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Memories of Rose Island

By Louie Decar

Once upon a time – and this is not a fairy tale – there existed an area of land along the Indiana shore of the Ohio River, at the mouth of Fourteen Mile Creek, so aptly named because it was fourteen river miles up-river from Louisville.

In the early years of the 1900s, picnickers discovered this particular spot for fun and recreation. There were many wild ferns growing there so it became known as Fern Grove.

In 1924, David Rose, a Louisville resident acquired the land and built what was known as the Rose Island Amusement Park. It originally consisted of a large hotel with a dining room, twenty summer cottages that could be rented, horseshoe courts, tennis courts, a small zoo and amusement rides such as a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. By 1930 additional facilities had been added such as a golf course, swimming pool, baseball diamond, shooting gallery, dance hall, pony rides and a large roller coaster. Oh, yes, make no mistake, it was the place to go, sort of the Mecca of the greater Louisville area.

It was accessible by automobile over some very unimproved road, so most people went by steamboat from Louisville landing to the park. The beautiful excursion steamer America carried most of the trips. The America’s capacity was two to three thousand, and it was usually packed for the trips. Mr. Rose also provided a small ferryboat for passage from the Kentucky side of the river, over to the park.

Now, enter into the picture Mr. Frank Pritchard and Mr. Walter Caplinger, proprietors of the Marks and Benson, Men and Boys Clothing Store on Main Street in downtown Madison. They came up with the idea of sponsoring an all-day trip each summer from Madison to Rose Island. If you purchased a new suit or a pair of trousers from their store, you were given a ticket to which you put fifty cents and this was your admission, round trip, for the boat ride and admission to the park. This annual trip became known as the American Boy Picnic Ride. The steamer America was engaged for the trip and so carried them until it burned in 1930. After that, other steamers such as the Idlewild and City of Memphis were engaged. It was the event of the year for Madisonians.

The boat left the Madison landing at 8 a. m. My mother would be up at 4 a. m. the day of the trip, frying chicken, making potato salad and otherwise packing her picnic basket. You see, when the boat arrived at Rose Island, everyone scrambled up to the park to get a picnic table.

The boat would arrive at Madison that morning around 7 a. m., her whistle blowing and calliope playing the hit songs of the day like “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “I’m Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover”. A hot Dixieland band was aboard to accommodate the dancers – of which there were many. We danced all the way to Rose Island. As we neared the entrance to the park the Captain blew the landing whistle and the calliope never stopped playing. The whistle would send shivers up and down your spine. If you were nostalgic, you could get tears in your eyes.

After enjoying your picnic lunch, you had all afternoon to enjoy the amusements and the activities at the park.
The departure whistle sounded at 4:30 and the boat departed for Madison at 5 p. m. We danced all the way home. We would be back at the Madison landing in time for the steamer to carry out a moonlight excursion from Madison to Carrollton and return.

As Phil Cole so aptly put it, “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end”, but they did. And Rose Island? Well, it got caught up in the ravages of the 1937 flood.

Thanks for the memories.