Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ghost Zoo--Benson's Wild Animal Farm

Elephant barn 2005 before restoration of Benson's was undertaken.

A few things need clarifying before next week’s(2010) grand opening of the new Benson Park.

First, there will be no miniature train to ride.

And while visitors of the refurbished park can see animals, such as birds and squirrels, in their natural habitat, they won’t cross paths with monkeys or sea lions.

That’s probably best, because encounters with wild animals would scuttle the town’s goal of making Benson Park a choice spot for walking, jogging, fishing and relaxation.

The 165-acre tract that once was home to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm – a home to elephants, chimps and, yes, sea lions – has had a rebirth in the last year.

Volunteers have cleared brush and debris and opened several walking trails for bikers, walkers and runners. They added picnic benches and have allowed for fishing at a pond.

The reclaimed area aims to provide a pleasant respite for those seeking to escape the asphalt jungle of city life.

But contrary to some speculation, according to one selectman, the town won’t bring back the wildlife and amusement rides that made the park a popular destination for more than 60 years.

“Some people are confused. They think we’re reopening the old animal farm,” Selectman Shawn Jasper said of some postings on a website that tells the history of Benson’s.

Jasper and the town would like to clarify one more possible misconception: This will be the last grand opening.

A week from today, Saturday, Sept. 25, Gov. John Lynch, town officials and the many volunteers who have made the long-held dream a reality will officially open Benson Park.

This will be the fourth opening, of sorts.

Last year, the town held two “soft” openings, allowing area residents to walk a limited number of reclaimed trails.

The town held another official grand opening on Memorial Day weekend to open the gates to summer use. Next Saturday’s ceremony will be the last official opening, Jasper said.

Work on the park will continue long into the future, though. That includes refurbishing many of the structures that once housed the animals.

But Benson Park has undergone quite a face lift since last fall.

“The amount of volunteer labor we’ve had is incredible,” Jasper said. “People are in there every day working on the trails and the fencing. It’s come along really nice.”

It’s also quite a transformation from when it was Benson’s Wild Animal Farm. The park had animal shows, a miniature train and even a Ferris wheel and roller coaster. But financial woes and diminishing attendance spelled the end of Benson’s in 1987.

The state Department of Transportation then bought the land for $4 million for wetland mitigation in connection with the never-built Circumferential Highway. But the property sat idle for the better part of 15 years.

Hudson’s efforts to buy the land began in the late 1990s, when the town started putting money aside and talking about plans for the giant parcel.

In 2002, the state offered the property to the town for the bargain price of $188,000, but the sale didn’t happen immediately. DOT discovered asbestos on the site and refused to sell the land until it resolved a dispute over who was responsible for the contamination and its cleanup.

Then, finally, in January 2009, the town signed the deed, and cleanup of brush and garbage began.

Selectmen will oversee maintenance and management of the new park, and have appointed a Benson Park Committee composed of eight volunteers and a selectman.

The committee will continue to plan future improvements of the park and will have subcommittees under its purview.

“If you were in there last year when it was all overgrown, it’s impressive to see,” Jasper said. “If you weren’t in there when it was all over overgrown, it’s still impressive to see.”

The grand opening ceremony will be held at 11 a.m., with a rain date at the same time on the following day.

The main entrance for parking and a separate section for handicapped parking are both on Kimball Hill Road.

Elephant barn 2010 What year did Benson's add what I believe was a tiger cage onto the left side of the old elephant barn and the smaller cage on the right?

Elephant barn 2010, ticket booth on the left. It looks like the cage that was added on the right side of the building has been removed

Elephant barn 2010 Volunteers have started a "restoration" of Benson's and it is now a family park minus the animals. Nostalgia is a funny thing, and I have it just as bad as anybody else. When Benson's closed folks started recalling the family trips there when they were young, and the effort was undertaken to "clean it up" again. Funny thing is, if you were to "rebuild" an exact "The Strangest Farm on Earth" Benson's today exacting the cages and filling them with animals the law would shut you down before you could even open. Nostalgia only let's you recall the good things, as you recalled them from your childhood. An ex Benson's employee for a number of years, was quoted in an interview last year as saying, "the place looks better today then when it was open and operating."

Elephant barn 1935. Note the bird cages hanging on the wall, and the sign on the right advising that all animals and birds are for sale.

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