Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Procter and Gamble picnics

As always, I was playing around on google yesterday, trying to scouring my brain for a tiny clue to something from my childhood, to see if anyone more afflicted than myself had any related pages on the web. I’m not sure how I found the link, but I managed to find enough info to find a name, a town, and even some pictures, which is a victory in my book. Okay, here’s the story.

When I was a kid – probably in the late 70s/early 80s, I used to go to Procter and Gamble’s huge corporate picnic there, which was held at this place just outside of Chicago called Hillcrest Park. My grandfather and my aunt both worked for P&G, and it was a big deal for everyone to attend the picnic every year. To me and my sisters and all of the other cousins that were my age, this was the chance to ride rides and eat tons of ice cream and other junk food and have a lot of fun. At that time, we lived in Elkhart, which was a couple of hours east of Chicago, so this meant a trip to the big city, and a chance to hang out with all of my cousins, who were infinitely cooler than me.

Back then, P&G corporate was in Chicago, and I think they also made soap and other stuff there, because we’d go to the factory, and the place would smell horrid. The only other thing I remember about the factory was that they had an automat, which is another lost concept in American culture and a pretty nifty idea. Anyway, we never hung out there for long; they’d load us up into a bunch of chartered busses that drove us to the park.

The park was about 60 acres, so it was no King’s Island or anything, but they only did these corporate picnics, so it was just people from the company there. Inside, the grounds were wooded, with pavilions and picnic tables, and a couple of buildings, like a food court, and some restrooms. The elders usually sat around the pavilions and formed these enclaves, where people watched over the little kids and everyone’s stuff, as everyone else wandered around. My Grandpa worked for P&G basically his whole adult life, so he knew a lot of old-timers, and he’d wander around running into those guys and trading complaints about their latest health problems or whatever. My mom usually spent time with all of my aunts, her sisters, trading their stories or whatever. That left us kids to go on the rides, and to eat food.

One of the rides I remember more than others was the railroad. I was really into trains as a kid, and the train was also the ride that you could go on with adults and little kids. The park ran this narrow-gauge train with a real steam locomotive that chugged around the perimeter of the place, through the woods and around the fields. It gave you a good view of the whole park, and passed the sports grounds, which featured a huge outdoor pool that at any time was filled with about 10,000 kids. The train also looped back around and ran right next to the roller coaster before it came back to the station. It was always neat when the timing was right and you were chugging along and the coaster’s cars whipped past right next to you. The train was pretty slow and not exactly a thrill ride, but I always liked to ride it at least once per trip, just to get the lay of the land.

There were some other rides grouped right by the coaster, in a little promenade area. They had a merry-go-round (which we considered lame, but me and my cousins were all like 10-12 years old at the time, so you get that) and a whip-a-round type thing that was marginally fun once or twice, but repeat rides did not reap any rewards. A set of electric bumper cars, the kind with the scraper bar that went across the ceiling, were a fun opportunity for some bumps and always had a long line. There were a couple of coin-op games, a rifle game where you shot at various targets like a piano player, and maybe a skee-ball game. We never played those because I could never shake down the change from my mom and the cost wasn’t included in the picnic.

The big show was the roller coaster, called The Little Dipper. It was a wooden coaster, painted white, with a figure-8 pattern that pulled up 16 riders with a clicky chain and a creaky first hill that dropped off and gave a huge rush, even though now I found out the stats, and it’s only like a 20-foot drop that gets you up to what a car’s first gear does. But the Little Dipper was my first coaster ever, though, so I have fond memories of it. It was a little rough, but at the time it seemed like the fastest, most brutal thing ever. I was reluctant to ride it at first, but then I wanted to get back in line and ride it all afternoon. Once we did get there early enough that we got through the lines three or four times really fast before a crowd built up, and that was absolute paradise.

I have a lot of other good memories of that park, too. I think they had some kind of paper ticket system for the food, and we’d always end up eating an endless supply of hot dogs, hamburgers, and ice cream. P&G was pretty good to their people, and always had random drawings that somebody in our big extended family would always win, which consisted of huge bags of P&G products.

I was sad to hear this place closed, though! I always expected it to be long gone, because even back then, it was pretty weathered and beat. But I guess they pulled through until 2003, when less companies were spending the money on picnics, and that 60 acres of real estate was worth more than their draw. The rides were auctioned off, and I am glad to hear that the coaster made the transition to another park. I don’t know what happened to the other rides. Lemont, Illinois will now have a new warehouse, but that doesn’t really make up for losing the park.

I guess I’ve rode a lot of roller coasters since then, but that’s not why the memory stuck in my head. I guess it was a combination of the food (which probably wasn’t that good, come to think of it), seeing all of my cousins, being in Chicago, and just being able to see everything in the park. For whatever reason, this was like my Christmas in the summer, one of those things that really stuck with me.

Anyway, another distant memory solved by google. Now I need to find someone auctioning off another roller coaster like this one, so I can set it up out on my land in Colorado. Any ideas?