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#MyOldOrchardBeach -Stories from the Beach
It is amazing how a simple question can stimulate mass exploration and extensive discovery. A man by the name of Robert Philbrick of Gorham was working on the American Legion Regional Tournament with the tournament committee one day last fall and asked me (being a 4th generation townie) not only about the history of “the Coal Mines of Old Orchard Beach” as well as the names and 

idiosyncrasies of the donkeys that were an integral part of this thrill ride. I remember my dad speaking fondly of the times when he and his friends would use their slingshots to hit the donkeys in the…well… rear-end of the animal to get them to rear up and get their riders to scream, so this piqued my curiosity, and so begins a mining expedition of my own. My sole quest for two years: “What the heck was the names of those donkeys?”

Naturally, I asked the town Historian to see if he knew of or could find out the answer to this seeming simple question. After all, we have a fantastic Historical Society that houses some of the deepest secrets of our town. We could find facts ​about the historical amusements of Old Orchard Beach, but alas not a thing was found or reported about the donkeys of the Coal Old Orchard Beach.  

Conversation, I find sometimes is the best way to get information. As a clerk at my local family garage and convenience store, I am privy to many people who should be in the know about things of this importance. So naturally, every person who stopped in the store I asked the question, “Do you know the names of the donkeys from the old coal mine ride?” It perplexed many a folk I must say. Though they remembered the old ride, they could not remember even one name of those mysterious donkeys.  

This expedition consumed me, and with the fervor of a gal who would not be stopped, I finally asked the right person, Bob Moody.  Bob often frequents our store for a 1/2 cup of coffee and sometimes a Country Kitchen donut. He knew of my quest and made it his own. He said his neighbor in Saco had a petting farm and was one of the people who worked at the coal mine of Old Orchard Beach. Bob said if anyone would know about the names of those donkeys it would be Norman Waycott. Just like the old coal miners have done so many times, after digging and digging, they finally hit pay dirt. Norman Waycott called me.

Norman popped into my folks store on a Thursday afternoon this past fall. After our introductions, he took me back to the times when Palace Playland was in it’s heyday. Norman Waycott, who worked at the Coal Mines from 1954 to 1958, filled in the gaps of what it was actually like back then. He spent a couple of hours telling his story, and I have the honor of relaying it to you. As with any story of this kind, remembering the past and all of the players of the time sometimes gets embellished. This was written with as many facts as I could ascertain from my interview of Norman Waycott, caretaker of the Coal Mine donkeys of Old Orchard Beach.

Let me begin by saying that Norm is quite the character. When he spoke you could feel the energy and love he had those days he spent working with the animals. Some of us may vaguely remember the work of Helen Pearly, the philanthropic animal lover, who for many years took into her home unwanted animals. At the early age of 10, Norm worked for Ms. Pearly cleaning cages for these abandoned animals. Here, he met Harry Estabrook, the “carnie” responsible for the Alligator Snapping Turtle exhibit at Palace Playland. Often times the turtle would be a true attraction at the park and the visitors would want to take their photos next to the “beast.” This attraction was so popular and the turtle was so well-loved by Mr. Estabrook that he had the turtle preserved and continued to use it as an attraction at the park.

owned had a playful nature, visitors came from all over the region to be entertained by this exotic creature. A highlight of the park was Norman as the “Wild Snake Boy.” People would come and gawk at his snakelike behavior or feel sad for the boy who did not know how to speak. Little did they know it was just Norman acting, it was a time of mystery and illusion, and the visitors loved this feature.

The Coal Mine ride lasted about 5 minutes. It gave you the feeling that you were heading deep underground and into areas of mystery and magic. First you would pass by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with their happy little faces whistling while they worked. The cart would be pulled to the left side bend, and you would be surrounded by monkeys on trees in an authentic Amazon jungle. From there, you would get twisted around an enormous, illuminated pumpkin head that led you into a genuine farm homestead, complete with a barn, chickens and hay bales. The tunnel shifted into darkness as your cart approached the mysterious cavern known as Hades’ Oven complete with a “live and active” volcano; this lead to a graphic display of King Tonga slaying the Infidels in China Town.
In the early 1950’s, the Amusement Park in Old Orchard Beach included a feature called Noah’s Ark, which was primarily a petting zoo and exotic animal exhibit. These attractions included a Rhesus Monkey, who “adopted” baby rats and protected them as if they were precious family members; also, there was a Mangabey Monkey (currently on the Endangered Species list). Harry Estabrook built a special environment for this monkey, who was known for his spasmodic, uncontrollable motions. This unpredictability was quite the crowd-pleaser. Harry was also responsible for the well-being of the “only Carra Carra in the Northeast”. A Carra Carra is a bird with an Eagle-like appearance and the one Harry

Each donkey had his or her own personality and character. Let’s start with Adam. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth as he was boarded in Cape Elizabeth. It is noted that Adam didn’t really appreciate the masses making him take them into the bowels of “the coal mine”; but, with Norm, he secretly enjoyed saving the maidens in distress when the carts would tip—on purpose, mind you—so that the pretty girls would scream. He and his friends would come in and save the damsels in distress. And who said chivalry was dead?

All of Norm’s fond memories somehow transported me back in time and space, to a time when things were different, a bit simpler, and the face of downtown Old Orchard had a much different look.

Marie, another favorite donkey, was seldom used because she suffered from a bad neck and weak knees. She was a favorite though and quite affectionate. Marie had a personality all her own, and her daughter Judy did not fall far from that tree. Judy had a chocolate brown coat with tan around her eyes. She was sweet and was a real worker for the park. She never complained and always did what she was told. By the way Norm spoke of Judy, it was clear that she was his favorite.
The Coal Mine’s donkeys were taken care of year round and often walked along the beach or through Milliken Street for exercise. Occasionally when one of the donkeys had a hankering for a walk, you would see them walking by themselves back to the paddock. 
Our continued expedition through the Coal Mine and it’s donkeys led to Norm naming another two donkeys--Eve and Peter.  

These two, pictured in this photo, were inseparable.  They often worked the mine ride together and you could see the friendship that was formed between these two characters.
All of Norm’s fond memories somehow transported me back in time and space, to a time when things were different, a bit simpler, and the face of downtown Old Orchard had a much different look.
Judy often took center stage and was always willing to get a little nibble of food from the folks who climbed the fence. Her character was sweet and mellow and that personality trait rubbed off on another one of the Coal Mine’s donkeys, named Peter. Pictured here with Judy being fed a tasty treat.
Norman Waycott’s photos of these animals date back to the mid 1950’s. He worked alongside Ike Morgan, a older man who also chose to work the Palace Playland carnival during the summers. Ike was fond of two feisty little donkeys, Shorty and Satan (need we say more about their temperaments and stature.) Let’s just say Satan was, “a wild little guy.”
Lastly, was the favorite donkey of all time. His name was Pedro and he was a big boy. His disposition was friendly and affectionate. People liked him so much that they overlooked the way he stood all day with his tongue hanging out. A woman from Canada, Hilda Conley, even went so far as to send this photo of her and Pedro to Norman. Each year on her visit to Old Orchard Beach she would stop in and see Pedro, and according to Norm, “he seemed to remember her, too.”
I have come to the conclusion that the more we learn, the more we need to know. My conversation with Norm was a mining expedition of my own. Digging through history has made me wonder about the future prospects of Old Orchard Beach. I found no coal on this vicarious journey through time, but I did find a goldmine in the precious memories stimulated by a seemingly simple question and a strong cup of coffee.