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Peter Freed, whose family built Lagoon into a Utah playground, dies at 99

Peter Freed, who with his brothers turned the shuttered Lagoon amusement park into a favorite Utah playground and a cultural icon, has died.

The youngest of five brothers, Peter Freed returned from World War II — where he served four years in Naval Intelligence — and, “my oldest brother Dave asked what we would all do,” Freed recalled to The Salt Lake Tribune in 2012. “We came up with the idea of going to the Bambergers and getting them to lease us the park.”

Lagoon had originated as Lake Park, on the shores of the Great Salt Lake in 1886, and moved to its current location in Farmington, in Davis County, in 1906. It was originally built by Simon Bamberger, Utah’s fourth governor, as a place to dance and swim. Rides — including a mule-drawn carousel manufactured in 1893 and installed in 1906, and the wooden roller coaster built in 1921 — were a secondary consideration.

The park had been closed during World War II, and when the Freed brothers took it over, Peter Freed said, “in all honesty, with the exception of the roller coaster, there was hardly anything there.”

After scraping together whatever money they could get, the Freeds reopened Lagoon in May 1946. Fewer than 100 people showed up the first day, but Peter and his older brother, Bob, were thrilled.

“We would open around 3 p.m.,” Peter said in 2012. “We would be here all day and stay up late at night when we would count money by hand. Gradually, things got a little better and we started adding to it.”

(Photo courtesy of Utah State History) A fire destroyed much of the Lagoon amusement park on Nov. 14, 1953. This image is from The Salt Lake Tribune’s archives, preserved in the J. Willard Marriott Library collection at the University of Utah.

On Nov. 14, 1953, a fire burned a large part of Lagoon to the ground, leaving only part of the roller coaster and a slightly singed carousel. The roller coaster today still shows burn marks from that night.

The brothers persevered, and reopened the park — and added several new attractions, including Mother Goose Land (which morphed into Kiddie Land).

The brothers also added a music hall that, in the 1960s, attracted such acts as The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who, Nat King Cole and Janis Joplin.

The Beach Boys also played the music hall, and mentioned the park in their song “Salt Lake City.” “There’s a park near the city, yeah, all the kids dig the Lagoon, now,” the lyric goes. “It’s full of all kinds of girls and rides, and we’ll be flying there soon, now.”

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More attractions followed, including the roller coasters Colossus the Fire Dragon in 1983 and Wicked in 2007, and the water park Lagoon-A-Beach in 1989.

One of Peter Freed’s favorite attractions, Pioneer Village, was opened in 1976. The village is a simulation of an old-time Utah town, with authentic pioneer and Victorian structures — including Summit County’s first two-story house — moved intact to the site.

According to the website Lagoon History Project, Freed also was a proponent of family picnics at the park, which is why Lagoon is unique among amusement parks in that it allows outside food.

What the Freeds didn’t do, for many years, was own the property. They leased the land from the Bambergers for decades. Peter argued for years that the brothers should buy the property — which, in 1983, they finally did, with a bank loan that was paid off in 2008.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lagoon Amusement Park visitors ride The Roller Coaster, Monday, June 15, 2020.

Born James Claude (Jimmy) Freed on Jan. 8, 1921, in Salt Lake City, Freed hated the name his parents, Jasmine and Lester Freed, gave him. He persuaded his mother to take him to Salt Lake District Court to have it legally changed to Peter. When asked by a clerk for his new middle name, the boy blurted out “Quentin” — though, years later, the family wrote, he would say, “Quentin! What was I thinking?”

Peter Freed graduated from Bryant Junior High, East High and, after four years in the Navy during the war, the University of Utah.

In 1944, before he left the Navy, he married Cristie Wicker. Together, they raised six children, who have kept Lagoon a family-run operation. Freed is survived by those six children — David, Howard, Michael, Kristen, Anne and Jennifer — and six grandchildren.

In 1997, Peter and Cristie were severely injured in a car accident. Cristie was in a coma for more than a year. When she regained consciousness, the family wrote, Peter took her home from the hospital and cared for her for the next eight years — until her death on May 10, 2006. Peter is now buried with his wife.

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