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In 1886, the Louisville and Jeffersonville Ferry Company acquired 118 acres of land along the Indiana side of the Ohio River. It was a peninsular shaped area just below Louisville at the point where 14 Mile Creek empties into the river. The location was blessed with soaring bluffs, cool springs and a flat area perfect for picnicking and entertainment.
It was largely utilized by church groups at first but it quickly became a favorite with the general public. As its popularity grew, accommodations for the crowds were initiated. A hotel for those who wished to stay overnight, or longer, was built and a dining room served hearty meals. Cabins were built for extended stays. There were baseball diamonds, hiking trails, row boats, and there was always a band. At some point a zoo, pony rides, and a carousel were introduced.
In 1923 David B. G. Rose of Kentucky bought the amusement park and changed its name. An iron arch was erected at the entrance proclaiming “Rose Island” and the park’s popularity continued as before for several years. As with all businesses, the amusement park was not exempt from the woes of the depression but it was still functioning when the flood of 1937 struck. As so many landmarks were, it was swept away and irretrievably lost.
In the early 1900’s, as a promotional “gimmick”, the Marks and Benson Clothing Store began offering a free, six months subscription to “American Boy” magazine to every boy between the age of seven and seventeen with the purchase of a suit or overcoat.
The “American Boy” was a book published by the Sprague Publishing Company of Detroit, Michigan. It was the forerunner of the Boy Scout magazine and it emphasized family values and clean living with some adventure stories thrown in.
The promotion was such a hit that the store decided to expand upon the idea and in 1907 it began sponsoring an “American Boy” outing. The first two years consisted of a day at the Hanover College campus grounds but by 1909 the store hit upon the idea of a boating excursion for the whole family to Fern Grove. The participating young man and his mother would receive a free ticket on an excursion boat and a badge for entrance into the park. The rest of the family could go along but would have to pay their way. The general public was also invited at the own expense.
On August 1, 1927 The Madison Courier reported that nearly 1,500 people took advantage of the outing. It was a good deal on both sides as Marks and Benson obviously received reduced rates by delivering a crowd, the steamboat companies were assured of a full boat and the boys enjoyed a free day of entertainment.
A day at Fern Grove
At the height of its popularity, nearly 2,000 people would pour out of Madison and onto the steamboat early in the morning. The participating boys picked up their tickets up at 6 o’clock in the morning, the store would close its doors and at 6:30 the boys and their families marched down to the boat. There the calliope would be blasting out and soon after, the townspeople began to stream up the gangplank. Everyone jockeyed for position on the decks and tried to snag a deck chair. Picnic baskets laden with fried chicken, potato salad, hard boiled eggs and chocolate cake were stacked everywhere along with blankets and baseball gear.
As the boat pulled out at 8 o’clock the band would begin to play and people walked the decks visiting with neighbors and enjoying the scenery. At about 11 o’clock the picnic baskets were hauled out, blankets spread and lunch was eaten. Fern Grove came into sight about noon and all hurried off the boat into “nature’s paradise”.
The store provided organized sports events such as foot races and baseball games but many preferred to find their own amusements. Young couples walked hand in hand along the edge of the fern banks or took a row boat ride. Children attended the zoo or rode the merry-go-round and parents tended to toddlers and spread out the blanket to listen to the band.
At five o’clock the boat whistle sounded the “all aboard” and folks scrambled to find their belongings and get back on the boat. The blankets were folded and they proceeded to the water’s edge and waited in line to climb the gangplank. They were dusty, tired and hungry so the picnic basket was opened and the last of its contents were consumed and the contented group floated back down the river. The younger children were already asleep in their mother’s arms, oblivious to their surroundings. The band would “play them home” and some people still had the energy to dance a little.
At 9 o’clock they exited the boat at Madison, dragging picnic baskets, blankets and baseball bats behind them. All, no doubt, were hoping someone in the family would need a new suit of clothes by next summer.
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