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Hoosier History Live

Jul 31, 2020

Even aside from the roller coasters at Indiana Beach, the ups and downs have been dizzying at the iconic tourist attraction on the shores of Lake Shafer at the Hoosier town of Monticello.

The heyday of the beach, boardwalk, amusement center, arcade and ballroom - where the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher and Janis Joplin performed - lasted for decades after the park opened during the 1920s. After a series of ownership changes, Indiana Beach has been continually in the news this year: In February came the stunning announcement that it would close after 94 colorful years. That was followed by another ownership change, which paved the way for the reopening of Indiana Beach earlier this month.

Hoosier History Live will explore the history that began in 1926, when founder Earl Spackman created a summer getaway then known as Ideal Beach, which initially was just a sandy stretch of lakeshore and a refreshment stand that he built with two-by-fours. By the Big Band era of the 1940s, the ballroom had become a venue for such musical headliners as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Fireworks, water skiing demonstrations, a Ferris wheel and other attractions ensued.

Nelson will be joined by two guests, both of whom live in Monticello:

  • W.C. MaddenJoy Spackman Bailey, the granddaughter of founder Earl Spackman, who began working at Indiana Beach as a teenager checking coats in the ballroom and helping at a soda fountain. Also during the 1950s, when the attraction was owned by her father, Tom Spackman, Joy participated in water skiing demonstrations on the lake that captivated hundreds of spectators. Later, she was a teacher at various local schools. She also is an artist and past president of the White County Historical Society.
  • And author W.C. Madden, known as Bill, who is the editor of Monticello Magazine, a quarterly. He has written more than 40 books, including the newly released History of Twin Lakes (Shafer & Freeman Publishing) which includes a chapter about Indiana Beach, and Indiana Beach: A Fun-Filled History (Arcadia Publishing, 2013).

The path forward for Indiana Beach became rocky after the Spackman family sold it in 2008. Non-local, corporate ownership ensued, with much higher admission prices. California-based Apex Parks Group bought Indiana Beach in 2015, by which point many of the amusement park rides were deteriorating, according to news accounts. The announcement in February that Apex was closing the park - followed by news that Apex was filing for bankruptcy - made the front pages of newspapers across Indiana.

So did the unexpected news that Chicago-based businessman Gene Staples had purchased and would reopen Indiana Beach. The White County Commission and the White County Council offered $3 million in financial incentives to attract a new owner, according to news accounts.

This vintage postcard of Indiana Beach is preserved in the Indiana Album, Joan Hostetler collection.Younger generations often are surprised to learn that Indiana Beach ever attracted top entertainers like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Who, Janis Joplin and the Beach Boys, who drew thousands of concert goers during the 1960s.

"Long-time owner Tom Spackman hired booking agents to bring in top acts," the Lafayette Courier-Journal wrote in a 2011 retrospective of the performers, described by the newspaper as a who's who of future Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. "The Monticello stop was usually sandwiched between gigs in Chicago and Indianapolis."

But it's not only the celebrities that stand out in the memory of our guest, Joy Spackman Bailey. 

She reflects back on her unusual childhood: "Imagine growing up amid roller coasters, carousels and cotton candy. My brothers and I would ride our bikes up and down the boardwalk, playing tag and hide-and-seek . . . I'm not alone in feeling that there was magic in the air those summers I spent at the park."The Hoosier Hurricane roller coaster is among the rides that have been key attractions to Indiana Beach in recent decades.

But there also were challenges, almost from the beginning. In late May 1930, hours before a pavilion at Indiana Beach - then still known as Ideal Beach - was set to host its first band and dance, a devastating fire swept through the entertainment center, completely destroying it. 

Owner Earl Spackman vowed to reopen after the disaster, and according to our guest W.C. Madden, his workers were able to have a pavilion ready in just a few weeks, enabling a July 4 gala.

The park was renamed Indiana Beach in the 1950s by Tom Spackman. His daughter, our guest Joy, notes that Louis Armstrong entertained crowds there five times between 1955 and 1962. Other favorite performers included Vaughn Monroe, Brenda Lee, the Four Seasons and the Kingston Trio.

Eventually, though, the focus at Indiana Beach shifted from dance halls, concerts, swimming and sunbathing to the amusement park rides, which included a roller coaster called the Hoosier Hurricane. For decades, Indiana Beach was known for its TV commercials that proclaimed: "There's more than corn in Indiana."

The ownership changes in recent years, along with steeper daily admission prices and what many White County residents felt was a lack of creativity and vision, were disheartening. An Indianapolis Monthly magazine article summarizes the advice for new owner Staples: "Repair the relationship with the local community."

After the shock of the closing announcement, the recent reopening has made Joy Spackman Bailey optimistic. "We are so thankful to see the park up and running again," she says. "Things can only get better."