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This Day in Richmond History: July 24, 1906

Idlewood Amusement Park, circa 1910
Idlewood Amusement Park, circa 1910
Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries

On this day in 1906, President Jake Wells and employees at the Idlewood Amusement Park are fined for working on Sunday.

Since the colonial period in America, there have been rules and laws in place that have regulated or prohibited commercial activities on Sundays. Over time these laws evolved. In the earlier period these laws primarily focused on prohibiting activities that had to do with morality issues, such as gambling or the drinking of alcohol. Later, laws came into effect in the 19th century that completely prohibited businesses from being open on the Sabbath. As time went on exemptions were allowed. By the early 20th century Blue Laws, as these rules came to be called, were left to interpretation in each locality. This was the legal environment that was in effect in 1906.

The Idlewood Amusment Park, which stood on the east side of Fountain Lake in present-day Byrd Park in Richmond, started operations in May of 1906. It was run by the Richmond Amusement Corporation under Jake Wells. Attractions such as a roller coaster, carousel, circle swing, and boat rides were offered. This type of local amusement park was similar to those operating during the same period in other Virginia cities, such as West Point, Ocean View, Norfolk, Buckroe Beach, and many other places across the country.

In 1906 the amusement park location fell within the Henrico County jurisdiction. So it fell to the Henrico County sheriff's office to temporarily arrest Mr. Wells and 16 of his employees on that Sunday, July 22 for operating amusement park rides that morning. Mr. Wells paid a $100 bond at the time for their release, and then continued to operate the rides at Idlewood for the remainder of the day.

Two days later the cases for Mr. Wells and one of his 16 employees, George Plunkett, was heard by Henrico County magistrate James Lewis. The defense argued that the actions of the amusement park workers were not strenuous and were of an innocent nature, so exceptions should be allowed and not perceived as "working" on Sunday. Also, the defense made the case that other amusement parks in the State continued to operate that very day in other cities, so Richmond should not limit the options of the populace for their weekend activities. The Commonwealth's Attorney argued that the rule of the law must be strictly observed, and there was no denying that commercial activities were occurring at Idlewood that day.

After deliberations were finished, Justice Lewis concluded that the law had indeed been violated, and that Mr. Wells and his employees were guilty and to be fined $2 each. In addition, Mr. Wells $100 bond was to be forfeited because they continued to work that Sunday after the arrest and release had occurred.

By the 1950s and 1960s many Blue Laws across the country were repealed. Today those laws are essentially non-existent. So it is hard to even imagine a court case such as the one that took place on this day, July 24, 1906.