrived at Little Amerricka, named after the park's creator Lee Merrick. The sun broke through the clouds as we approached the park  We were greeted by a giant orange tiger butt (the back of an inflatable slide) and the infamous "Steel Shaft of Pain" (a Chance Toboggan).  Parking was free in a small lot of crushed stone to the right of the park. There was a line of trees along the perimeter of the park. Snaking through the trees about ten feet in the air was the blue track of a monorail. The park entrance led through the trees to what appeared to be a little red train station. It seemed really charming.

We walked between the trees and over to the building that indeed had train tracks running past it. There was a large exit sign on the door, but no indication of how to get inside. We walked around the building and found ourselves on an expansive midway made of light-colored asphalt. Rides were positioned in varying proximity like an old county fair.  The obvious king of the midway was a junior wooden coaster. Next to it swinging precariously close was an old Eyerly Roll-O-Plane that looked brand new. Opposite that was a vintage Eli Bridge cable-driven Ferris wheel (the same kind I used to run at Mountain Park). Nearby was a merry-go-round and an old Mad Mouse coaster. There were also bumper cars, a Scrambler and lots of kiddie rides.

The building I thought was a train station was actually the park's one concession stand. We entered the little air conditioned building.  An O gauge model railroad ran around the perimeter of the building, about a foot from the ceiling. On the far right was a small food counter  To our immediate right was a ticket booth, but it was closed. Above it was the park's pricing structure. It was clear and well-organized.  There were four colored wrist bands at differing prices, depending on how many different rides you wanted to take. The highest price was $21.95, which included the go-cart track and unlimited mini-golf. We opted for the $12.95 green band, which got us on all the rides we wanted, including a haunted house. The park was open only from noon to six, so having more options didn't make much sense. The next question was where to pay. To the far left was a stand selling souvenirs. The glass case there contained a scale model of the Lincoln Park Comet and some awards from the American Coaster Enthusiasts. We noticed families lining up at the stand and getting wrist bands. So we assumed that was where we needed to go. I asked the girl behind the counter about the Comet and she said that Lee Merrick indeed wanted to rebuild that coaster but just hadn't settled on where it would go.

We got our wristbands and headed back out onto the midway. Our first stop was the wood coaster, Meteor, a PTC junior woody designed by my favorite coaster engineer, Herb Schmeck. The park had gotten it at auction and it fit perfectly into that section of the midway. Karen and I approached the queue just as a trainload of riders had boarded. The ride was designated a Coaster Classic by the American Coaster Enthusiasts and I could see why. The station still used the ride's original wooden brake handles. The train, like Waldameer Park's similar Comet junior coaster, had railroad-like flanged wheels. The seats had simple stationary lap bars to hold you in.  The operator gave the riders a little spiel about the dos and don'ts on the ride. Then he sent them off on their trip. When the train returned to the station, he slowed it a bit and let it glide back to the chain. When the train came back through the station a second time, he again let it glide to the chain. Each ride was three circuits long. That was pretty generous of the park, and the kids seemed to be thrilled each time the train rolled back to the chain.

We sat in the front. It was a bit of a tight fit, with our knees pressed against the front of the train. After the spiel (the usual "no standing, spitting, etc...") we rolled up to the 28-foot-high lift. The first drop was gentle and the next hill produced just a hint of airtime. The rest of the ride was the same: gentle drops followed by gentle hills and turns. It was a wonderful "big" coaster for children.

Next we climbed the metal staircase that led to the loading station for the monorail. Because of its small size, i assumed the little yellow cars were pedaled along the track. But they had electric motors. The cars were spacious but low, and could easily seat four people. I got in the front and Karen took the back. The ride gave us a good view of the park grounds, including the mini-golf course. It also gave us a view of the open countryside surrounding the park.

Probably the most famous ride in the park was the Whiskey River Railway, a two mile excursion. Little Amerricka had several different scale model engines they used, and they switched them from time to time. The day we were there, the park was running a diesel engine much like the ones that haul freight all over the country. There were two engines dated 1996 and 1997 connected back-to-back. (As it turned out, the second "engine" was just a non-motorized shell.)  Seven cars trailed the engine(s). The first two looked like cattle cars and had enclosed seating. The next three were open cars, and the last was a caboose that kids could ride in. Karen and I sat in the last open car. Water was dripping from the station's metal roof. It had rained heavily overnight and the water appeared to have saturated the chipboard that covered the ceiling.

The conductor made his lively safety announcement and bellowed out, "All aboooaaaard!"  He then disappeared into the engine compartment. The horn gave two short toots and we started rolling forward toward the kiddieland section.  The train arced around to the left past the front of the park and then paralleled the monorail track. We passed the back of the concession stand, where we first entered the park. Then we rolled past the mini-golf course and the go-kart track. That was where the park seemed to end. But the train kept going out into the farmland. We passed by some buildings with facades that looked like a street from the old west. We entered a short tunnel and then emerged to find wide open fields. Some were filled with young corn and other vegetables. Others were just large tracts of grass waving in the breeze. The train turned toward the right and we entered a sort of farm with a large pond, barns and all sorts of animals wandering about including geese, sheep, llamas, emus and even zebras.  Further along there appeared to be workshops of some sort.  As we passed through the farm area, several tracks branched off in different directions. There was a railroad turntable leading to storage areas for the various locomotives. Then we found ourselves in the shade of a pine forest, eventually emerging into another grassy open field that seemed to stretch on for miles, with distant farmhouses visible across the gently rolling hills. A small creek crossed under our path. The tracks were fenced off with barbed wire on either side.  Birds flitted about. We curved around to the left and eventually returned to the farm area, on the opposite side. We then continued back the way we came. As we re-entered the midway area, we passed by a peculiar structure that looked like a ramshackle wooden trailer. Then we rolled back into the station, about 20 minutes after we had left.

Though the seats were little more than sheets of plywood and the heat was oppressive, the ride was really relaxing and enjoyable. The farm area was a surprise and seemed to especially delight the children on board. (The zebras were really popular.)  I was amazed at the amount of territory we covered. I wished I could have seen the other engines the park used. But even so, this was one of the best miniature railways I'd ever ridden.

The heat had worked up our appetite, so we headed back for the concession stand. There wasn't anything vegetarian to eat (not that I expected any), not even pizza. So Karen ordered French fries and I ordered pretzel bites with cheese and a lemonade. We sat at one of the small tables. Behind us was a little arcade with about a half-dozen machines. The lemonade was freshly made and good. The pretzel bites were delicious.  Karen's French fries were okay, similar to McDonald's. The snacks were enough to tide us over until suppertime.

We walked alongside the railroad track, following it over to the kiddieland section near the front of the park.  It was a busy and colorful area, some of it hidden beyond a small tunnel that would surely be a magical entry point for children.  They had the usual kiddie rides, including a small steel coaster.  Following the kiddieland walkway, we ended up at the main entrance to the park.  Since the coaster was in front of us, we took another fun spin on the Meteor. Next Karen wanted to ride the Ferris wheel. The attendant had just begun loading it, so we queued up and were quickly seated. Like all the help at the park, the attendant was really friendly and relaxed. The Big Eli wheels are my favorite. The sensation of being pulled backwards and up is thrilling, and the seats offer panoramic views. We were treated to several revolutions. We were the last to load, so I figured we would be the last to unload. But the attendant stopped us first. When I said, "Aw, shucks," the attendant laughed and spun us back up to the top. That was a nice thing to do. It seemed like everyone at the park wanted you to have fun.

I wanted to ride the monorail again. Karen decided to pass and instead take some photos. Now that I was more familiar with the park, the views from the monorail made a little more sense to me.  As I rounded the turn at the back of the park, though, there was still that odd little building. I didn't see anyone go near it. It looked boarded up. I assumed it was for storage.  When I returned to the loading platform, I asked the attendant where the haunted house was. He said it was at the back of the park. Then it all clicked. But that building looked more like a garden shed. I couldn't imagine how they could fit a haunted house inside it.

So I met back up with Karen and suggested we try the haunted house. She too was skeptical that the park had one. So I led her to the back section of the midway. There was the little shack, non-descript, without even a sign. It was surrounded by a low wooden fence. An elderly attendant sat off to the left under an umbrella. I wasn't even sure if he was running the ride. I asked him if that was the haunted house, and he nodded. "How do we get in?" I asked. He replied, "Just walk in the front door."

Karen and I looked at each other skeptically. The front door was in the center of the building and looked disproportionately large. It looked like if we opened it, we'd walk right out the other side.  But we walked up the steps and onto the porch. Not knowing quite what to expect I grabbed the old doorknob and pushed. The door swung open revealing ... nothing. There was just blackness in front of us. I inched forward with Karen close behind me. The door swung shut and we were enveloped in darkness. I started to move forward but bumped into a wall. Now I understood how the building could be so small: the corridors were only about two feet wide, very short and constantly changing direction. We made a sharp right turn and I felt the floor get softer under my feet. A horn blasted in our ears and a ghoul behind a cage lit up in front of us. Karen jumped out of her skin and grabbed the back of my shirt as if she was wringing out a wet towel. I put my arms out at my sides, rubbing the walls to determine what direction we would go in. There was a bit of light ahead. We turned left and were greeted by another ghoul drinking a bottle of whiskey, a stunt I had seen before in the Pirate's Cove at Waldameer Park.

We crept forward. The corridors kept twisting and turning. Every so often a loud noise would sound and a stunt would light up. There were soft things brushing against our legs. The floor dipped up and down occasionally, but never tilted.  Eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel. Ahead of of was the last stunt, a peculiar scene of a cute little beaver standing behind a cross at a cemetery plot. We opened the narrow exit door into daylight. It turned out that the exit door was right next to the entrance.

I don't know how the park crammed that much fun house into such a tiny building. It was delightful (though Karen felt otherwise). I laughed my way through most of it and also had a couple of good jolts, exactly what a fun house should be. As we left, I mentioned to the attendant what a great ride it was. He laughed as if he didn't believe me. I told him I was serious, that there weren't many haunted houses like that left in the U.S.  He thanked me, but I don't think he took me seriously.

The sun was beating down intensely. We decided to take one more ride on the Whiskey River Railway. This time we sat in one of the covered cattle cars. As before, the ride was relaxing.  And since we had a roof over our heads, it was a bit cooler. When we arrived back at the station, Karen checked out the interior of the station building. It looked as if it had been used for parties at one time. There were tables folded up and stacked. There were also many historic rail-related photos on the wall, including many detailing the different engines on the Whiskey River Railway. From the listing of "Merrick Loc. Works" as the manufacturer, it appeared that the park built its own engines.  Karen spotted a large framed tribute to one of the park's workers who died of cancer. He had been involved with the railway's maintenance. Like Knoebel's and other smaller parks, Little Amerricka seemed to be a big close-knit family.

Karen and I could have easily stayed there longer, but we had to get back to Milwaukee.  I'm really glad we made the trip to Little Amerricka. Although the main midway could use a few more shade trees, the park was clean and beautifully maintained. There was even a small fountain next to the Meteor. The employees were friendly. It seemed like a great family park, a perfect place to bring your kids for a few hours of fun. If Lee Merrick does finally rebuild the Comet, the park will probably become a destination for enthusiasts across the nation. It has all the ingredients -- a wood coaster, a terrific haunted house, an impressive miniature railway, a fun variety of midway rides and a wonderful staff. I wish there were a few more food choices, but that's just me. I'm sure most people are happy with hot dogs and hamburgs, the all-American food. After all, it's Little Amerricka.

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