Emancipation Day at Crescent Park

Emancipation Day at Crescent Park

I believe that tomorrow (August 1) is the anniversary of Emancipation Day at Crescent Park. My memories of it are somewhat my own and somewhat borrowed from my older sisters.

In 1960 and 1961, my oldest sister was employed by McCusker's Pop Corn stand, across the midway from the merry-go-round and next to the road and the bus stop for buses heading back to Providence. I remember that on both August firsts she came home at 11:30pm after work at the park and talked about the "mayhem" that occurred that evening on the midway. "Mayhem" wasn't the word she used. On one of those two August firsts, another two of my sisters had gone to the center of Riverside to the Gilbert Stuart Theatre to see a movie, and were walking the 2.5 miles home but were hoping to flag down a bus if one went by on Pawtucket Avenue in Riverside. One bus did go by and they tried to flag it down but the bus driver ignored them and kept on going. When they got home, they called the bus company (UTC, the forerunner of RIPTA) to complain. What they learned was that the bus driver saw them but didn't stop to pick them up because he didn't think it would be good to introduce two white teenage girls into the mob on the bus who were rampaging and ripping the seats to shreds.

Detail of Crescent Park post card, circa 1912
This circa 1912 postcard shows an earlier incarnation of a McCusker's stand. (From the collection of Louis McGowan).

By 1965, it was my turn to work at McCusker's during the summer. As usual on Emancipation Day, five minutes before the park closed, McCusker's would be mobbed with people wanting to buy $1.55 boxes of popcorn with 10s and 20s. People would be standing four to five people deep with arms thrust out waving money at us. Mae McCusker, who owned the concession and ran the stand, decided not to do business with this mob, so she made the decision to close five minutes early. So us girls stepped back, out of arm's reach, and the boys stepped forward, one boy to each window. On the inside of the building, there were wooden shutters that were raised and lowered on tracks, and when the bottoms of the shutters were flush with the counters, the shutters were then locked into place. So there was one boy per window/shutter and at the count of three, all the shutters started to come down. Every inch that the shutter could be lowered, it was, despite the arms thrust forward and waving money. Slowly, people came to realize that if they didn't pull their arms back, they were going to be crushed by the descending shutter, so eventually, all the arms disappeared and the shutters were closed and locked. But then we had to wait in the darkened building for twenty to thirty minutes until the crowd dissipated. Then we had to walk in groups back to our cars. No one, male or female, was allowed to leave the building alone.

The next year, 1966, word went out to the rides, games, and concessions that the park was going to close fifteen minutes early. Every night when it was closing time, a factory-type whistle would blow that could be heard the length of the midway. The whistle was located at the administration building which was across the street from the midway and next to the shore dinner hall. So on this particular Emancipation Day, in 1966, the whistle blew at 10:45pm instead of its usual 11pm time, and all the rides stopped and all the shutters on the concessions and games came down in unison, leaving everyone standing or walking on the midway looking stunned. But the crowd, having gotten over its surprise, dissipated quietly and without trouble. Again, we had to wait for the crowd to leave before we were allowed to walk in groups back to our cars.

By 1967, I was working somewhere else and lost track of events on Emancipation Day.

—Phyllis, Augusta, Maine

Originally posted August 1, 2010.

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