Thousands Enjoyed Benson Park Thanks to Arthur Provencher
January 3, 2014
by Laurie Jasper
Arthur Julien Provencher, 83, died peacefully at his home in Henniker on December 19, 2013 after a brief illness. Born in Nashua on February 22, 1930, Arthur forever will be fondly remembered as the third and final owner of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in Hudson. His wife of 28 years, Barbara, died in February.
Arthur Provencher purchased Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in 1979, fulfilling a lifelong dream. At that time, he owned Star Rental Company and an industrial park in Merrimack. He housed a collection of animals in the park, which he opened to the public free of charge and called it “My World of Pets.” His pets included llamas, a mule and even an elephant.
“When I think of Uncle Arthur now, he was a son, a brother, a father, an inventor and a business man,” said niece and caregiver Cindy Provencher, who is married to Arthur’s nephew, Dennis. In fact, Cindy and Dennis met at Benson’s. “I started at Benson’s a week after Arthur bought the park. We all worked all aspects of the park. That first year I worked 16 shows a day,” recalled Cindy. “Benson’s Park was an extended family. Arthur always had the vision in his mind what he wanted to do next; he was a brilliant-minded man. The park was his dream. He always wanted it to be like a northern Disney World,” said Cindy. Nashua’s Bob Goldsack, who has written two books about Benson’s Wild Animal Farm, agrees. “I often kidded him about being a small town Walt Disney. He’d talk for hours about his dreams for Benson’s. He added all the plantings around the park and the park always had to be very clean and neat. He was like a modern day P.T. Barnum, a great guy to think of ideas for publicity,” said Bob. One such idea was to rename Tony the gorilla Colossus and have him run for president during the New Hampshire primaries in 1979. Yet another idea was to decorate the park during the Christmas season. “I think he bought out the entire inventory of a business in Connecticut and put up thousands of lights and decorations. He loved the business of entertaining the public and he loved animals. His license plate was ‘MYZOO.’ I always considered him a very interesting man, such a nice guy, too. He loved riding the elephant at the beginning of the parade each day,” Bob said.
Arthur was also a successful inventor, holding over 150 patents, according to his niece Cindy. The numogenerator, which randomly selects numbers for bingo and lotteries, and chair slides are just two of his inventions. Arthur also loved to dance and was an elegant ballroom dancer. “He and his wife Barbara loved to go on cruises, get dressed up and dance, they danced beautifully together,” recalled Cindy Provencher.
“Arthur Provencher was a real visionary. He bought up property around the park and really tried to upgrade the park and make it a showplace. Unfortunately, the economy wasn’t great at the time. He told me he lost over 100,000 in attendance when he changed to pay one price admission. Then, in attempts to boost attendance he affiliated with New England Playworld. Changing the name essentially lost another 100,000 at the gate. The park couldn’t recover from that,” said Shawn Jasper, former Hudson selectman and strong proponent of the town’s Benson Park project. “Once the Town of Hudson successfully purchased the property from the State of New Hampshire, Arthur was very helpful in providing utility plans and any other information he had that was useful to the town in creating Benson Park,” continued Shawn.
Since Arthur had retained a significant amount of Benson’s memorabilia, he approached the board of selectmen in 2009 to display his items in the then vacant Hills Memorial Library building. “He wanted to help promote interest in the development of Benson Park,’’ Shawn said. Recalled his niece Cindy, “Arthur wasn’t sure anyone cared anymore, that it was an era gone by. But, we set up his displays and people came. People stood in line to talk to him, to thank him and to share stories. I think we had around 4,000 people visit the display, and he loved it.” After the memorabilia display, discussions began to obtain the collection for a future museum on the Benson Park property, which is now currently under development. Through the generosity of a donor who currently remains anonymous, The Friends of Benson Park purchased the collection. “Arthur hoped he’d be around to see the museum, he felt the memorabilia belonged there. He was very happy to see the park as it is now, that so many people enjoy it. We had a Benson’s employee reunion at the park in 2011, and people from all eras came, sharing stories and photos,” Cindy said.
Benson Park Committee Chairman Harry Schibanoff also recalled Arthur’s contribution to Hudson: “Arthur Provencher was not a resident of this town, but he certainly had an impact upon it. If it were not for Mr. Provencher, the legacy of Benson’s Wild Animal Farm may be different than what it is today. Benson’s was a declining attraction that was headed for extinction in the late 1970s. Mr. Provencher purchased the park, significantly improved it and spent a lot of money trying to bring the park back to its previous grandeur that it had achieved under John T. Benson. Unfortunately, a lot of factors worked against Mr. Provencher and his dream of a new and improved animal farm did not work out in the end. But today, we have a beautiful new park in Hudson that reminds many people of the ‘good old days of Benson’s’ and in a way his dream will continue, just in a different way.”
Arthur’s last visit to Benson Park was about one month ago, when friends visited from Australia. “You could see the shine in his eyes. He helped Benson Park because of the love of what it was to so many. That’s a part of his legacy,” added Cindy.
“He was very happy with what the park has become. Yet, he’d still ask if I knew of anyone who had a couple of million dollars, he’d like to try again,” said Bob.
His complete obituary is in this week’s Hudson~Litchfield News. There are no calling hours. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, January 18, at 11 a.m. at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, 354 Main St., Hopkinton, NH. Everyone is invited to meet at the church. A gathering in the reception hall will follow. Burial will take place in the spring.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Hope Elephants, PO Box 2025, Hope, ME 04847.