Tracing back the history of North Lake Park can be confusing, because the many decades of its existence have seen the place taking on and shedding several different names. As recently as the 1950s people were still calling it Casino Park, though not too many of them could have told you why. By then the Casino had been missing for a generation.

Even though the Casino building burned in 1934 its name stubbornly stuck around the park like a shadow that doesn’t want to fade, and that is because for so many years the landmark represented to Mansfielders all that was fun and enchanting and entertaining in life.

This scrapbook album of pictures, postcards, advertisements and ticket stubs traces the years from 1893-1934 when the Casino was an integral element in the social life of Mansfield.

Prehistory

The place was built like a barn and that is because the building first came into being intended for use as a stable. Abram Heineman kept his prize-winning workhorses there before they were hauled off to big cities for sale.

At one time, for about a decade, the walls of the barn were insulated with thick layers of straw so the building could store and protect tons of ice, harvested in blocks from the lake nearby, then sold in town for Mansfield’s ice boxes.

In 1893 the big old barn was remodeled once again for its most prominent use in history. A stage was built at one end and a backstage addition was put on as theater wings for storing scenery; 800 chairs were installed across the barn floor; and mighty shutters were hinged into the walls to let the breezes blow through in the summertime. They hung a curtain on the stage, painted a sign that said Casino, and for forty years the huge rafter beams resounded with laughter and music.

If your taste in theater were more refined there was a place for you in Mansfield, but it wasn’t at the Casino. The shows that played there were put on by traveling troupes of melodramatic actors, and the audience was not discouraged from hissing at villains or stomping their feet when the band played.

The Casino 1909

A Night At the Casino

If you were lucky enough to get a ticket to the show on Monday, June 19, 1899 you saw a legendary performance that no one in the audience would ever forget. Curtain was at 7 PM, and within the first hour, during the 2nd Act, it suddenly sounded like roaring applause inside the Casino: the roof was made of tin and as torrents of rain pelted down overhead the actors on stage could barely be heard above the din.

Then came the thunder and crazy lightning storm. Before the 3rd Act could get underway the show was suddenly over when the electricity went out. Someone looked out the door and there was water climbing halfway up the front stairs.

Next to the Casino building, just a few feet from the north wall, were the banks of Toby’s Run which had rapidly risen to wildly overflow its banks and flood the whole lower park area in six feet of racing river.

The theater-goers in evening attire, who were hoping for heart-tugging melodrama that night, were abruptly swept up in a real-life spectacle that could very easily slide into catastrophe. The world both inside and outside the theater was entirely black except for startling flashes in the lowering skies; the streetcars were stopped still when their overhead electric lines fried; and the Casino phone was shorted out so no one could call for help.

Headlines from 1899

A gentleman swam out to the road to go round up some officials, and another managed to get a tall wagon close enough to the stairway so women could climb on like a raft above the roiling waters. Unfortunately the wagon wheels rolled off the pavement and stuck in the mud halfway to safety and left the ladies stranded like a small tipsy island in midstream.

In the final scene a small bucket brigade of watersoaked men waded out into the flood and carried all the women to higher ground. There were about 200 people in the audience that night, and the last of the crowd—and the cast of the play—were delivered to the shores of Fourth Street at 2 in the morning…making it an epic audience-participation theatrical production of about 7 hours in length.

Encore

As part of a larger amusement park complex the Casino continued as a successful theater venue for almost three decades. Downstairs on the first floor of the building there was a bowling alley for a while, and then an ice cream parlor.

In 1921 the amusement park’s dance hall on Elmwood Drive burned down, and it became evident to all in the Roaring Twenties that people would rather dance than sit through more plays, so the Casino was refashioned once again. The stage was modified for dance bands and orchestras, and the auditorium was cleared of seats for a dance floor, with a restaurant downstairs.

Between dances the place still served as an auditorium periodically, with various theater troupes, civic groups and church congregations lining up the folding chairs for their gatherings, and putting them against the wall afterward.

All those wooden folding chairs made excellent kindling, and when the Casino caught fire in April of 1934 it took less than an hour to bring down the house.

Today the site of the Casino would be found just north of the westernmost parking lots at North Lake Park, in a grassy lawn where these days geese strut around and take the stage.

The Casino site today

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Timothy Brian McKee is a featured columnist on our site every Sunday with a column titled Native SonEvery Tuesday, he taps into his knowledge and collection of historical photos and bring us Then & Now, a brief glance at the way things were.