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Saying goodbye to a piece of Americana

Santa’s Land, an iconic Route 5 theme park, closes after 54 years

PUTNEY—After 54 years, Santa’s Land USA, a Christmas theme park and a familiar landmark on Route 5, has fallen victim to a diminishing interest in roadside attractions, and to a steep hike in operating costs.

According to Leslie Wells, who owns the park with husband, lawyer Timothy Wells, the closing is sad on so many levels, including the demise of what she calls Americana.

The park fell victim to high gasoline prices and other recession-related costs— and, perhaps, also to a change in what children and families set out to do these days during family vacations.

It’s awkward to fully enjoy the Ding Dong School House, Santa’s Land Arcade, the Candy Cane, the Igloo Pancake house, or the 13 other attractions while operating one’s hand-held devices. Or when the temptations of discount, tax-free shopping are a stone’s throw away across the Connecticut River in New Hampshire.

While the park was dotted with children on its last day on Dec. 18, and one young girl shouted frantically for her parents to come and see the llamas as she stood beside the goat pen, by the following day the shouting was all gone and the well-manicured park was a period still-life.

The remaining animals, including two mini-horses used to all-day treats from visitors, trotted along the fence looking a bit forlorn and nickering, and the emus seemed perplexed, running back and forth in their enclosure from the fence to some shrubs in the rear.

Wells said arrangements have already been made for most of the animals, but she remained unclear about where the large herd of deer in Santa’s Deer Park would be placed.

In its last days, the park still offered the same sort of retro appeal that other emblems of the 1950s now generate. Empty, Santa’s Land now looks preserved, like an exhibit.

The train, the Santa’s Land Express, usually driven by Timothy Wells, is now idle and adding some pathos to the empty train station, everything painted in the brightest of colors.

A long history

The park opened on Aug. 10, 1957, launched by Jack Poppele, a New Jersey native radio pioneer who kept close to Christmas after broadcasting the country’s first Christmas radio show on WOR, the New York City station he helped found. Opening-day admission was 19 cents.

Before Interstate 91 was finished, Route 5 was the primary highway between New Haven, Conn., and Quebec. But Poppele was a big supporter of the Interstate, as he figured it would bring more tourists from southern New England to Vermont.

The park was then bought in 1970 and expanded by the Brewer family, who ran it for nearly 30 years. The Brewers lived on the property and raised five children there.

The park ownership had stayed stable for many years until the Brewers sold it in the late 1990s to John Fanelli.

Wells described Fanelli, a Massachusetts man who was in the amusement business, as “a successful carnival person.”

Fanelli got into trouble in the late 1990s and paid a $700 fine to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources for burning illegal materials at the park. He was enjoined from further burning without all the proper permits.

He also floated plans to turn Santa’s Land into a wild west park, and he generated some interest in that proposal before the plans failed and the property fell into some disrepair.

Then in 2004, he sold the park to the Wellses, native Vermonters, who also were old friends of the Brewers.

“We tried to carefully restore the park, which had a very charming sweetness, kind of retro,” Leslie Wells said. “We wanted to preserve it and build on it. And for the first two or three years, the park was dramatically better. By the fifth year, gas prices affected us and attendance dropped right off.”

As attendance continued to diminish, the Wellses tried changing the price structure, including offering a much- reduced family rate.

But none of that helped.

Wells said she didn’t know off the top of her head what peak attendance had been, and how much it had diminished.

But she said it all made her sad.

“I liked the animals, and I loved the people, the children,” Wells said, adding that she couldn’t really think of any downside. “If I could do anything, I’d run the park.”

The Wellses have children and grandchildren who had recently visited the park “for the last time,” she noted.

She said the park was for sale but had not yet been formally listed. She said they might have an inventory sale or auction.

She allowed that Santa’s Land was “sort of hokey, but after 54 years, you don’t change.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #133 (Wednesday, January 4, 2012).

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