Forest conceals long-forgotten amusement park, a 1930s Dayton hot spot

The rusted and crumbled remains of a long-abandoned amusement park can still be found where a fellow nicknamed “Firecracker” built it as a tribute to the friends he fought alongside in World War I.

Traces of Null Hodapp’s post-war venture remain tucked into the woods of Possum Creek MetroPark: stairs once used by swimmers, piers of a forgotten bridge and the disintegrating remnants of street cars that served as campers.

“It almost feels like a time-traveling experience,” said Carrie Scarff, Five Rivers MetroParks’ chief planner.

Hodapp and his compatriots survived Dayton’s 1913 flood, but not all returned from the trenches of France.

In 1917, Hodapp and 600 other young men from surrounding counties marched off to war as part of the 322nd Field Artillery Unit. A childhood pal, Ralph Clemens, was hit by shell fragments and took his last breath in the Argonne Forest of France.

After his friend died and he returned home from the war, Hodapp began purchasing land parcel by parcel. By 1925 he had acquired 400 acres for Argonne Forest Park just off Germantown Pike south of Frytown Road.

From 1927 to the early 1940s, the amusement park was a thriving destination where families gathered to watch baseball, swim, ride ponies and picnic under the trees.

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Firecracker – so-named because of his July 4 birth – also organized a large annual Independence Day celebration filled with band concerts, parachute jumping, a parade, and patriotic fireworks displays.

“Action! Action Everywhere!” read an advertisement in the Dayton Daily News in 1927.

Today, a hiker on Possum Creek’s purple loop trail will stride the same ground and stumble across the amusement park’s decaying bones.

Ruey Hodapp, Jr. recalls the once-popular place his uncle built.

“My Dad would take my brother and me out to the Argonne Forest and leave us for a whole week,” said Ruey, 91. “My uncle had pup tents from World War I and we would camp out there.”

When the brothers “graduated from BB-gun age,” they took aim at the “Coney Island-type” shooting range at the park.

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“My uncle would give us a box of .22 shells and the shooting rifles for the shooting gallery and my brother and I wandered all over shooting tin cans,” said Ruey, who still practices law in Dayton.

Rusted remnants of street cars from the Oakwood- Dayton View line lie scattered on the forest floor.

Hodapp transported the cars to the park for a concession stand, kids to play in and for use as campers over the summer season. During the Great Depression, when housing was scarce, they were rented out as temporary homes.

Farther along the purple loop, the crumbled walls of a swimming pool and moss-covered steps lead up to a deserted diving platform seen through the trees.

The pool was created by a dam once stretching Possum Creek. A vintage photograph of the pool captures swimmers on a summer day with the American flag flying overhead. A baseball game takes place on one of the park’s diamonds in the background.

“The park comes alive right there in the middle of the woods,” said Scarff, chief of planning and projects for the park system. “It’s just so easy to imagine what that must have been like.”

The amusement park had a carnival-like midway and a figure-eight auto track called the Devil’s Race Bowl, but Firecracker’s day-long Fourth of July celebration was always the show stopper.

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Ruey Hodapp also recalls fireworks during the daytime that shot shells 200 feet into the sky. A hot-white explosion would release American flags and tissue paper animals – some three- to four-feet high – to catch the summer breeze and float to Earth.

“Us kids would jump into my uncle’s pickup truck and we’d run the country roads and follow that parachute until it came down some place,” he said. “We’d retrieve it just for the fun of it.”

Hodapp also orchestrated elaborate night-time “sham battles,” which drew 10,000 people to a hillside. The “Battle of Argonne Forest,” a re-enactment of the famous assault, featured exploding cannons and uniformed veterans firing rifles and machine guns loaded with blanks.

Gas rationing during World War II thinned the crowds and the amusement park slowly faded away.

Decades after it closed, MetroParks staff in 1996 rediscovered a dance floor under decades of decaying leaves and forest plants.

You can take a spin across the concrete floor – a clear opening among a stand of beech trees – where people in 1931 paid a quarter to dance under the stars to Jack Kling’s Orchestra.

A crumbling brick hearth still stands near the edge of the dance floor. Picnic tables once surrounded the space, a spot to rest or enjoy a 15-cent steak sandwich sold at the park clubhouse.

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“You can almost hear people laughing, the music at the dance floor and the shouts from the swimming pool,” Scarff said.

Null Hodapp, who became the presiding Dayton Municipal Court judge and was later elected to the Montgomery County Common Pleas Court, died in 1945.

Parcels of the land were sold off and the rest was purchased by the park district in 1966.

Though most of the Argonne Forest Park has disappeared into the woods, the park remains an enchanting place to enjoy nature, fish and visit farm animals.

“My Uncle Null would be so appreciative of the fact that Five Rivers MetroParks took it over and it’s still open to the public after all these years,” Hodapp said.

“Null wanted the people of Dayton to enjoy the activities they had out there, and he always looked forward to having people come out to the park.”

How to go:

What: Argonne Forest at Possum Creek MetroPark. Follow the purple loop trail (1.4 miles long) and stop at the marked sites to discover the remnants of the amusement park.

Where: 4790 Frytown Road. The trail head begins at the Argonne Forest parking lot.

Hours: April 1- Oct. 31, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Nov. 1-March 31, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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