- Staff photo by Don Himsel Ken Dickinson and Harry Schibanoff walk through what was once the parking lot at Benson's Wild Animal Park in Hudson Friday, October 16, 2009.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel A new roof has been installed in the gorilla cage at the former Bensons Wild Animal Park in Hudson.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel Ken Dickinson and Harry Schibanoff walk down a road winding through the former Bensons Wild Animal Park in Hudson Friday, October 16, 2009.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel Ken Dickinson walks near what was once a snackbar at the former Bensons Wild Animal Park in Hudson Friday, October 16, 2009.
- Staff photo by Don Himsel Harry Schibanoff, left, and Ken Dickinson stand at the gorilla house, with its renovated roof and suports, at the former Bensons Wild Animal Park in Hudson Friday, October 16, 2009.
- Staff photo by Corey Perrine
From left, Joseph Churm, 9, Tyler Gagnon, 10, Cody Maki, 9, Kyle Kostro, 10, and Peter Ripalidi, 10, all of Hudson Cub Scout Pack 20, pull out branchs and brush near the "Old Lady Who Lives in a Shoe" structure at the former Benson's Wild Animal Park on Saturday in Hudson. The scouts were involved in a project to set up preparations for major construction this coming spring/summer for professional construction crews.
- Staff photo by COREY PERRINE
From left, Meghan Rostro, Eileen Gagnon and Susan Morin, all of Hudson, rake leaves and brush Saturday, Oct. 17 at the old Benson's Animal Park in Hudson.
Benson’s new life as a park starts this weekend
HUDSON – Benson’s Wild Animal Farm has been dormant for more than 20 years, but not to Cindy Provencher.
She can still hear music drifting from the intercoms.
She can still hear kids, laughing and shrieking.
“That’s what I hope this is all about,” Provencher said, on a break from hauling paint inside the old elephant barn. “The memories.”
This weekend, the former animal farm will debut as a public park, eventually fit for walking, hiking, picnicking and other recreation.
A two-day open house is planned so that visitors can check out some of the recent changes to some of the 165-acre property, including improvements to some of the historic buildings and some serious, volunteer-driven land cleanup.
The event is significant to many Hudson residents, who fondly remember the park when it was bursting with people, animals, color, food and entertainment.
“It put Hudson on the map,” said Harry Schibanoff, a 30-year resident and member of the advisory Benson’s Committee. “For me, this is an important part of Hudson’s history.”
Dozens of posts on the Benson’s Wild Animal Farm message board recount nostalgic visits, highlighting the train that circled the property, the Ferris wheel and of course, the animals.
Provencher had an up-close experience in the last category, working at the farm for 10 years. In 1979, she was just 19 when she took a job for her uncle, owner Arthur Provencher, who ran the farm until it closed in 1987.
Provencher was on the “zoo crew,” she said, cleaning, feeding and working with the large animals. And for 16 shows a day under a canopied arena, Provencher rode elephants and assisted with the sea lion, chimp and tiger shows.
Those years, Provencher said, were “a dream.”
“It was never a job,” she said. “This place – it’s kind of in your blood.”
Provencher was “angry and sad” when it closed in 1987.
The state department of transportation owned the land up until earlier this year, when the town bought it for $188,000.
“I’m happy that it wasn’t mowed over and condominiums built on it,” Provencher said. “It will never be a zoo and amusement park again. But people can enjoy this beautiful piece of property. It’s letting people’s minds go back to the way it was.”
Provencher is now one of several former Benson’s employees who are pitching in to clean up the park.
Hudson resident Pete Ripaldi was one half of the clown duo, “Ham and Eggs,” which performed for three summers in the late 1970s.
Ripaldi and his buddy juggled and rode unicycles, Ripaldi said, and also performed with the head clown, “Jolly Roger,” in his magic show.
“There were all kinds of cool things there when you were a kid,” said Ripaldi, who now owns a construction company. “It was like Candyland.”
Recently, Ripaldi was recruiting local scouts and parents to clean the “Old Lady who Lives in a Shoe” structure, its heel covered in graffiti and its red paint well chipped. Ripaldi also has plans to fully refurbish the shoe, donating company materials and labor to the effort.
“I think it’s a great thing to do for kids coming up,” Ripaldi said of the park’s revival.
“I know I have good memories of the park, and I’m hoping my kids do and their kids do, too.”
Over the summer, contractors replaced roofs on several of the historic buildings, including the old office building, the elephant barn, the A-frame – which housed a restaurant and concession stand – and the gorilla house.
The elephant barn’s roof had collapsed completely, and vines were crawling all over its attached cage.
“It was hard to figure out the shape of the building,” Shibanoff said.
In September, the Hudson Board of Selectmen charged the Benson’s Committee with getting the area ready for a public opening.
Since that time, dozens of volunteers armed with rakes, shovels, brush cutters and other tools have descended upon the center part of the park, called the “historic district.”
They cleaned out the former overlook observation areas, and cleared a bunch of trash from the Gorilla house, former home of the late “Colossus,” Benson’s beloved 500-pound silverback gorilla.
A big block of land near the A-frame house was leveled, offering pretty views of the Swan Pond.
The Benson’s Committee is hashing out plans with selectmen, which may include using the elephant barn to display memorabilia, expanding trails and renovating the interior of the office building.
Benson’s Committee Chairman Ken Dickinson said he hopes this weekend’s open house will lead to more such events this fall, and that they will bring awareness to the park’s renewal and deepen the volunteer pool.
The intent is to open the park for good in the first half of next year, Dickinson said.
“We want to make it so that when people come here once, they want to come back,” Dickinson said.
Karen Lovett can be reached at 594-6402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.