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June 1998

Once Upon a Time in the Adirondacks

When theme parks ruled the roadside

For many generations tourists have been coming to the Adirondacks to experience sublime nature manifested in towering peaks, winding rivers and countless lakes. This oasis of wild beauty, reached by train, carriage or steamer, was a perfect place to trade the rigors and trauma of congested city life for peace, quiet and solitude.

Ausable Chasm was certainly the first attraction in the Adirondacks where entrepreneurs took a given—a spectacular two-mile-long gorge carved by the Ausable River—and then promoted it to the tourist trade. Beginning in 1870 visitors arrived in vast numbers to see what the canyon’s owners claimed was “one of the greatest awe-inspiring natural wonders of the world,” viewing such splendors as Rainbow Falls and sandstone formations dubbed Column Rock, Devil’s Punch Bowl and Elephant Head.

Since then, countless other natural attractions have been touted as tourist venues. High Falls Gorge—which still prospers off Route 86 between Lake Placid and Wilmington—was promoted grandly in the 1950s: “Carved millions of years ago, it lies resplendent in the atomic age, a spectacle created by the greatest artist of all.” Also on the premises was “a well-appointed rock shop featuring a gorgeous array of Jewelry and Minerals from the Adirondacks.” There was Floating Rock on Atateka Mountain, off Route 9 near Friends Lake, featuring not only the rock itself, but “Sugar Arch, Mica Mine, Old Ox Paths, Giant Ferns, … and the only Mystery Indian Mounds in the Adirondacks.” Petrified Sea Gardens, three miles west of Saratoga Springs on Route 29, was, according to the place’s brochures, “A natural science adventure! Millions of years old! Unique in the U.S.A.!” But all of these natural sites— developed to market a landmark plus ancillary products—differ significantly from man-made attractions, which are a distinct artifact of the twentieth century.

With the invention of the automobile and Henry Ford’s mass production of the Model T, a new type of tourist was created, freed by the motorcar to explore at will. Facilities had to be invented to serve these happy wanderers, and a new generation of business owners realized that the middle-class nomads passing in front of their properties were a potential source of income. The most essential services for tourists provided gas, food and lodging. But in this explosion of roadside commerce, there was a fourth type of establishment, which had nothing whatsoever to do with fulfilling basic needs. A wide variety of tourist attractions were conceived as a way to divert travelers. They evolved not only to amuse the children in the back seat, but also to seduce the children living within the adults in the front seat. Roadside attractions were also important to travelers needing to stretch their legs, relax for a while, use the very necessary rest-room facilities, or just to have some fun.

The highway havens in the North Country were and are a microcosm of such marvels developed across the United States. Although they were condemned by many as being in bad taste or condoned by others as kitsch, a variety of destinations arose and thrived. The beginnings of the phenomenon are shrouded in the mists of the past, and just how these businesses began to appear is at best a matter of conjecture.

One theory is that some people involved in serving up travelers’ essentials added amusement facilities as a means of drawing attention and income and to distinguish themselves from competitors. One Adirondack example was a black bear kept at an auto camp near North Hudson in the 1920s. The bear was trained to guzzle bottles of soda pop purchased by passersby, and sometimes a man would wrestle the beast before the assembled throngs.

The earliest stand-alone tourist diversions in the region, as in many other parts of the country, began as operations devoted to raising animals for clothing and decorative items. Although it’s hard to imagine now, there was an ostrich farm in Saratoga Springs in the first decades of this century. Such farms of gigantic birds were commonplace in California, Texas and Florida, and the plumage was harvested to produce feather boas in various colors as well as pompoms, fans and novelties, all sold in shops on the premises.

But the Florida Ostrich Farm in Jacksonville—taking a cue perhaps from visitors who migrated with the seasons—launched a summer branch in Saratoga on Ballston Avenue. People became so fascinated by these creatures, which could weigh up to four hundred pounds, that the business was opened so that curious guests could gawk at chicks hatching from gigantic eggs; ride behind big ones in sulkies or up on their backs; ooh and aah as birds swallowed oranges whole, which would then be seen as round objects descending stomachward; or, in what was described as a “painless operation,” observe plumes being plucked. Among Saratoga’s most famous ostriches were one behemoth named “Prince of Wales,” and another, “Oliver W,” billed as “positively the only thoroughly harness-broken ostrich in America today.” Ostrich ranches, though, went the way of feather boas and disappeared from the American landscape.

Joseph S. Sterling, born in New Jersey in 1878—and who moved to Alaska in 1904, where he prospected for gold, ran a steamship line and operated trading posts—came up with the idea of raising captive animals for fur. He drifted back East, started a silver-fox farm in Schuyler Falls, New York, in 1915, and in 1920 established an exhibition farm at Ausable Chasm. The very next year Sterling opened another show farm in Lake Placid. The Lake Placid location, on Route 86, became the area’s major tourist attraction in the 1930s, and survived until 1976.

Out-of-towners were fascinated by Sterling’s foxes, mink, beavers, Hudson seals and so-called “wolf raccoons,” and he boasted in the early 1930s that visitors could “See 50 Alive.” Over the years, other species were added as the facility evolved into the Sterling Alaska Fur and Game Farm, popularly known as the “Home of 1000 Animals.” Many of the inhabitants were trained to perform tricks: bears did stunts in exchange for treats; “Peppy and Mike” starred in a daily chimp show; and children could ride llamas. Joseph Sterling died in 1959, but his wife, Martha, carried on, expanding and modernizing the facility.

But the real roadside attractions—as we now know them—began to appear after World War II, just in time for the baby boomers growing up. They were dubbed “theme parks,” devoted to the thematic expression of an idea or related ideas. The earlier amusement parks, which lured people to turn off the highway, were all about thrill rides, the scarier the better.

Probably first were Santa Claus parks. Then came the experiences which brought fairy-tale tableaux and characters into real-life existence, Wild West front streets with real live cowboys staging make-believe shoot-outs, dinosaur parks, Bible-story gardens, snake farms, mystery spots and on and on.

In the Adirondacks it was Julian Reiss, a German-American entrepreneur, who came up with the outlandish notion of starting a summertime Santa Claus attraction on Whiteface Mountain. It seems that Reiss was driving with his young daughter, Patty, around holiday time in 1947, and she told her father that she wished that Christmas could take place every day of the year. Someone suggested to Reiss that he contact a man named Arto Monaco, who ran a workshop in Upper Jay. Monaco, an extraordinary toy designer and film animator, drew sketches for what was to become Santa’s Workshop, and Reiss went into partnership with a man who owned some land in Wilmington, near the Whiteface Mountain toll road. The rest, as they say, is history, and one of the first theme parks in the United States was opened in 1949.

Monaco created a village of sweet kid-size chalets so that little visitors could experience the grandeur of adult-like scale. Parents with their insistent children flocked from miles around to see Mr. and Mrs. Claus, elves and even the Virgin Mary in the mountains. In fact, on busy summer days there were traffic jams on rural roads. Santa’s Workshop changed its address to North Pole, New York, so that letters mailed from there bear that magical postmark. Christmas festivities are still celebrated there every day, every summer.

Another key player in the Adirondack attractions business was Charles R. Wood. A resort owner in Lake George, in 1954 he decided to build Storytown USA five miles south of the lake on Route 9. Hoping—but not knowing—that anyone would actually show up, he personally designed and built several nursery-rhyme buildings, and in the process got such a severe case of poison ivy that he ended up in the hospital. Wood’s instincts were correct, and when he opened Storytown for business, the people came.

Storytown was expanded over the years with the addition of Ghost Town (an old-West Main Street), Mother Goose Land and Jungle Land, and is still going strong today as the mega-amusement complex, Great Escape Splashwater Kingdom. (Vestiges of the nursery-rhyme village can still be found there.) In the mid-1950s Wood bought the idea of Gaslight Village, a fly-by-night operation that had existed briefly in Pottersville in the 1940s, and brought to the center of Lake George a re-creation of turn-of-the-century small-town life as another entertainment experience.

But it was Arto Monaco, the man who helped Julian Reiss shape Santa’s Workshop, who became the Rembrandt of Adirondack fantasy parks. Creating such ventures became a new career for Monaco. In addition to designing never-never lands for others, including work at Storytown; Gaslight Village; Frontier Town, in North Hudson; Enchanted Forest, in Old Forge; and Old McDonald’s Farm, in Lake Placid, he erected his own pleasure dome in Upper Jay. The Land of Makebelieve, Monaco’s masterpiece, opened in 1954, nearly at the same time as Storytown USA. Enthralled children rode around in a small train, drove midget Model T Fords, ventured into a humorous jungle of creatures dressed in all their finery, and reveled at the splendor of an elaborate castle in which a pint-size patron could take a seat at King Arthur’s round table, perch on the throne or even stop by the dungeon.

Monaco’s attraction was especially charming. His major objective was to design a child-friendly environment: Youngsters were encouraged to touch, feel, sit in, wind up and participate in the park where Monaco hoped that everything would be “cute and nice.” The rides were fanciful, not frightening. There were the usual assortment of kid-scale nursery-rhyme buildings and an old-West town called Cactus Flats, with small ponies pulling an undersized stagecoach. Each and every aspect of the park was complete to the smallest details, with the master constantly adding a little bit here and a little bit there: a well-considered smile on an alligator statue; authentic old packaging and a small-scale cracker barrel in the general store; flower-shaped furniture, sink and mailbox in Mary Mary Quite Contrary’s house; and a clock-maker’s house where the clocks played music.

But one major miscalculation brought down the Land of Makebelieve. The thirty-acre site was situated, as it turned out, on a flood plain of the Ausable River, and the park was frequently submerged. Monaco cleaned up and rebuilt time after time. Only after the thirteenth inundation did he give up his dream and close the Land of Makebelieve for good in 1979. Now a cheerful and energetic man in his eighties, Monaco is resigned to the loss. In his backyard still stands the centerpiece of his magical kingdom, the castle now overwhelmed by vegetation, and with small ponies, progeny from the old herd, quietly grazing in front.

But Santa’s Workshop, Storytown USA, Gaslight Village and the Land of Makebelieve are just the most prominent examples of fun places to visit in the Adirondacks from the past fifty years or so. There were, and still are, many more:

Animal Land, Lake George: “Mine Host Peter Cottontail,” a trained rabbit, personally took tickets from young visitors here to see and pet more than a thousand baby animals and birds. Among the other activities of note were a “Duck Derby,” with a featured race every hour, and a baby chimpanzee show. Animal Land lives on as Lake George Zoological Park, located on Route 9 between Martha’s Dandee Cream and Pirate’s Cove miniature golf.

Enchanted Forest, Old Forge: Founded in 1956 by A. Richard Cohen, who was inspired by the success of Santa, fairy-tale and Wild West shows elsewhere in the mountains, this thirty-five-acre site with twenty-five buildings along Route 28 is still proffering fun to visitors to the southwestern Adirondacks. Enchanted Forest is perhaps best known for its spectacular Paul Bunyan statue, which has been moved further up the property by its new owners. Other features are myriad: an authentic reproduction of Dawson City in the 1890s, Ali Baba’s Cave, the Alamo, Captain Kidd’s fifty-foot pirate ship and many other storybook buildings and rides.

Fairyland Village, Saratoga Springs: This rather predictable operation on Route 9 billed itself as a place “for adult adventure and childhood fantasy,… one of the most unique attractions in the country.” There was a steam train, a witch climbing Rapunzel’s tower, Robin Hood with his archery, magic shows, Bobo the Clown and real live goats in the Alpine Village. And the entrepreneurs, leaving no stone unturned, had Santa Clans himself on hand to greet all at the end of Candy Cane Lane.

Frontier Town, North Hudson: The old West first came to the Adirondacks in 1955, when Ed Ovenson and Art Benson opened Frontier Town, and it’s still there today, the kind of place kids envision the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding out of at full gallop after putting the bad guys in their place. The copy in Frontier Town’s first brochure describes the goings-on: “Men and women in colorful costumes work in and about many buildings at typical frontier crafts…. Daring visitors ride authentic stagecoaches and covered wagons clown dangerous Dry Gulch Trail to that rootin-tootin cowboy town, Prairie Junction.” Beyond the artificial sagebrush, there was a large barn and barnyard with farm animals to be seen and petted.

Indian Village, Lake George: This attraction, founded by Peg McCandless in the early fifties, was, we are told, “scooped out of the very earth where Indians once lived, fought and adventured,” and is redolent of Florida attractions that exploited the Seminoles. Tourists could see exhibits of Native American lore and culture and “real Indians living as they did in the olden days and … witness ceremonial dances of these Indians in full regalia.”

Magic Forest, Lake George: A multifaceted enterprise still in operation along Route 9, Magic Forest began in the early 1960s as “Christmas City … a village of warmth and love … where on the warmest day you will find a cool breeze blowing pine needles to the ground.” And although visitors will still find various Santa statues in residence, there is also a full menu of other activities including rides, fairy-tale tableaux and buildings, and even a diving horse. But perhaps most spectacular of all is the thirty-eight-foot-high fiberglass Uncle Sam statue from the Danbury (Connecticut) Fair, brought here in 1981 and wheeled out to curbside every day of the summer to serve as the attraction’s roadside lure.

Old McDonald’s Farm, Lake Placid: This nonprofit venture, which helped to fund a summer camp for underprivileged boys, offered a wide assortment of clown-on-the-farm activities for travelers in the early 1950s. Old Mac, depicted as a hayseed incarnate on the brochure, offered hay rides, square dances, fishing and canoeing, as well as domestic and wild critters to see and touch. A special feature for the kids was to see chicks hatching in glass incubators. And then, in a full-circle womb-to-tomb experience, the whole family could enjoy barbecued-chicken dinners prepared from birds raised on the premises, and which, Old Mac told us in the brochure, “will taste plum delicious to Mom an’ Aunt Sally and you all will have a right good time eatin’ them picnic style.”

Prehistoric Garden, Jay: A three-part attraction, “one of the largest Outdoor Museums of its kind in the world,” it existed only for a few summers in the early sixties. There was a “mystery house,” a structure with a tilted floor which gave the illusion of gravity gone berserk as people stood atilt and balls rolled up instead of down. A dinosaur exhibit was presented in a trailer; in the woods were “life-sized” dinosaur statues made from some sort of foam material, which were pecked to tatters by insistent birds the first winter after the attraction closed.

New York Serpentarium, North Hudson: This short-lived venture, which lasted for a couple of years in the mid-fifties, displayed a variety of creepy crawly slithery slimies. The place was reputedly closed by the state conservation department, which feared that some of its inhabitants might escape and become new permanent denizens of the Adironclacks.

Jacques Suxanne’s TV Movie Ranch, Lake Placid (also known as Suzanne’s Eskimo Camp): Suzanne, a sled-dog driver, trained and displayed Arctic dogs, wolves, horses and other animals for use in movie and television productions. His ranch included exhibits of Indian and Eskimo costumes, relics of Arctic explorers, and large murals by Suzanne himself, including one magnum opus depicting a pack of wolves chasing and attacking horse-drawn sleighs.

John Margolies is the author of seven hooks, including The End of the Road, Home Away from Home and Miniature Golf.

 

 

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