Just as Memorial Day now fills highways with families ready to put the cold winter and wet spring days behind them, warmer weather drew throngs of area residents to that late-1880s amusement park on the shore of Lake Auburn.

It offered only picnic grounds and a small zoo at first, but restaurants soon appeared. Before long an outdoor theater attracted large audiences, a dance hall echoed to bands from as far as New York, and a 100-foot L-shaped dock served rental canoes and boats to patrons, as well as steamer rides across the lake.

Research and writings of my aunt, Edith Labbie, brought vivid detail to the descriptions of Lake Grove that she collected in the 1970s. She said, “Asking people what they remembered about Lake Grove was like opening a box of happiness.” The stories she heard revealed “what it meant to a community where shops and mills ate up so much time that there was a bright hilarity to the hours snatched for amusement.”

The original dance pavilion had a wide piazza around it. On Sundays, the Lafayette Band gave morning and afternoon concerts, and one record weekend brought 1,400 visitors to Lake Grove. There were horseshoe courts, a bowling alley and a well-groomed lawn for croquet.

The steamer “Lewiston” took passengers on a 15-mile trip around Lake Auburn for 15 cents. More affluent customers could ride the boat to the 140-room Lake Auburn Mineral Spring Hotel near North Auburn. They would dine there and walk the 50-foot wide piazzas a seventh of a mile long.

Nearer Lake Grove was a chance to take a buckboard ride up Mount Gile for panoramic views from a five-story observatory.

In later years, the theater showed silent movies, but automobiles gave families many more options for entertainment and travel. Lake Grove’s end came in 1928 and the 160 cottages around the complex were sold off at ridiculously low prices. One of the fanciest cottages went under the auction hammer for $25.

The large white Lake Grove House, a hotel where many performers stayed, still stands near the Lake Grove grounds in East Auburn. Towering oak trees are long gone, and pines now stand where a busy state boat launch provides access to Lake Auburn.

The electric trolleys stopped running in 1941, but the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Co. ran its buses with a “Lake Grove” destination sign for many years.

Economics of transportation played the principal role in Lake Grove’s birth as well as its decline. Building and promoting a fun-focused destination at the end of the line provided the incentive for patrons to drop their coins in the trolley fare boxes. Trolleys were a delightful mode of travel for city-dwellers who could not afford to keep horses.

It was 1881 when two out-of-state investors brought $100,000 to L-A and founded the Lewiston-Auburn Horse Railroad. The company’s horses were stabled on French Street (now Lake Auburn Avenue) where a corn factory was later built. When electric trolleys came in 1895, there were 92 strong horses there.

The first horse car route connected the head of Lisbon Street to the Maine State Fairgrounds on Lewiston’s outer Main Street. It also went to the Perryville area (Turner, Summer and Center Streets today) in Auburn.

The early horse cars were called bobtails because they were quite stubby and could only seat about six. The driver pulled a cord to open the back door and “the patron dropped his money in the cash box if he was honest; if not, a metal button did the trick.”

The fare was a nickel within city limits, and three cents for a child.

It was 1883 when the line was extended to Lake Grove at East Auburn. The fare covered admission to the grounds, while other visitors had to pay for their entrance.

Descriptions said, “The days of Puritanism were past and laughing girls in gowns top-heavy with leg-of-mutton sleeves and young men in straw skimmers flew across lots on swaying trolley cars.”

Sometimes the riders clung to perches on the running boards or on top of the cars.

Four significant recreation centers existed between Lewiston-Auburn and Brunswick in the days of horse-drawn trolleys and electric trolley companies, and that form of mass transportation was the real reason for their success.

Merrymeeting Park in Brunswick was the largest of the area’s entertainment parks , Lisbon had its popular Frost Park, but it was Lake Grove that lasted the longest.

Dave Sargent is a native of Auburn and a freelance writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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