Summertime in the Belgrades
Memories of Island Park
By Vivian Dennett
"Have you ever danced at Island Park, I asked?" "Oh my, yes," replied the mature lady with a smile on her face and a faraway, dreamy look in her eyes.
Many people from the central Maine area remember well the warm summer evenings when they drove or took the trolley to Island Park. Located in East Winthrop on the north shore of Lake Cobbosseecontee, Island Park is a picturesque island of approximately 8 acres, and it was there at the dance pavilion that patrons enjoyed summer evenings of dancing and listening to the music played by popular big bands of the era.
In 1904, Fred Hersey, leased seven of the eight acres that became known as Island Park to the Augusta, Winthrop and Gardiner trolley line. They built a bridge to the island, developed a picnic and swimming area under the majestic pines, and constructed a 75' × 150' dance pavilion as well as a theater where stock companies presented plays. It was torn down around 1910 and an open-air theater was built that showed free movies. An early 1900's program for the Hersey's Island Park Theatre advertised, "A limited engagement of the Boston Comedy Company presenting Little Detective with evening and matinee performances." It stated, "Round trip tickets from Augusta 25, 30, and 35 cents according to location in the theater."
A small hotel, The Hotel Pines owned by Warren Harlow, was already in existence on the island. Rates there were $2 a day and boasted, according to one of its advertisements, "Shore Dinners a Specialty, Meals at all hours, and Boats to let."
Island Park was one of the "hot spots" in central Maine. In its heyday up to 1200 people visited on the weekends. Some patrons paid the 25¢ bridge toll, parked their vehicle overlooking the lake, and just listened all evening to the dance music. Performances included those by Vaughan Monroe, Bob Percival, Leo Doucette, The Fenton Brothers, The Lloyd Rafnell Orchestra, and a local favorite, The Al Corey Orchestra.
From its earliest days, the popularity of Island Park fluctuated. As more automobiles appeared, and the trolley system ended it run in the early 1930's, other trends changed as well. Hotels and inns gave way to motels and cabins. Local people were motoring to places further away. The popularity of big band music diminished over time.
By 1930, the Williamson Corporation owned the island and in 1955, while revitalizing the dance hall to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, Sam Michael, promoter and manager for the Corporation, discovered that the song, "On Moonlight Bay" was written just a few miles away at Joe Emery's Lake House at the Outlet in Manchester. According to a June, 1954 article in the Lewiston Journal, Leon Tibbetts, whose aunt Rose Duvall ran the Lake House in the early years, said that the piece was written after songwriter Edward Madden went canoeing on a beautiful summer evening, just after the full moon came up and the lake was filled with canoeing and boating parties. Tibbetts said, "There were drifts of music and voices singing coming from all parts of the lake." "On Moonlight Bay" was just the type of song they were looking for, one that was played as the last dance of the evening and one that patrons would forever associate with the Island Park dance pavilion.
The big anniversary weekend in July of 1955 opened with a Friday night dance featuring Vaughan Monroe's Orchestra and closed on Sunday with a band concert and clambake. It must have been a wonderful sight to see couples dancing on the newly restored floor waxed to a mirror sheen, the ceiling draped in what looked like soft silk, which was actually spun glass, and colors of dusty rose and beige along with accents of white.
In 1985, the owners of Island Park, the Landanos, sold the Island to local developers who were looking to build a 32-unit condominium complex. Winthrop residents raised concerns about how the development would change the nature of the area, add to traffic congestion and safety of people living there, and what environmental issues would result. The project was eventually scaled down and today there are three homes on the island with one remaining lot for sale. The Hersey family still owns a piece of the island along with two old cottages.
Fond memories remain for all of the people who were lucky enough to motor or take the trolley to Island Park and listen to the music, or dance the night away to the sounds of the big bands.