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1950s fun at Wonderland

Memories have faded, and several principal characters, including Dave McNally, are deceased as this is written in 2023. But it’s still reasonable to say that McNally and his childhood friends, among them Pete Cochran, Bob Fry, and Bill McIntosh, probably took part in typical adolescent activities in the 1950s Billings that they grew up in.

For example, Stella and Don Foote established the Wonderland Amusement park on a 32-acre site at the junction of Moore Lane and Laurel Road in Billings. The Footes had launched KBMY, Billings’ second radio station at the same location in 1946, three years before they opened Wonderland.

The park featured a speedway, thrill rides, pony rides, trout ponds and a train, according to Billings Memories II: the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, a 2016 Billings Gazette publication. The park also featured an Old West history museum and a “See ’em Alive Zoo” that pulled in tourists passing through Billings. Children’s parties, stock-car races and rodeos attracted locals, according to an October 5, 2010, Billings Gazette article about the death of Stella Foote.

McNally and his buddies could have attended a Kiwanis Club-sponsored Fun Day at Wonderland in the fall of 1952. The Gazette reported on September 27, 1952, that arrangements had been made for youngsters to take over the park from 1 to 4 p.m. that Saturday. They could enjoy free rides and munch on popcorn while being carried on the rattling train. Or, they could climb on Shetland ponies for a gentle ride.

The parent Kiwanis organization created National Kids Day as a way to bring adult attention to the problems of youth. However, as the newspaper put it, the day meant “an afternoon of entertainment that will not necessitate tapping the piggy bank or asking dad for an allowance.”

A day later, the Gazette reported that more than 700 youngsters “whooped and hollered in fun” and ate more than 1,200 bags of popcorn.

“The popcorn stand was really overworked,” said P, L. Verduin, a Kiwanian in charge of the event.

The smiles on the faces of many youngsters and their exuberance indicated that they hadn't visited the park before.

“I believe that many of them were from large families who have not been able to afford trips to the park," Verduin said. Looking at the youngsters’ eyes, one could read “a story of enjoyment from which we can conclude the event was successesful,” he added.

Last month, McNally’s widow, Jean, told me in a text message that she remembered going to Wonderland with her family. “Not with Dave for sure!” she said, since the two wouldn’t meet and start dating until several years later when both were students at Billings Central High School.

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Jamie Larson