When the Sun Sets on a Season

Labor Day long ago at Buckeye Lake’s Amusement Park


9/3/20233 min read

Imagine the summer frenzy at a family vacation destination surrounded by corn and bean fields: tens of thousands of visitors who arrived by train, bus, car, and even airplane (yes, there was an airport at Buckeye Lake); all the big names from the Big Bands; sparkling hotels and cozy cottages; cutting edge rides; and every kind of boat and beach attraction.

Now imagine nearly everything just STOPS at the Playground of Ohio.

“Buckeye Lake’s saddest day, in my mind of course, was the day after Labor Day weekend,” wrote Craven O’Donnell, whose memoir titled Ice Cream Summers recounts his summers spent at Buckeye Lake’s amusement park in the early 1920s. His family would come by train to Newark to escape a summer of heat in New York City, renting a cottage very near the park for months. The coasters and dance halls shaped his boyhood. He describes the day after Labor Day weekend as “full of the sounds of hammers and calls of men dismantling the rides and boarding up the store fronts and concessions.”

Young O’Donnell would take a lonely walk along North Bank to watch the floodgates being prepared to lower the lake level before winter came. He’d check the abandoned slot machines at the park for the stray coin, “but not with the enthusiasm of other days.”

Of course, O’Donnell’s perspective was one with which many visitors to the park could identify. By contrast, those who lived at Buckeye Lake year-round had been exhausted for months.

Donna Braig, in her book My Buckeye Lake Story, recounts Fritz Schenk, owner of the Red Star restaurant at the park, shouting out each day something like “39 to go!”

“... And of course we knew he meant 39 more days until Labor Day, and the season was over,” Braig wrote.

The “locals,” after all, were working from 11 a.m. to midnight seven days a week for more than 90 straight days!

Braig’s daughter, J-me, at the helm of the Historical Society now, recalls that the day after Labor Day “was a happy time for residents.”

“We’d smile and say, ‘well, the circus has left town, and we can go back to normal.’ There were fewer cars. The lake got quiet and calm, and it was peaceful again. ‘Til NEXT year.”

She does confirm that there was occasionally some sadness mingled in, but usually only when saying goodbye to a summer girlfriend or boyfriend.

Braig said the carnival workers who ran the rides were contracted to Buckeye Lake’s park for the summer, and they traveled back to their winter residence in Gibsonton “Gibtown”, Florida, to repair equipment and train exotic animals over the winter (Gibtown has taken on its own legendary status, of course, in American History).

Owners of cottages, rides, food stands, restaurants, and park managers in general would typically high-tail it out of Buckeye Lake after Labor Day for a little R&R in Florida or St. Simon’s Island in Georgia over the winter, while the residents of the lake settled into the comparatively calm routine of school and winter holidays.

Today, the transition at summer’s end may not be as dramatic, with no big rides to dismantle or dance halls to board up. Public beaches close for swimming after Labor Day. The state park will have the US Army Corp of Engineers manage the drawdown of the lake level from full pool (891.6 mean sea level) to winter pool (88.6) in order to do dock maintenance and seawall repair, but that’s still a couple of months away!

I think whether we vacation at Buckeye Lake or not - or whether we experienced the amusement park in its day or not - we all might identify a little this weekend with Craven O’Donnell’s slow, boyhood stroll through a changing season … and his sense of appreciation for the memories of what has been.


Kim Garee is a reporter-turned teacher/librarian who loves to hear and share stories as she researches for her upcoming book series based in 1940s Buckeye Lake, Ohio. If you have a story about the lake she'll want to hear (and she'll want to hear it), please reach out at kgaree3@gmail.com