Summit Lake Was Once Home to 'Akron's Million Dollar Playground.' OH Really?
The grand opening of Summit Lake’s new Nature Center today marks the culmination of years of work by community groups and city officials. A recent question to our “OH Really?” team asked about the lake’s history as a recreation hub. And specifically, about Summit Beach Amusement Park, which closed in 1958.
Finding someone who remembers Summit Beach Amusement Park isn’t easy. The first parks on the site opened in the late 1880s, including one operated by the Menches Brothers, inventors of the “Hamburg sandwich.” By 1917, Summit Beach Amusement Park opened. Dave Lieberth, Akron historian, vaguely remembers going there once, as a child. But he’s done a great deal of research about the park.
“It is best defined in superlatives. They called it Akron’s ‘Million Dollar Playground’ when a million dollars meant something, in the 1920s. It was the highest grossing amusement park in eastern Ohio. When they built the Crystal Pool at Summit Lake, it was the biggest tile pool in the world: 75 feet by 180 feet. They called their Wisteria Ballroom the world’s largest dance floor, which could handle 5,000 people."
The ballroom and music were big draws, attracting well-known acts like Grandpa Jones or Sally Rand, the burlesque dancer. She was known for her bubble dance, and the park reportedly advertised her appearance with a flyer that had strategically placed balloons made by Akron’s Anderson Rubber Company.
Letter to the editor
They also received a visit from a pre-fame, teenaged Len Chandler, the folk singer, who wanted to swim in that giant Crystal Pool. (By the way, the pool was built because rubber companies dumped so much toxic waste into the lake that Akron's health director outlawed swimming).
Chandler visited in 1954 -- a time when Akron was segregated. Dave Lieberth explains, “Chandler was concerned because he had gone there on a day when people were swimming in the Crystal Pool and he was told that it was closed. He confronted the owner and said , ‘Look, I'm here to swim. You've got people swimming in the pool.’ And the owner was candid with him and said, ‘We are not open for Negroes.' [They] would have to earn the right to swim in the pool."
Len Chandler is now 86 and lives in Los Angeles after a long career in folk music. He recalls what happened in 1954. “My mother told me to go to the church picnic and swim. My complaint was, ‘I don't want to go to a church picnic. I just don't feel like it; I don't want to do that.’ And she said, ‘you're going to go, I want you to go there, and swim in the pool.’ And she said, ‘for all these years, the pool is still unavailable to black people. I want you to go there; if people are going to go there and spend their money, I want you to go there and swim.’ And I said, ‘okay, Mom.’
“Right when I was going into the park and confronting the guy that wouldn't let me swim, there were the older black church ladies saying, ‘we don't want to cause any trouble up in here,’ and ‘blah blah blah blah blah.’ And they were opposing my desire to confront and challenge the way things were. But I'm glad that I did.
“What happened after that I wrote the letter, I was contacted by the NAACP and they said, ‘we would like for you to help us arrange a little surprise for [Summit Beach management]. And so I said, ‘okay, cool.’ They called a meeting for me that had about five black couples and five white couples. We arranged a sting. What we did was there would be a white couple [entering] and a black couple. The white couple would say, ‘oh, they're friends of mine so they should come in.’ And so, they did all that until [management] said ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ After we did this event, we filed suit against Summit Beach through the NAACP. We had real strong evidence that it was an out and out discrimination event, because we had synchronized our watches and approached the entrance [together].”
A favorite for dates
After this incident at Summit Beach, the park carried on for several more years. At its peak, the beach had boat docks, picnic pavilions, a roller rink, carousel, Merry-Go-Round, slot machines, a Ferris wheel, and The Skyrocket roller coaster.
Lieberth explains that Summit Beach "was a favorite for dates. One writer recalled that there were ‘slick-haired men about town -- who had been farmers just seven months before -- putting Victrolas into their canoes and picking up waitresses to see what life was like on the Summit Lake.’”
The park also — near the end — installed the first commercial Monorail in the country from the Ohio Mechanical Handling Company, which was on South Main Street. That only lasted a couple seasons before the park closed, but the Monorail was moved to Cedar Point where it's said to have produced more income than any other ride at the Sandusky park that year.
The beach recedes
Why did Summit Beach Amusement Park close? Dave Lieberth picks up the story from the early 1950s.
"There were certainly signs of decline, in part due to the fact that there had been fires: some of the buildings and rides had been damaged by fire before it got to the point where it had to shut down. It had been a relatively quick decline because even in the era immediately after World War II, there still was a demand for amusement parks. It was in that last five years -- from 1953 to 1958 -- that television became supreme. Not unlike what we see today with the Android and the iPhone sort of taking over people's lives. And now we stream shows instead of watching television.
"What changed the most was television and also the personal automobile. So now, people had the ability to get into their car and drive to Euclid Beach Park or to Cedar Point. Or to watch television and to do other things. Riding the streetcar to Summit Beach became less attractive. And in 1958, it closed down."
Urban renewal projects like the Akron innerbelt also changed the city: in the decade after the park closed, Akron relocated 3,000 households – 80 percent of which were black – and many ended up in the Summit Lake neighborhood. Our friend Noor Hindi at The Devil Strip has covered this extensively.
In the 63 years since Summit Beach Amusement Park closed, the lake has slowly become cleaner, a nature center has taken the place of the old pump house, a farmer's market takes place every Tuesday, and a historical marker commemorates what was once nicknamed “Akron’s Coney Island.”
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