Benson’s Hosts ‘Display of Memories’

by Doug Robinson

Catherine Kenny and Arthur J. Provencher take a minute to reflect on their years at Benson’s Wild Animal Park.

Benson’s Wild Animal Park has been hosting a ‘Display of Memories’ exhibit at the Hills Memorial Library for the past two weeks.  Open daily with a free admission, boys, girls, owner Arthur Provencher, and three past employees of the park donated their time and talents to describe the attractions of shows as well as educating the public to the long list of historical accomplishments of the park.

The park was originally owned by John T. Benson.  At an early age, “He ran away from home and joined the circus.  He was taught to train lions, tigers, and elephants while traveling with the Bostock and Wombwell Menagerie,” writes Benson’s last park owner, Arthur Provencher.

In 1911, Benson helped establish the Franklin Park Zoo, then purchased the 200-plus acre property known as the Interstate Fruit Farm in Hudson and turned it into a quarantine center in 1922 for the jungle animals entering the US who were destined for zoos, circuses, and private menageries.  In 1926, Benson decided to open his jungle animal center to the public.

Originally billed as the Strangest Farm on Earth, it eventually became known as Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, and then in later years it became Benson’s Animal Park.

After John T. Benson’s death in 1943, Benson’s was sold to a “consortium of 4 investors from Boston.”  The investors had links with Boston Garden as well as many other businesses in the Boston area.

From 1947 through the 1960’s, Benson’s transformed from a park of exotic animals to a park that entertained with trained animal acts.  Picnic pavilions were added and money was reinvested into the park in an effort to expand the park’s tourism.

In 1979, Arthur J. Provencher realized his dream by finally purchasing Benson’s, after negotiating for three years.  He became Benson’s third owner.  Born and raised in Nashua, Provencher had been operating a mini zoo called My World of Pets.  After purchasing Benson’s, Provencher hired consultants to completely redesign and clean up the farm.  He expanded the attractions to create a family-friendly park.  Graphics were installed outside pens and corrals, explaining the animals’ highlights.  Full-time zoologist Pat Quinn was hired to rebuild the collection of animal species.  Eventually, Benson’s featured more animals than the Stone and Franklin Park zoos combined.  Benson’s prided itself on the daily performances of its elephants, seals, exotic birds, and horses.  Each year, additional circus acts were booked to entertain the public.

Former Benson’s employees tour the property on June 27. Arthur J. Provencher, previous owner,
is shown at the far right.

As the economy began to struggle in the late 1980’s, Provencher poured millions of dollars into the Benson’s Wild Animal Park in an effort to keep the park from closing.  While the park continued to operate for several years during the late 1980’s, high interest rates, poor weather during the height of the tourist season, and the inability to reach the necessary attendance figure of 500,000 visitors brought Provencher’s longtime dream to an end.  In October of 1987, the park was permanently closed.  The contents of the park, including the 550 animals, were sold at auction.  (Writer’s note:  a story written previously discussed the sale, life, and transition of Benson elephants, Liz and Queenie, and their transition to an elephant habitat.)

After 62 years, Benson’s Wild Animal Park closed its doors.

The ‘Display of Memories’ at Hills Memorial Library has been presented by and courtesy of Arthur J. Provencher and the Hudson Board of Selectmen with the help of many former Benson employees.

”I miss it,” commented Benson’s Wild Animal Park owner Arthur J. Provencher.  “If I had my druthers, I would have stayed open.  I like to talk to people about Benson’s.  It is nice to hear that not only they went to Benson’s, but their kids went to Benson’s, and their kid’s went to Bensons.”

Provencher also stated, “I think the highlight of this exhibit is the mock-up of the property which was created in 1985.  The mock-up is in pristine condition and it shows the property as it was in 1985.  We have many albums with over 50 years of history here for the public to view.”

Assisting Arthur J. Provencher at the exhibit is Lynda (Wright) Dube, who was employed at the park as Provencher’s personal secretary.  However, like most of the employees at the park, Dube wore many hats.  She was also involved in the zoo department, where she assisted the raising and training of both grizzly bears and black Himalaya bears.  In addition to Dube’s assistance, Catherine Kenny, personnel manager for Benson’s, has also donated her time at ‘Display of Memories’, saying, “We all wore many hats at the Park and I am very happy to help out with this exhibit.”

In addition to the displays of lions, tigers, and bears, visitors will also be treated to a walk down a path of true Hudson history.  Visitors to the exhibit will not only value the memorabilia displays but they will energetically immerse themselves by playing a game of “Remember When?” with themselves.  Pictures, photos, and paraphernalia will jog the memories of all who visit the ‘Display of Memories’ with thoughts of “I remember seeing that” or “I remember the gorilla” or, more simply, “Thank you for the memories, Benson’s Wild Animal Park.”

Contracts Awarded for Benson’s Roof Repairs

by Gina M. Votour

Following close to two hours of heavy discussion, Hudson’s Board of Selectmen recently awarded contracts for roof repairs on a group of buildings within the Benson’s property.

The largest contract, granted to KSL Contracting in a not-to-exceed amount of $96,996, includes roof work on the Haselton Barn, the Office building, the Gorilla House, and the A-Frame building.

Based in Merrimack, KSL Contracting has been in business for 16 years.  Their philosophy, according to a background portfolio, is that “every detail of the design, craftsmanship and history of a structure is an important part of the region’s heritage” and that they have “the knowledge and experience to return usability to older structures while enabling them to bear the requirements of the twenty-first century.” 

At the same time, a separate contract in the amount of $43,004 was awarded to Shadan Construction for repairs to the Elephant House.  Shadan Construction has operated for 28 years and is located in Pelham.

A $140,000 grant will specifically cover this work.  However, since these funds were scheduled to lapse with the start of Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10) on July 1, the selectmen held a special meeting on the evening of June 29 in an attempt to encumber these dollars.

As part of a sales agreement with the town, the NH Department of Transportation (DOT) mandated that the Haselton Barn, the Office Building, and the Railroad Depot be preserved and maintained in a precise historical manner.  (Repairs to the Railroad Depot will be made at a later date using separate grant money). 

Selectman Shawn Jasper, who serves as liaison to the Benson’s Committee, has been passionate about this project, particularly with regard to building restoration.  Last month, Jasper emphasized the importance of fixing roofs on these and several additional buildings within the site before the park is opened to the public.

Although volunteer sub-committees to the Benson’s Committee are currently being formed to handle different categories of work concerning the park, Jasper has repeatedly pointed out the safety issues involved with putting volunteers on roofs.  Therefore, a roof project would understandably necessitate professional help.

On June 25, the Benson’s Committee named KSL Contracting as their contractor of choice for roofs on the Haselton Barn, Office Building, Gorilla House, and A-Frame.  Jasper subsequently suggested that it would be an “economy of scale” to put a package deal on the table to cover roof repairs to these four buildings. 

Selectmen Vice Chairman Ken Massey questioned whether offering a not-to-exceed amount would be unfair to contractors since specific repair realms are somewhat unknown at this point.  This concern was shared by Selectmen Chairman Roger Coutu. 

Assistant Town Administrator Mark Pearson, who had estimated maximum replacement costs for every board on each building, assured the selectmen that several figures are likely overestimated.  “I don’t think there’s a lot of square footage … I think that the total dollars … [are] plenty of money to do the necessary work,” stated Pearson.

Selectman Richard Maddox held firm to his longstanding opinion that only the three buildings necessitated by the state should be repaired, as he personally did not see any use for the remaining buildings.  “To spend money [on buildings] that have no security potential, no electricity … [would just be] making them more of an attractive nuisance,” he stated.

“I just don’t have the passion you people have for these buildings,” Maddox admitted to the other selectmen.  He later added that many current town residents may also not share that passion.  “I bet you half the people paying taxes in the town of Hudson today were not here when Benson’s was open,” suggested Maddox.

A final motion to award a contract to KSL Contracting in an amount of no more than $96,996 for roofing projects on the aforementioned structures later passed 4-1 with Maddox in opposition.

Of the 11 companies which placed roof bids, six chose not to bid on the Elephant House, generally feeling that this building is not fixable.  Jasper assured the other selectmen that this is definitely not the case, however.

“We would be extremely shortsighted in my opinion if we did not save this building,” stated Jasper.  “I don’t understand why we would concern ourselves [about] what other contractors might say if we have a bidder who is willing to do it,” Jasper continued, referencing Shadan Construction, who proposed to “fix all structural supports and all collapsed ceilings and roofs” within the Elephant House for one price. 

A motion which Maddox and Massey both voted against then passed 3-2, granting Shadan Construction a $43,004 contract.

At the discussion’s close, Chairman Coutu stated that “the fact remains that there’s some good use that could be made of these buildings.”  He praised Pearson and his staff for their work which included the assembly of a Request for Proposal (RFP), the arrangement of a property walk-through for contractors prior to bidding, and the collection and presentation of the bidding data which followed.

After additionally thanking the Benson’s Committee, Coutu called this move a “progressive step forward in the Benson’s project” and expressed his hope that some portions of the Benson’s property will be open to the public this summer.  Jasper added that the roof repairs would in no way slow down any opening of the park.

“I think we are taking a step in the right direction, we are making a commitment to something that we’ve wanted to do for a long time and this is the time,” concluded Coutu.

PMA Visits Countrybrook Farms

As an end of year field trip the Students of Mrs Karen Smith’s class from Presentation of Mary Acadameny, visited the schools neighbor Countrybrook Farms. The students enjoyed making their own Sundaes, enjoing the flowers and most of all visiting with the chickens.

Accompanied by Sister Fern, classmates were amazed that Chickens could be held and petted and that they loved Strawberries.

Selectmen Approve Fire Department Open House

by Lynne Ober

The economy is having effects throughout our area.  Knowing that Litchfield Fire Chief Tom Schofield met with selectmen to discuss the annual fire department open house and the fire prevention parade.  He asked selectmen if they wanted to hold this event or cancel it, due to the economy.

Schofield said that the cost was very minimal, but that he was concerned with the perception that the town might be wasting taxpayer money.  He pointed out that the department will be a participant in the 275 Celebration.

After discussion, it was obvious that the board felt the Open House was important in educating people.

However, Selectman Pat Jewett said the fire department should not participate in other town parades and vice versa.  She pointed out that last year, they went to Londonderry, but Londonderry did not come to Litchfield because they did not have the money.

When Jewett also asked about firefighters volunteering, Schofield said they do volunteer for open house, and other community events.  Then Jewett asked about the 275th Anniversary Celebration and felt that only two EMT’s would be needed.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Frank Byron moved that the Board of Selectmen directs Chief Schofield to move forward with Fire Prevention Open House as well as the Fire Prevention parade.  Selectman Andrew Santom seconded.

During discussion of the motion, Jewett said she was not in favor of the parade.

Selectman George Lambert mentioned when fuel was expensive last year people still wanted the parade to inspire the kids.

Santom amended the motion to add that while we do the parade we are going to invite other towns that Chief Schofield meet with the board if he receives any requests from other towns wanting Litchfield to participate in a parade so selectmen can make that decision.  Lambert seconded the amendment.

The amendment passed with a 3 – 2.  Jewett and Selectman Steve Perry voted no. Perry voted no because he felt that it should be left up to the Chief to decide to participate in other community events.

The amended motion passed 4 – 1 – 0 with Jewett voting no.

Conservation Commission to Apply for Grant

by Lynne Ober

Two members of Litchfield’s Conservation Commission, Richard Husband and Marion Godzik, asked Selectmen for permission for the Conservation Commission to apply for a grant through Aquatic Resource Mitigation Funds.  The program is part of New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services program for pest control.

Husband and Godzik told selectmen that they had been working with Michael Morrison, Municipal Pest Control, on identifying a parcel that would meet the grant requirements.  Morrison suggested a piece of land, Tax Map 13 Lot 70 that would be perfect for these funds.  Husband said the parcel consisted of twenty-two acres and is basically a swampy area.  According to Husband, this piece is infested with phragmites and this particular plant is problematic in Litchfield.  It is from a European strand and it is highly invasive and grows to 10 to 15 feet tall, and can choke all the life around it.

Morrison is looking for approval to file an application on behalf of Litchfield.  This was to be at no cost to Litchfield taxpayers.

According to Husband and Godzik, the herbicide used does not affect vertebrae, does not affect humans, etc.  They said, if the grant was awarded, it might be a three-year program.

Godzik provided details about the parcel and the infestation of phragmites. The herbicide has to be applied to each individual plant.

Discussion ensued and questions were asked about other Litchfield places where there could be phragmites growing.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Frank Byron said he believed there is some growing around Half Moon Pond.

Husband said that there is also the possibility of partnering with the Army Corps of Engineering and getting some federal money to do suitable projects in town.

Byron moved that the Litchfield Board of Selectmen on behalf of the Town of Litchfield, and owners of the property identified as Tax Map 13 Lot 70 allow Morrision to submit the application for an Aquatic Resource Mitigation Funding grant for the restoration of the property to include phragmites control.  Selectman Andrew Santom seconded.  Selectman George Lambert voted no and the motion passed 4 – 1 – 0.

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