Shirley Rhome, 80, and her 84-year-old husband, Howard, started riding the wooden roller coasters at Canonsburg’s annual Kennywood community day when they were 8 years old.
“Now, we ride the benches,” said Howard, recalling one in only a handful of differences across more than 70 community days he has spent with his wife at the West Mifflin amusement park.
From April through late August, communities throughout Western Pennsylvania, including many in Washington County, celebrate their special day at the park. Kennywood extends a discounted rate to residents on their community’s annual gathering.
According to Jeff Filicko, public relations manager at Kennywood, the park has hosted community days for more than a century. The oldest one is held by the boroughs of Oakmont and Verona, which first celebrated a joint community day 102 years ago.
“The community days are part of the tradition … that our guests have come to expect for over a century at Kennywood Park,” Filicko said.
Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department sold discounted tickets for more 80 years and bused residents to the park via motor coaches. Proceeds are allocated toward firefighting equipment.
Based on ticket sales, Dave Rhome, Canonsburg’s mayor and chairman of its community day, estimates 3,000 to 4,000 residents trekked to the park on July 16.
“Kennywood community days helps a big town like us get together and have a good time,” Rhome said.
After 57 years with the fire department, Howard Rhome, Dave’s father, continues to sell tickets. He chuckles while describing how he would to strut up and down the train residents used to ride to the park decades ago, selling strips of tickets to riders.
Now Howard arrives at the buses at 8 a.m. and stays until they depart, then drives to the park with his wife.
“It’s such a tradition with the fire department with having the Kennywood Day every year,” Shirley said. “We’d like to keep up with it.”
As more discounted entertainment options arrive, Howard hopes the community days continue benefiting the fire department.
“(Kennywood Day is) the one fundraiser the fire company has to purchase their equipment,” Howard said.
Barry Niccolai, California Volunteer Fire Department president and organizer of California’s community day, has noticed a decline in attendance. He said approximately 1,000 attendees traveled to California’s community day on June 23.
“The town just about shut down,” Niccolai said referring to community days in years past. “Everyone would go to Kennywood. That’s not the case anymore.”
Despite a shrinking turnout, Niccolai mentioned that many of the younger generations schedule visits home around community day, sparking a tradition and engaging a fresh audience. Especially in today’s tech-filled environment, Niccolai added, a day to connect with community members face to face is vital.
“It’s instills a sense of community small town-ness,” Niccolai said.
The tradition of Kennywood reunions also is evident in Brownsville, which hosts the largest community day of more than 7,000 present and former residents.
“(Brownsville community day) is special, because it is the biggest community day,” Filicko said. “And because people come back to Pennsylvania from across the country to attend.”