First settled around 1750 by David Wilson, the area was part of a land grant that straddled Cumberland and York counties. In 1779 Wilson sold the Cumberland County portion of the 148 acres to his son-in-law, John Williams, who built a stone mansion on the south bank of Yellow Breeches Creek some 20 years later.
Just north of the mansion is a 28-acre island in the creek. In the center of this island is a natural spring surrounded by a grove of oak trees. This island was transformed into a resort for picnics and social gatherings while the mansion became the focal point of a family business that once included a lime kiln, quarry and two mills.
Williams Grove Amusement Park dates back to 1850, when the Williams family began hosting picnics on their property, according to Jim Futrell’s “Amusement Parks of Pennsylvania.”
Picnics grew in popularity to the point where people built cabins for summer stays. A carousel is part of the landscape. Rail lines crossing this area have greatly improved access to the site. In 1873 the Cumberland Valley Railway leased the area along the creek and developed it into a fairground which hosted the Great Grangers Picnic Exhibition from 1874 to 1916.
By 1887, the Williams Grove site had a 2,000-seat auditorium, animal barns, hotel, showrooms, and cabin and tent areas. At its height, the week-long agricultural festival drew more than 100,000 guests from more than 30 states, mostly by rail and horse and buggy.
The fair fell into disrepair during World War I and was sold to Charles Markley in 1918. He was unable to revive the operation and sold the fairgrounds to the Richwine family in 1924. The family converted the fairground into an amusement park that worked well even through the Great Depression, Futrell wrote in his book.
Over time, the Richwines added new rides, including the “Zipper”, a roller coaster, in 1933. In 1939, they expanded the offering by opening the Williams Grove Speedway on an adjacent farm. The family added more rides in 1942, but had to close the park in 1943 and 1944 when World War II rationing took effect.
After the war, Hersheypark expanded and became the main competitor. Williams Grove was struggling until a group of local steam engine enthusiasts revived the Great Grangers Picnic, Futrell wrote. The picnic and the speedway became the main attractions.
In 1971, Morgan Hughes entered the picture, buying the speedway and park for around $1.3 million. Hughes upgraded the amusement park for an early June 1972 reopening. Three weeks later, Hurricane Agnes passed through the area, causing Yellow Breeches Creek to overflow and inundate the park with up to 10 feet of water, wrote Futrell.
Floodwaters severely damaged the amusement park, but it reopened on July 4 after Hughes worked with 250 people to clean up. Six years later, in 1978, Hughes added a riverboat ride, a new model train, water slides and a miniature golf course.
In 1980 a tornado hit the amusement park, but Hughes revived it, adding more rides in 1985, 1999, and 2000. In 2006, Williams Grove had 22 rides and other attractions that included laser tag.
Selling an amusement park brings out the nostalgia
Steam engine group buys 90 acres at Williams Grove
In January 2007, the Williams Grove Historical Steam Engine Association purchased 90 acres of the Williams Grove land adjacent to the amusement park. This area has been the site of annual steam engine shows since 1959.
As part of the purchase, the association announced the start of a Sunday farmers’ and flea market in part to fill a void created after the closure of the Silver Spring flea market on the West Bank. A month later, in February 2007, the charity held an auction to sell items left behind on its property, including many pieces from the old rides at the now-closed amusement park. These items included bumper cars, teacups, and lots of wooden barrels from the fun house.
Meanwhile, the half-mile dirt road continues to draw fans. National champions like Ted Horn, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti have raced at the Grove. The speedway continues to host weekly programs from March through October, including World of Outlaws appearances.
Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Hughes died on April 12, 2008, aged 88. He is credited with transforming Williams Grove Speedway into one of the best dirt tracks in the country for sprint car racing.
During the 1950s, Morgan Hughes Inc., which later became Hot Rods Inc., was responsible for importing many amusement park rides from European manufacturers to American amusement parks. It is believed that Hughes was the man who brought the first giant Ferris wheel to the United States.