Take a beautiful beach, mix in a dash of history, add in good food and drink, stir in some entertainment, add a Ferris wheel, arcade and carousel and top off with an ice cream parlor. What do you have, maybe a slice of paradise? That’s what Harry Trefes thought almost 100 years ago when he opened the Atlantic Beach Casino. Trefes had a vision of what Misquamicut could and would become one of the most popular beach resorts in all of New England.
In 1921, Trefes purchased what would become the Atlantic Beach Club at auction. The property was at the end of the trolley line from Norwich, Connecticut to the shore in Westerly and included bathhouses, amusement rides, food concessions, picnic areas, and a merry-go-round located on the beach.
People who spend time at Misquamicut Beach usually aren’t thinking about history. They’re more concerned with how much sunscreen to apply or how they look in their new bathing suit. But believe it or not, there is a lot history, the highlight, a historic Herschell-Spillman carousel complete with hand carved Illions Horses at Atlantic Beach Park. Although the Watch Hill Carousel is more well-known the 1915 Herschell/Spillman carousel is every bit as historic.
Today Harry Trefes’ vision is called the Atlantic Beach Park and it is still family owned. It’s operated by the third generation of the Trefes family, Charles A. Trefes, grandson of the founder and his partner Amy Martira. The property is the second oldest family-run amusement park in the country.
“My grandfather started it in 1921 and he ran it with my grandmother for years. My father and my uncle took it over after that and here we are third generation and still going. When my grandfather bought the property the Westerly-Norwich Trolley Line ran from Norwich to Westerly and it ended here. This was the premier place to be in Misquamicut. Where the state beach is there was still open land all the way down to the bridge over the breach-way. There’s a story my grandmother told me that my grandfather had the opportunity to buy all the land to the bridge and she told him ‘no, it’s a dumb investment. Don’t do it.’ If he’d bought it I’d probably be in Tahiti right now,” Charles laughed.
Charles spoke about growing up at the beach. “I’m still living in the house I grew up in and I’m still doing the same thing I was doing back then just not quite as fast as I get older. I literally grew up on the beach and it was great. I was here every day and we lived on the property during the summer. When you’re little this was like a playland. I had my own little park to play in. It was great. As you get older it becomes work. I’ve tried to escape a couple of times but every time I tried to escape I ended up being pulled back into it, so I’m still here.”
Amy is Charles’ life and business partner. They met online and have been a couple for over 10 years. Before they met Charles told Amy he had this little family business on the beach. Amy came down to meet Charles and was hooked from the first moment she got here. “It was a good match,” said Charles. “Her grandfather was sort of a carney. He had a good size piece of property where he would run the Coventry at Home Days. He was into the same sort of thing.”
Amy went to Johnson and Wales University majoring in hospitality management. “You either love it or you hate it and I wouldn’t leave this for anything. This is not an easy thing that we’re doing here at all. It’s not a normal lifestyle. A lot of people don’t understand it but I wouldn’t do anything else. I used to have a 9 to 5 desk job and I would absolutely never go back.”
The attractions at the property have evolved over the years. The main building was once a roller skating rink but closed in 1989. Inside all the hardwood floors are original from the 1930’s rink. After Super Storm Sandy tore up the parking lot old rusted roller skates were found under the asphalt. Now the main building houses the Windjammer Surf Bar and the Mariner Room. Built by Charles’ grandfather it was constructed using heavy steel frames and has survived numerous storms.
“My grandfather was a smart guy and he built a completely steel frame building. Even if the walls come down the building itself will still be here. He also put in the large rocks out in front which was a really good choice on his part and have saved us a few times.”
The amusement park is best known for its magnificent 1915 Herschell-Spillman Carousel with Illions Horses. From the turn of the century to the depression there were two to three thousand merry-go-rounds in operation across the country. Today the Misquamicut Carousel is one of only a few hundred still surviving.
“There have been multiple carousels here over the years,” said Charles. “In the late 1920’s they lost one to a storm. That carousel was actually outside on the beach right out in the open. They ended up building the building we have now and in 1939 my grandfather picked up the Illions Carousel. Illions was a very famous carousel maker and horse carver who was famous for his horses. He always worked with somebody else with the mechanism of the ride itself. The carousel we have now is Illions Horses on a Herschall-Spillman Carousel that’s 54-feet across. It was built as a sister size carousel to the one that’s at Disney World.”
The mechanism for the carousel came from the Rocky Point Amusement Park and is one of the oldest in the country. The Illions horses date from about 1890 to 1920 and the carousel mechanism was built in 1915.
“I was there when they were taking it down and I was putting it together here,” said Charles. “I have done years of work on this carousel. We’ve had the horses restored a couple of times over the years. Some of them are not quite done but most of them are.”
I asked Charles how collectors value the individual antique horses “The antique value is one side of the carousel industry. The other side is people like myself and my family that have dedicated a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of effort into preserving this history in a working form. These horses were never built to be showpieces. These 49 horses were built to be on a carousel so people could ride it, whether children or the young at heart and enjoy it. And that’s what I preserve it for. This is an on-going project. I’m still figuring out how I want to restore this because eventually, I will. No one has any idea what the original theme was. It’s been painted over so many times. We left it as we got it.”
“No one else comes in here and messes with the carousel except my daughter, Alliandra. She’s learning how to take care of a carousel. She’s 14 and probably the youngest person in the country that can actually grease an antique carousel. She loves working on it, she loves getting up there and getting her hands dirty and she’s starting to understand the history of it. She sees it. She’s the fourth generation and she’s waiting in the wings. I think she thinks she’s ready already. I’m pretty sure I thought I was ready at that point too. Come to find out, many years later, I’m still learning. This place evolves. This place changes every day so we’re still learning down here. We’ve been here almost 100 years but we’re just starting to figure it out.”
“I’m currently president of the Misquamicut Business Association and we’re working hard to improve Misquamicut. We’re trying to get the trash cleaned up, especially in the state beach parking lot because unfortunately Misquamicut many times gets defined by one parking lot. I get people all the time that still don’t know that we’re here even though we’ve been here almost 100 years. They don’t make it past the state beach parking lot. That’s as far as they go. The whole goal now is to keep Misquamicut very family friendly moving forward.”
Seeing the delight in the faces of the children riding the Illions horses as the platform whirls round and round to the sound of happy music I know that the Trefes family has figured it out. “We get a lot of families and older people that walk in and they’re amazed to see it here. They’re amazed to see a carousel as old as it is and really love the history of it. When you see a grandmother walk in with a grandchild and one of the first things out of her mouth is, I rode this carousel when I was your age, it’s that history and that memory that drives a lot of what we do. These people come here for their vacation and this is what they come for, it’s what we provide, making memories.”