Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Going on Safari

But only in our imaginations because we were too late to visit what was once a major New England attraction.

Benson's Wild Animal Farm in Hudson, NH was billed as "the strangest farm on earth."

It's closed now. But, in its heyday, this destination was so wildly popular (bad pun, I know) that a special Jungle Train operated on Sundays from Boston to Hudson. Admission to Benson's was included in the ticket price.

It all began when John T. Benson began an animal training center in 1924 in NH, opening it to the public after 2 years. There were exotic animals, a train ride, games, live shows and exhibits.

Benson expanded in the early 1930s, adding a permanent Wild Animal Circus. 

By 1934, the parking lot could hold over 5,000 cars. In 1940, the zoo added an animal trainer who gave performances with lions, bears and other animals. 
Benson’s menagerie included trained lions, bears of several species, llamas, a gorilla, elephants, monkeys, and exotic birds.

Boasting more than 100 animal exhibits and 50 rides and attractions, the combined zoo and amusement park charged one price for attractions, shows and rides. An all-day child’s pass was $5; an adult pass was $10. 

After Benson died in 1943, the property was sold and closed during WW II, reopening in 1945. It fell into decline in the 1960s. It was again sold in 1979 to Nashua, NH native Arthur Provencher, who invested money in improvements and attractions. 

"Colossus" (real name "Tony") was a 500-pound gorilla, reportedly one of the largest ever in captivity, was a feature attraction from the 1960s - 1987. Tony was entered as a candidate to run in the 1980 NH presidential primary against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He died at age 40 in 2006 while undergoing a dental procedure under anesthesia.

Despite his best efforts,  Benson’s remained unprofitable. Provencher filed for bankruptcy in 1985 after an unsuccessful association with outside investors. It was renamed to “New England’s Playworld Amusement Park and Zoo.” With declining finances in the 1980s, the park added features to add family interest. Its notable attraction was a large statue of Mighty Mouse for its final year. The park closed forever at the end of the 1987 season.
In the following years, weeds, overgrowth, erosion, and vandalism took their toll. Former asphalt walkways led nowhere; most of the former animal cages and other buildings were gone. These below photos show views of the bear cage (top) and elephant barn (bottom) before and after restoration work.

A former polar bear enclosure is long gone, only its base was discovered during a clean-up project. Stairs that led to the exhibit are still standing.

This A-frame is all that remains of what was once a gift shop area. It was renovated and now shelters a picnic table area.

The state of NH acquired the property in 1989; Hudson, NH purchased it in 2009 and began development as a public park and nature area. Renamed Benson Park, it reopened in the spring of 2010 for recreational use with no admission fees.

The Old Lady in the Shoe is among several structures that have been repaired by volunteer groups. The pond where hippopotamus paddle boats once swam is now open for fishing.

The pond where hippopotamus paddle boats once swam is now open for fishing. A playground was added in 2011 and its animal and nature theme recalls the former Benson’s Wild Animal Farm. 

Today's “wild” attractions include turtles, frog and deer. The exotic ones—flamingoes, bears, elephants, gorillas will never return.

FYI — Most of the vintage photos shown herein of the former Benson's Animal Farm were on display at this ticket stand which has been restored by local Eagle Scouts and is now at the park entrance. This group is also planning to bring back a motor raceway for radio-controlled cars. 

This day trip was less than a 20-minute drive from our current home in Nashua, NH. While we were sorry to not have seen Benson's years ago, imagination is wonderful.


Connie said...

What an interesting place! I love the big Shoe. It's neat that this area has been renovated to be used for a park and nature area.

Sandra said...

i am so glad they are making a park out of it and so glad it closed and went out of business. these are the type places the animals suffered in here in Florida. they were every where. polar bears are no meant for cages, now the big zoos have them in their habitats and that is better although i think they should be where they belong. i cried when my mother took me to the Jacksonville zoo back in the mid fifties because all the animals were in cages and small lots.

Blogoratti said...

A delightful place indeed, and a nice day trip filled with so much historic landmarks. Thanks for sharing and warm greetings to you.

Emma Springfield said...

This was fascinating. That must have been quite a place to visit.

Anonymous said...

Interesting pictures.

William Kendall said...

Better to have it like this than to have animals doing tricks for applause.

Anvilcloud said...

What an interesting post which hilites how our views about animals have changed over time.

Ginnie said...

Thanks so much for this post. My mother grew up in Brattleboro, Vt. and I remember her sharing memories of what fun it was to visit the Benson Wild Animal Farm when she was a child. Her father, my grandfather Prentiss, was one of the few people then that had a car and they would often take day trips to wonderful places.

Anonymous said...

I do like to read about these places but in a way am happy few exists now days. They really weren't good for the animals mostly because they really didn't understand the needs the animals have.
Great that they have opened it up as a recreation area instead.

I have actually heard about that gorilla, I remembered reading about it when I read it had died during dental work.

Have a great day!


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