During the 1950s and 1960s, much to the delight of local children, Uncle John’s Kiddieland, a small amusement park, operated on the city’s northeast side. Locals of a certain age still have fond memories of visiting the park and enjoying the many rides it offered. The park was considered an unusual feature for a city the size of Vincennes. The amusement park was opened by John Russell, aka “Uncle John,” in 1949.
Oliver John Byron Russell was born in Vincennes on July 25, 1913 to John Byron and Emma Ozeta Pickering Russell. His grandfather on his maternal side was Ollie Pickering, who had been a big-league baseball player. Russell had an early introduction to show business, joining his parents on the road as they performed in traveling shows. His father played basketball while on roller skates and his mother did tricks on skates.
John Russell would find employment in show business intermittently for a number of years. He had his first job with a carnival that passed through Vincennes when he was just 16 and would go on to work for the famous Clyde Beatty Circus.
In the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, Russell traveled to Gary, where he found work in the steel mills. He later returned to his hometown and took a job with the fire department, then drove a bus for the Vincennes Transit Company, and worked in the milk storage department at the Tip Top Creamery. Russell failed in an effort to raise the money to bring back the city’s old Lakewood Park, before again going to work in the steel mills during World War II. After his second stint in the mills, he was once more employed by carnivals and was again a Vincennes fireman.
He married Mary Hasty in 1935 and the couple would have four children.
Russell started his park with a miniature roller coaster called the “Little Dipper,” that he bought in Hollywood in 1948. That summer, he worked the fairs in California.
He leased the land for his park on Niblack Boulevard across from Gregg Park. In later years he would recall opening on a Sunday afternoon with just the roller coaster and music provided by a phonograph and was pleasantly surprised when he made a whopping $45. That feat was achieved with no advertising.
Russell gradually added more attractions. There were ponies and then a miniature train was added in 1950, the latter operated by his father. In 1951, a very popular merry-go-round was installed, greatly increasing attendance. Boat rides joined the lineup in 1953.
The amusement park opened each year in the spring and operated through the summer months. Besides his father, Russell’s mother, wife, and children, all helped out at the park.
Since Russell had worked at a Kiddieland while in California and had acquired his roller coaster in Hollywood, it inspired him to name his park Hollywood Kiddieland. He changed his mind when, before starting the park, his nephew, aware of what business his uncle was in, had referred to another carnival passing through Vincennes as “Uncle John’s.” Russell liked the sound of that name and that is the one he used.
He continued to add rides (there were nine by 1960, the year a 50-foot high Ferris wheel was added) plowing profits back into the park. An attempt to establish a small zoo was unsuccessful. In 1955, the park still had monkeys, a Brahma bull, and a circus wagon.
There was a concession stand that sold popcorn, cotton candy, and other treats.
The roller coaster and ponies were sold in 1954, but business went into such a decline that Russell quickly had to replace the roller coaster with a bigger one.
Uncle John’s last addition to his park was a ride called the Scrambler.
There were several reasons for the park’s success, including its cleanliness, Russell’s devotion to safety, its affordability, and its appeal to all ages.
Prices didn’t change much over the years. At the start of the 1960 season, Uncle John’s was advertising 10 rides for a dollar. For the 1964 season, children’s rides were 10 cents or 12 for a dollar, and the major rides were 20 cents.
Local businesses participated in park promotions, most notably Nugent Dairy Farms. A June 1955 ad offered one free ride for anyone who brought in five Nugent milk bottle caps or five milk carton tops. A 1957 ad stated that 10 Bunny Bread or bun labels would entitle a park visitor to one ride.
In 1956, the amusement park was moved to Sixth Street on the north side of Kelso Creek, where the Vincennes Plaza is now located.
Uncle John’s Kiddieland closed in 1967 and Russell retired and moved to Florida.
Park founder John Russell died in Zephyrhills, Florida, at the age of 86 on Nov. 30, 1999, with burial in that city’s Oakside Cemetery. Mary Russell was 88 when she died on Oct. 21, 2001.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published this year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.