HUDSON, N.H. -- Arthur Provencher, the last owner of Benson's Wild Animal Park, died Thursday.
Provencher, 83, was one of only three owners of the 200-acre former zoo and amusement park located next to Route 111 that became a childhood destination for millions of New England families throughout its 65-year history.
Provencher lived his final years in Henniker, N.H., where he moved with his late wife, Barbara, after operating Benson's from March 1, 1979 until the park closed in 1987, due to financial difficulties. Barbara Provencher died in February at 76 years old.
Family members were scheduled to meet with staff of Anctil Rochette and Son Funeral Home in Nashua on Friday to compose the obituary and make funeral arrangements, a spokesman said.
Among those saddened to learn of Provencher's passing on Friday was Selectman Roger Coutu, who described Provencher as "a visionary when it came to park entertainment."
"Arthur left his mark on Hudson," said Coutu. "It all started with Mr. (John) Benson (the park's original owner), but when Arthur took it over he rejuvenated the park and brought thousands and thousands of people into the park every weekend. He was always accommodating and made sure everybody was accommodated."
Provencher was known for his gentlemanly approach to business, treating customers and his employees like family, and for his love of animals, especially all things relating to elephants, Coutu noted.
"He had some great plans for Benson's, but the economy soured and the financing fell through, and he never got to fully realize his dream of making it one of the premiere parks in the country," Coutu said. "He was always well-liked and well-respected in the community. He could have run and been elected as the mayor of Hudson, if there was such a position."
Dozens of accolades, fond remembrances and condolences for the Provencher family were quickly posted to the Benson's Wild Animal Park page on Facebook on Friday morning.
"RIP, and thank for the legacy you left behind. We loved your park and will continue for hundreds of years to come," wrote Facebook poster Linda Weston.
"Thank you for making my childhood more special," posted Peggy Bailey.
In June 2009, Provencher hosted an exhibit of his extensive Benson's Wild Animal park memorabilia collection at Hills Memorial Library, meeting and greeting thousands of patrons of the former amusement park and reconnecting with many of the park's employees. In a 2009 interview with a Sun reporter that was conducted while the memorabilia exhibit was taking place, Provencher himself marveled at the ongoing popularity of his former park, 22 years after its closing.
"It's hard to find a person, either an employee or a guest, that didn't enjoy the place. And they still do today," he said. "It was family entertainment at reasonable prices. We probably should've been higher on the ticket prices at the gate. If we did, maybe we'd still be open. But I wanted to be fair to the families."
In September 2010, Provencher attended along with then-Gov. John Lynch the formal opening ceremony of Benson Park, as a public recreational park that now includes walking and biking trails, a duck pond, playground, 9/11 memorial, and many of the former amusement park's signature buildings that remain standing on the site. Provencher was quoted on that occasion remarking on what a "great job" the Benson Park volunteers had done in stripping away the overgrowth to let the beauty of the park grounds shine through once again.
In early 2012, Provencher agreed to sell his memorabilia collection to the volunteer organization, Friends of Benson Park, which was able to purchase the items thanks to an anonymous donation the organization received of $138,000. The Provencher memorabilia collection will eventually be displayed in the form of a "Benson's Wild Animal Park Museum," to be housed in the old Red Barn on the Benson Park property, once renovations to the building are completed, Coutu said.
(To read the 2009 story and view the Sun's 1-on-1 video interview with Provencher, click here: www.lowellsun.com/local/ci_12704168)
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