When my sons were little, these were the magic words: "We're going to Lake Winnie!" Somewhere in my unorganized box of VHS tapes, there's a video of Chris and Vince being rewarded for a day of good behavior by being told they were Lake Winnie-bound. Their reaction? They would have danced on the ceiling if they could.
They must have taken after me. Throughout my elementary school days, an early May day was reserved for the annual field trip to Lake Winnepesaukah. I didn't know it at the time, but that big Native American word means either "beautiful lake of the highlands" or "bountiful waters." To 3rd grade me, it meant the Arcade, the Tilt-a-Whirl, or the Mad Mouse, but it was a lot easier to say Lake Winnie.
I thought the Mad Mouse was quite a roller coaster when I was a kid. Until, of course the Cannonball made its debut. I rode the Cannonball the year it opened. It sounded screaky and old back then! It still sounds that way, but that's part of its charm.
I've always snickered at the uppity folks who look down on Lake Winnie. "It's no Six Flags!" they'll scowl. "Well, it ain't nothin' like Disney World," they'll sneer. "It's for folks who can't afford a real amusement park," some will say.
To those people I would reply, "That's right," and "Thank goodness!" Lake Winnie has never pretended to be anything it's not. As amusement parks go, it's on the small side. The sights, sounds, and yes, even the smells are unlike any I've experienced anywhere else.
During a ten-year period, I may have been Lake Winnie's most frequent visitor. As soon as my kids were old enough to experience the joy of sitting behind the wheel of a miniature car, we were there. I hadn't been to the park since I was their age. Oddly enough, I never took a girl on a date there, which was a huge mistake. I can prove that with only two words: Boat Chute. Where else can a young couple experience a tunnel of love, as the rickety boat makes its way up and around the track, in a quiet, joyous path of darkness, before descending into the lake, ending with a splash of uniquely scented water?
If you happened to be with a group of guys, what could be more fun than sitting behind squeamish girls, lightly touching their necks while yelling "Snake!" Now, that's entertainment, at a very affordable price.
Later, the park added a water slide, which became my new favorite attraction. The old Boat Chute usually resulted in a slight splash, but the newer water rides really do "Soak 'Ya."
As a parent, we had a plan: we would start with the slower-paced rides, like kiddie cars and airplanes, then work our way up to the Carousel and the Ferris Wheel. We would then accelerate to the movers and shakers, like the Bavarian Bobsled and the Bumper Cars, where I'm pretty sure we loosened a few teeth. Our sweaty evening would end with the quieter activities, like the Sky Lift, the Antique Cars, concluding with the train ride through the park. We all slept good on those nights.
For more than 90 years, this Rossville, Georgia park has been the summer playground for the Chattanooga area. Lake Winnie has always been in our lives. It's not uncommon to see busloads from out-of-town churches and schools, or a company picnic. The Jukebox Junction stage has hosted stars from both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.
Lake Winnie has also been a major employer. The park has provided jobs, often first jobs for countless teens entrusted with strapping us in the seats and making sure we were safe. Adrienne Rhodes, granddaughter of park founder Carl Dixon, said the park has always operated on three principles: safety, courtesy, and cleanliness. She's right. The pathways are clean, and the park attendants greet you with a smile. Some of them have manned the ticket booths for decades.
Ms. Rhodes said her grandfather was a race car driver in the 1920s, and when he found the lake property, it belonged to a fishing club. He had a vision of building an amusement park, "and no one told him he couldn't do it," so he began with the Boat Chute before gradually adding more rides.
There's a place for Six Flags, Disney and the rest. Like many of you, I've been there and done that. But a part of me will always be at Lake Winnie. It put a smile on my face, my kids' faces, and it's comforting to know there are many more smiles to come.
Here's a video, produced by (and starring) my friend Ben Cagle, who also interviewed Adrienne Rhodes. It includes a ride on the Cannonball, which just might make your hair stand on end. Enjoy!