'It's a toast to Milford,' A part of city history returns to Walnut Beach

Max Nowicki sits in one of the old boats he and his family have saved from a ride at the former Walnut Beach Amusement Park, in Milford, Conn. June 17, 2021. Nowicki recently refurbished a couple of the boats, which are now on display at Walnut Beach.

Max Nowicki sits in one of the old boats he and his family have saved from a ride at the former Walnut Beach Amusement Park, in Milford, Conn. June 17, 2021. Nowicki recently refurbished a couple of the boats, which are now on display at Walnut Beach.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — A symbol of the city’s nautical — and fun-loving — past has returned to the beach.

The wooden carnival boats that decorate Walnut Beach sat in a barn for 60 years, but now can be enjoyed by children and adults alike.

It was a long voyage to get them there.

Two newly refurbished and repurposed boats returned to the entrance to the beach after a decades-long odyssey through multiple towns, ending up back where they started.

The story begins with Milford resident Max Nowicki, who had the boats in his barn on his property for many years.

“The people who owned the merry-go-round (at the former amusement park) owned the boat ride too, and they used to live with us in the summers,” said Nowicki. “We had a big 70-foot barn, and my father stored the boats down there.”

Nowicki said as years went by, termites took over, and the barn started deteriorating.

“I went into the bottom floor, and I asked myself if I was going to save the boats or was I just going to let them get destroyed,” he said.

There were a total of eight boats in the ride, and he managed to save two of them before the barn deteriorated to the point it became unsafe. Then, Nowicki had to decide what he would do with the two small wooden boats, he said.

“I brought them to Derby because that’s where my girlfriend lived at the time, and I kept them at her house,” he said. “Then I brought them back, and I figured I would make pots for planting out of them some time, or bookcases.”

But like a lot of do-it-yourself projects, Nowicki said he never actually got around to doing anything with the boats. They sat on his property until one day three years ago when Alderwoman Connie Gaynor knocked on his door.

“I happened to be an alderman for the third district, the Walnut Beach area, and in campaigning, I was having a conversation with Max, and he told me he had boats from the amusement park,” Gaynor said.

The fishing pier at Walnut Beach in Milford on April 30, 2020.

The fishing pier at Walnut Beach in Milford on April 30, 2020.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

She said Nowicki showed her the boats, and they were in rough shape, but she said Nowicki told her that he wanted to preserve them, but he wasn’t sure what to do.

Gaynor said it took some time to find someone who could restore the two boats, but Gaynor eventually was referred to Susan Patrick, from the Walnut Beach Art and Business Association through a mutual friend.

Patrick said restoring a small piece of Walnut Beach history that had been in a barn for 60 years was a fun winter project. The boats were a bit beat up, she said, but they just needed some sanding, lots of paint, and some marine varnish.

She started working on the boats in late 2020 and by April had them back in shape, she said.

One of the old boats Max Nowicki and his family have saved from a ride at the former Walnut Beach Amusement Park, in Milford, Conn. June 17, 2021. Nowicki recently refurbished a couple of the boats, which are now on display at Walnut Beach.

One of the old boats Max Nowicki and his family have saved from a ride at the former Walnut Beach Amusement Park, in Milford, Conn. June 17, 2021. Nowicki recently refurbished a couple of the boats, which are now on display at Walnut Beach.

Ned Gerard / Hearst Connecticut Media

“It was a fun winter project. In the morning, I would go out, work on them a little, come back the next day, and do another coat (of paint). It took a while, but that was fine,” said Patrick.

With the painting and lettering done, the other part of the project was to build a base for the boats to be set on. Patrick said she contacted local contractor Matt Pastir for the construction work.

“I thought it was the coolest thing,” said Pastir. “Susan called me and told me about the project and told her I was in. How could I not be? It is a great idea.”

Pastir turned to Carolyn Dennis and her father, Joe Woyciesjes to design and build the base. They ultimately settled on a design that makes the boats look like they’re riding on a wave.

“Carolyn was the one who designed the base, and her father was the one who carved it out and painted it,” said Pastir. “We (Pastir Construction) assembled it, built the deck that it is on, painted, did the cement pads and mounted the boat, in conjunction with the city.”

Pastir said it took them about two weeks to put it all together, but while installing the boats, multiple people commented, and the feedback was phenomenal.

“They all loved the back story of the boats and the fact that they were being repurposed for this,” he said. “We saw at least a dozen people take pictures of their kids in the boats.”

A few non-kids also couldn’t resist the new boats.

“I was so excited I ran down there and had my picture taken with them,” said Nowicki. “I was like a little kid. You remember how they were years ago going around in a circle. It’s a toast to Milford and its history.”

Pastir said he was happy to see kids in the boats again, and he stressed that these are not just for looking at. The emplacement is designed for people to be able to get into the boats for photos.

“Seeing the kid’s faces light up when they see it is awesome,” he said.

With the boats once again pristine, Patrick said her goal was to make sure they remained that way. She arranged with the city to have the Public Works Department store them indoors during winters.

A Milford native, Pastir said he took civic pride in his work on the restoration.

“It’s nice to drive by and see the place being built up,” he said.

Long Island Sound off of Walnut Beach in Milford on April 30, 2020.

Long Island Sound off of Walnut Beach in Milford on April 30, 2020.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

The first amusement park at Walnut Beach dates back to 1923, and was built by the Whitham brothers. In 1938, a hurricane devastated the area, and many of the rides were destroyed. However, people still visited the amusement park until the 1940s.

In the 1950s, beach residents Frank and Les Smith leased the property, installed a new carousel, and refurbished some of the rides, the skating rink and some stands.

Nowicki said he remembers being 13 and serving ice cream cones and cotton candy at his parents’ refreshment stand.

“I remember them getting ready to go down there to open up the stand,” he said. “I remember the people being excited to come in when the gates would open every morning. That was fun. I got to enjoy the roller rink and the mini-golf they had down there, but I was a little too big at the time to get on the boat ride.”

With the 100th anniversary of the amusement park’s opening coming up, Patrick said the association had commissioned a plaque to commemorate the spot where the park once stood.

“It’s a reminder that at one point Walnut Beach was the destination for people coming up even from New York to spend the summers,” she said. “It’s a special place, has a special history and deserves to be recognized.”

Off the shores of Walnut Beach, 2019.

Off the shores of Walnut Beach, 2019.

Jill Dion / Hearst Connecticut Media file