JONESBORO — Some folks can remember being near Craighead Forest Park and hearing lions roaring in the distance.
Craighead County Judge Marvin Day said he can recall the year was 1983 when he first heard the chilling sound.
“Me and my dad were out in the area cutting trees,” Day said. “When the chainsaw stopped you could hear the roooaaarrrrr, roooaaarrrrr,” he said. “It was pretty freaky.”
One might ask what lions were doing near Craighead Forest Park?
Tommy Williams, the current owner of the property where the lions were formerly housed, was able to answer that question.
Williams said it was a place called Funland.
“We visited several times before my dad, Harvey Williams, bought it,” Williams recalled. “One day we went to visit the place and the owner, A.D. Luster, asked dad if he would buy it.”
Williams said he and his brother and sister were excited and began yelling to their father to buy the property.
“He bought it in the early ’60s,” Williams said. “Dad actually had a licensed zoo.”
Williams said Sam, the first lion, was a transplant from Memphis.
“Sam was in a lady’s backyard in Memphis. He terrified the neighbor,” Williams said. “That woman had had him since he was a cub. I don’t know what that woman thought she had bought, but he was too big for her to control. They were going to put him down and dad said he would come and pick him up.”
Williams said the Memphis Police Department tranquilized Sam. Williams and his father transported him home to Funland.
Williams said Sam was a gentle giant.
“He ate about 15 pounds of chicken legs a week. Folks could hear him roar for miles.”
“One day Sam went berzerk and would not quit roaring. My dad asked what is wrong with this lion? He went to check on him and found out his former owner was visiting. He was just like a big baby purring and rubbing up on her like a cat.”
Sam had his war stories too. Williams said the lion was shot by someone.
“Dad called the vet and asked if he could take a bullet out of a cat. The vet said yes, but when he got there, the vet said he could not take a bullet out of a lion. Dad nursed that lion for two weeks and he made it through.”
Williams said his father also obtained a bear.
“That bear was just a big baby,” he said. “I would often feed him acorns.”
Williams said Funland was a good place for a long time.”
Williams said his father added some baboons to Funland’s petting zoo. “Dad had one named BooBoo that he carried around with him all the time,” he said.
Williams said his dad did not just stop with one lion either. “He went to St. Louis and got a female lion, named Elsa, and a small spotted male lion.”
In addition to the petting zoo, Funland had some attractions like a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a train.
Although Williams still owns the property, he said all that’s left of the family business is some childhood memories, and a few pieces of children’s rides that echo with ghosts of the past.
“I would love if we would have something like that here now,” Williams said, noting there’s not much for kids to do these days. “That’s why they get into so much trouble.”
Funland might have only existed in the memories of long-time Jonesboro residences if it hadn’t caught the attention of Searcy-based photographer Gage Fears.
“I do a lot of photography of old abandoned buildings across Arkansas,” Fears said.
“I was searching and came across a YouTube video on Funland, but other than that there just wasn’t much information on it.”
The video was posted by Thomas R. Machnitzki on the YouTube channel “we AR exploring” on October 25, 2019, and garnered 4,687 views.
Fears said he was able to track down Williams thanks to the video and make arrangements to photograph the property. He said that is when the idea took hold to try to restore one of the remaining remnants of the once beloved park.
“The train sits under the canopy (where children would load and unload),” Fears said. “There are pieces of the track still in the ground there.”
Williams said he was the train operator for years.
“I used to have to hand crank the engine,” he said with a laugh. “It would wear me out.”
Williams said he took many children and entire families for rides.
“The engine, along with two passenger cars are still intact.”
Although the engine has not been started in 30 years, Williams said there is a possibility it could be repaired. “Its an old jeep engine.”
Fears posted the images from all that remains of Funland on the Craighead Historical Society page, where it sparked much interest in the train. Many residents commented on fond memories of Funland.
“I contacted Lloyd McCracken, who is part of the Craighead County Historical Society, and asked him about saving the train and dedicating it to the park.”
Although there are no definitive plans, Bill Campbell, director of communications, said there has been some discussion about the train.
“We are pleased this young man (Gage Fears) has found this and are looking to see what we can do with this,” Campbell said. “The city would love to have the train as a piece in the Craighead Forest Park.”
At this point, Campbell said there has been no actual discussion, just emails sent back and forth.
“I think it would be a great asset. Long-term Jonesboro people remember it fondly and would love to bring back a piece of it,” Campbell said.
Williams said he would be more than willing to simply donate it to the city.
“I have had some individuals approach me about buying it, but I am just not interested in that,” Williams said. “I really just want to give it to the city for it to be put as a display at Craighead Forest Park. I just ask there be a plaque with my parents name on it.”