The ticket booth at Plaag’s Grove, circa 1935. (Photo courtesy of Linda Wortelmann Taylor.)

It was a beautiful summer Sunday in the year 1945. My best friend Don Slabicki and I were watching the Trenton Old Stock man drive into Plaag’s Grove. As he began rolling beer barrels from the back of his truck, we sauntered over to the unloading area just as the Tilton Bakery truck was backing in to unload. We passed the beer truck and walked over to the Mercer Bottling Company truck. The driver was sliding cases of soda toward the tailgate of his truck.

“Hey Don, look! They got Twin Cola!” “Yeah,” said Don “and there’s cases of Kern’s cream soda!” Kern’s bottled their cream soda in a delicious red color. And did we love cream soda! “Twin Cola” was a local oddity. It was especially attractive to us kids because of the unique shape of the bottle.

One of the fastest and easiest ways to get into a Plaag’s Grove picnic was to help unload the delivery trucks. The beer and soda trucks carried a cargo which was much too heavy, but not the bakery truck. We sauntered over and watched as the man slide cases of rolls from the shelf on the truck and began to transfer them into bags.

“Need any help?” we asked in unison. “Well, yeah,” came the answer, “but be careful not to drop them. Take ‘em through that door there and pile ‘em on the table. Keep ‘em separated though. Put the hamburger rolls on one side of the table, and the hot dog rolls on the other. Then we’ll put the torpedo rolls over on the back counter.”

Don and I grinned at each other, each of us knowing that we were just about “in.” We could taste the hot dogs, hamburgers, sodas and ice cream. We unloaded about 20 bags, and each time we went through the door we stopped for a minute or so and gave a quick “look-see” at just what kind of a picnic this would be.

The place was really crowded. Ten or 20 derrieres were protruding from the windows of the dance hall, in near-military fashion; a sure sign that there was a large crowd inside. The music was just above the din of the crowd. A polka was playing, and at the proper moment, the stomping of feet to the beat of the music seemed to shake the building to its very foundation.

As we were returning to the truck for the last load the driver reached into his pocket and handed each of us a dime.

“Here fellas, that …say, ain’t you…you’re one of the Glover kids, ain’t ya?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m Tommy. I know who you are. You’re Snuffy Tilton.”

“That’s right,” he said. “Why, I remember you when you were this high. Listen: do you boys want to get into the picnic? Just go through the door were you’ve been taking the rolls and forget to come out. There’s so many people in there no one will ever know. Everything’s free. You’ll have a great time.”

Of course, we didn’t want Snuffy to know that we had that in mind all along. We thanked him for the dime and the idea that he thought was his, but was really ours. We took the last four bags and headed through the doors. Snuffy closed the door behind us, and we were in. How great! Where do we start? We nonchalantly wandered over to the soda stand. A big stocky lady slid the top of the soda case back. It was just like the one at McEwan’s corner store.

“Whatcha want boys?” she asked.

Gimme a cream,” said Don.

“I’ll take a Twin Cola,” I said.

We took our sodas, turned around, and just sipped and savored. Yes sir; this was gonna be a great picnic. Over at the bar, people were standing three deep, waiting to be served. The bartenders, towels around their necks, were pumping air into the wooden kegs, pausing now and then to fill the large mugs with the golden liquid that was “Trenton Old Stock” beer. Farther down, past the bar, bowlers were rolling the first of what would be many games.

We walked past the big pavilion. It was just a big roof supported with eight or ten upright 4 by 4 columns, and open on all sides. Under the roof were 10 tables, and seated at each table were card players, food eaters, immobile older folks, and just plain people who were sitting and watching the very interesting spectacle of a Plaag’s Grove summer picnic.

There must have been a 500 people at the outing. Cars filled the front lot, all the way to the baseball field. They would have easily filled that too, but there was a softball game scheduled for 3 p.m. and the area was roped off. Cars were parked on both sides of Sylvan Avenue, all the way down to Hartley Avenue on the east, and just past Atkins Avenue on the west.

Don and I had just gotten a soda and were congratulating ourselves for getting into this great picnic without trying.

“Let’s go over to the dance hall, Don.” I said.

“You go ahead,” replied Don, “I’m gonna go get something to eat.”

Things were really starting to heat up over there. The band was re-turning from a break. The people were waiting impatiently for the music to begin. As I approached the doorway, the smell of hot dogs, spilled beer, hamburgers, and barbecue smoke wafted through the hot summer air. Just as suddenly, the band went into a downbeat, and the music began. Almost on cue, the people began singing “Beer Barrel Polka” and dancing.

The people didn’t know the refrain. An Army corporal jumped over to the microphone and sang. He was unsure of the lyrics, but that didn’t bother him; neither did the clapping, foot stomping, or the dancing.

The dancers were whirling around the floor; stomping, sweating, and loving every minute. A huge man dancing with an equally huge lady danced by. Both of them huffing and puffing, both crimson from the vigorous workout, and both are enjoying the dance to the degree that a silly thing like overexertion was quite unimportant.

I found myself looking at feet and legs. I couldn’t tell Don, he’d probably laugh, but I wanted to know how to dance the polka in the worse way, but it was too complicated. Two very pretty girls danced by, and I was really sorry that I didn’t know how to polka. They were followed by a man and woman in their late 70s. The old man had a handle bar mustache, and as he danced around the floor with his lady, one of his hands twisted the end of his mustache every so often, and then returned to its rightful place on his elderly partner’s hip. The smiles on their faces were reflected in the faces of the crowd. “Atta way, Stosh, go Berta!” came a loud yell of encouragement from a pleased spectator. “Stosh” and Berta broadened their smiles. And as the dance ended, the crowd rose to its feet and applauded the remarkable couple. It was dancing and fun as it was done in the old country. The beer flowed, the food was great, and the people seemed to get happier as the day wore on. The sun was going down. Soon it would be dark. But the picnic went on.

Today, Plaag’s Grove has been replaced by beautiful home along Atkins and Sylvan Avenues in Hamilton.