Underground Memphis - Libertyland



 


Greetings friends and neighbors!

It's kind of sad to watch those long warm Memphis summer afternoons get shorter and cooler as autumn settles in over the mid-south. This time of year I always get nostalgic, thinking about how much has changed in this city that I love so much. Driving down Parkway on my way back from downtown a couple of weeks ago I stopped at the entrance to the Mid-South Fairgrounds and peered through the locked gates of what was once one of the biggest family attractions in Memphis. Everyone who grew up here or has spent any of the last 30 or so years in Memphis has memories of Libertyland. The logo has now been stripped from the faded portico and weeds have grown around the turnstiles through which passed generations of Memphians who came here for a day of fun in the sun. The old Zippin Pippin towers like a giant grey skeleton above the weeds and rusty debris that lie beneath it's tracks, it's cars long ago sold to the highest bidder.

Standing there I could almost hear the screams and the roar of Elvis' favorite roller coaster as it whipped and dipped and soared through the air. It's eerily quiet here now. Like a graveyard of happy memories whose past is gone, and whose future is uncertain at best. I thought it would be only fitting to pay my last respects to this place where so many found so much joy, so after many phone calls, e-mails and much red tape, our webmaster Jonas Stoltz and I were finally granted permission to get past those padlocks and barbed wire and take a close-up tour of what has become of Libertyland. What we found once inside will really tug at your heartstrings. But more on that later. First a little history of this once grand Memphis treasure.

Libertyland opened as an amusement park on the Mid-South Fairgrounds on July 4, 1976. Before then, the fair had operated on the land, including the Zippin Pippin and the Grand Carousel. The city of Memphis decided it was time for an amusement park for the city. The park opened in 1976 with several rides, including the pre-existing rides that had operated in that place before. The Zippin Pippin was widely popular as it was Elvis Presley's favorite wooden roller coaster. The Denztel Carousel was also a classic and was widely appreciated. The park gradually drew in decent crowds over the years, but never made a great profit. The park continued to add attractions, such as a steel coaster called the Revolution, and others. During the late 1990s, the park added a topsin ride, dubbed "Tidal Wave". The ride was removed later, and in April 2002, the drop tower Rebellion was added. The ride featured a 90 foot drop and drew larger crowds to the park.

For many years, it was widely known that Libertyland was having financial difficulties, namely it was not turning a profit. New attractions were not being added, and crowds began to diminish. In 2005, the park invested in a firm to redo the parks image. A new logo was designed, buildings were repainted, but the effort did not bring in enough of a profit, if any.Within days of the announcement to close the park, a group formed to save the park. The group, Save Libertyland!, fought against Mid-South Fair to keep the park open, citing that the park drew in hundreds of jobs for the Memphis area teens and was one of the few places for families to spend time in Memphis. Several benefits were held to gain support for the movement. The park brought in a few companies willing to purchase the park, mainly Joyland, Inc. (T-Rex Entertainment), which was known for buying financially-troubled amusement parks and turning them around. Though there was a debate over who actually had rights to the rides, since in reality, the city actually owned some of the rides, Mid-South Fair did not back down and went on with plans to auction the assets off.

Mid-South Fair brought in an auctioneer group and the auction was held on June 25th 2005. Most rides were sold, including the Zippin Pippin, which sold for only $2,500. The ride was bought by a traveling rock museum who only wanted one car of the train. Carolina Crossroads later bought Zippin Pippin but decided not to move the coaster. The Revolution was bought by DelGrosso's Amusement Park and opened in 2008. Other rides were dispersed to other locations around the country. The Rebellion was sold to Ghost Town in the Sky and reopened in 2007.In December 2006, Joyland Inc. made a bold move and sent the city a letter of intent stating their intention of reopening Libertyland, more as a new amusement park on the former Libertyland site. The deal was to be completed on a three-year lease plan. However, upon viewing the park in person, Joyland Inc. pulled out of the deal due to extensive damage including infrastructure damage, wiring, and plumbing.

That damage has only gotten worse as you can see in the video. Walking the weed infested and litter-strewn lanes of Libertyland was truly an emotional experience. Fading signs welcoming children lay broken in the mud. The old Skee-Ball palace stands silent and dark. The showcases that once held the prizes for happy winners are shattered and empty and covered in dust. A smiling cartoon Hound Dog painted on the side of a building now shares his space with profane spray-painted graffiti. The warped wooden seats of the ruined amphitheater lead to a bare stage where a music stand sits as if it's still waiting for the next show. A red white and blue American flag bunting lies crushed and soaked underneath it. The pool of bumper boat ride is empty and cracked. The "Surf City" double waterslide stands silent and rusting amid the overgrowth of weeds. Tom Sawyer Island is now a playground for other non-human little ones that scurry across the rotting wooden bridge over the stagnant brown waters of it's Mississippi river, as an old metal beverage cylinder floats by next to an empty malt liquor can.

The Grand Carousel has now been dismantled and removed. I was humbled to be one of the last people to enter the musty cobweb infested dome of the Carousel and see it at Libertyland. The Dentzel Carousel has a long and colorful history. It was originally part of Forest Park in Chicago. It operated there from 1909-1920 until a fire burned part of the machine. It was returned to the Dentzel factory, fixed and sold to the fairgrounds. It is not known how often the carousel and coaster operated before Libertyland existed. Both ran during the Mid-South Fair each fall but could have also been open many days each summer to make more money for the fairgrounds. The machine was so unique and important that it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It features 32 jumpers, 16 standers and 2 chariots. The rounding boards feature jester carvings with yellow collars and green, red & yellow hats. These alternate with mirrors that have small angels carved under them. The main colors on the rounding boards and center column are yellow, green, blue and red. The main column has mirrors that reflect down onto the ride and above the mirrors there are several carvings with flowers and pastels. The machine has white lights all over and they provide an elegant illumination that is similar to the lighting scheme this ride would have opened with. The horses' saddles are quite decorative and the carvings often extend the length of the horses' bodies. Perhaps the cherubs and smiling jesters of this Memphis treasure will once again go around to the music here in Memphis and not be sold to the highest bidder. One can only hope.

Today that hope lives in the heart of the child in all of us, and even though Libertyland is long gone, it's vital parts now flung across the nation, it lives in the hearts of all who hold cherished memories of this wonderful part of Memphis' past. Also in a special group of people here in Memphis that envisions a resurrection of Libertyland and has fought tirelessly to save it. Many thanks to Misty White, Tom Foster, and all the members of Save Libertyland for their help in presenting this piece, and for all their hard work and dedication to one of the most wonderful things that has ever been a part of our city, Libertyland.

ALWAYS keep the faith baby! Your ride home, Bill ;-)

 

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