Golden days: sleds, arcade, sodas

At an old factory in Duncannon, Pa., nostalgia reigns

Short Hop

April 18, 2004|By Bo Smolka | Bo Smolka,Special to the Sun

Time is at something of a standstill in Duncannon, Pa., a no-stoplight town tucked along a bend in the Susquehanna River about 80 miles north of Baltimore.

Trains still rattle the windows of houses as they rumble through town, carrying freight through the Pennsylvania coal region. The Doyle Hotel in the center of town looks as if it hasn't been touched in years.

But nowhere in Duncannon is time locked in more of a deep freeze than at the Old Sled Works, a former sled factory turned antiques shop at the north end of town.

Meander through the narrow aisles, past collectible glassware, antique tools and stuffed bears, and you'll find Jimmy's Old-Fashioned Penny Arcade and Soda Fountain, complete with nearly 60 functional arcade games dating to the 1920s and a circa-1955 soda fountain.

To step inside is to step back 50 years.

Snowy-day thrills

During its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, the Standard Novelty Works plant churned out as many as 1,800 of its trademark Lightning Guider sleds every day, making it for a time the most productive sled factory in the United States. But by the late 1980s, like March snow in Maryland, business had all but melted away, a victim of cheaper plastic and imported alternatives.

"They just got too expensive to make," says Jimmy Rosen, whose family owned the sled factory for its final 22 years.

And, Rosen adds, "kids have other things to do today. Kids used to sled from the beginning of the day until the end. But they didn't have shopping malls to go to and all these other activities."

When the plant closed in 1990, Rosen converted the 30,000-square-foot space into an antiques market.

The long brick building's history is still evident today, from factory hardware mounted in the rafters to red paint that speckles the concrete floor where freshly painted steel runners dripped on their way down the assembly line.

A small museum -- not much more than an alcove, really -- tucked between antiques dealers traces the history of the Lightning Guider. Glancing at the dozen wall-mounted sleds, some dating to the 1930s, I can almost hear the shrieks of children on the morning of the season's first snowfall.

Gathering antiques

Still, Duncannon is easy to miss, and Rosen knew he needed something different to lure antiques hunters -- and vendors -- to this gritty town of 1,500 that has lost the sled factory, a shirt factory and a dress factory. Other than the Old Sled Works, Duncannon's main attraction these days is the Appalachian Trail, which runs right through town.

Recalling childhood days spent in penny arcades where "we could play all day for a dollar," Rosen began acquiring old arcade games, at times scavenging old amusement parks that were closing down. He ultimately assembled one of the top vintage arcades in the mid-Atlantic region, with nearly 60 games from the 1920s to the early 1970s.

Marty's Playland in Ocean City, by comparison, has more than 250 games, but none made earlier than 1979.

Then in 1993, Rosen bought a vintage soda fountain from a Harrisburg pharmacy that was shutting its doors. Now covering 2,000 square feet at the south end of the Old Sled Works, the arcade and fountain go together like poodle skirts and bobby socks.

Rosen says the arcade games aren't a big money-maker -- for that he relies on some 125 vendors, up from 20 when the market opened in 1991. But the games do a brisk business in time travel, whisking a visitor back to a county fair midway, a windswept boardwalk, a time before PlayStation or even Pong.

"Oh, I remember them," says sixtysomething Jim Clements of Lebanon, Pa., who was sharing a banana split at the soda fountain counter with his wife, Doris. "In our day, we played 'em all."

You can step up to one of three Skee-ball lanes or take your swings at the 1956 United Star Slugger pinball baseball game that once stood at Hershey Park. There is Bally's ABC Bowling Lanes from 1957 and a 1940 "Kiss-O-Meter." In deference to Duncannon's rural roots, a half-dozen shooting gallery games like Keeney's "Two Gun Fun," from 1961, line one wall.

The oldest machine is a 1927 Mutoscope manual motion picture machine. Turn the crank, press your eyes to the viewfinder and you'll see a woman preening for the camera in a sequence of grainy black-and-white photos.

The arcade has none of the menacing

computer-generated voices or explosions of a modern game room. The only sounds are the rat-tat-tat-tat of a manual scoring device and simple bells from pinball bumpers.

Unlike the antiques and crafts that fill every other nook and cranny of the Old Sled Works, none of the arcade machines is for sale. But they aren't just for looks, either.

"These games need to be played," says Rosen, who at 39 is younger than most of them. "You can set a video game aside for weeks or months, plug it back in and it's going to play. These games don't operate well if they sit for very long. They have parts in them that need to be constantly in motion."

Root beer floats

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