Monday, May 4, 2009

Pottersville Fair: Gambling, Races, and Gaslight Village

Those traveling on the Adirondack Northway (I-87) between Exits 26 and 27 probably don’t realize they are passing literally over Pottersville, the northern Warren County hamlet that borders lower Schroon Lake. From the 1870s into the early 1960s the tiny village was home to amusements that drew thousands. The most remarkable of them, the Pottersville Fair, drew 7,000 on a single day in 1913. Later it hosted a large dance hall, roller skating rink, and the Glendale Drive-in, while nearby Under the Maples on Echo Lake was host to circus acts and an amusement park that was a forerunner of Gaslight Village. Today only the long abandoned Drive-in screen remains, a silent sentinel to Pottersville’s past as an amusement Mecca.

It’s no surprise that the tiny hamlet could host such remarkable amusements. The Town of Chester was on the early stage coach road north of Warrensburgh and Caldwell (as Lake George was then known). It was home to two main villages, Chestertown and Pottersville, and several smaller ones (Starbuckville, Darrowsville, Igerna, Riverside – now Riparius, and Haysburg). In the years after the Civil War Chester became a center for summer visitors and hotels and boarding houses sprung up to welcome them. Early travelers made their way from the D & H Railroad to Riverside (where the first suspension bridge across the Hudson River was built) and then by coach to Chestertown, Pottersville, and Schroon Lake. From a dock at the south end of Schroon small steamers plied the lake. Numerous summer camps were established for children and adults in and around Pottersville. Cottages, colonies, and motels were added with the coming of motor transportation – until recently the Wells’ House was a stop on the Adirondack Trailways bus line. It was all ended with the construction of the Adirondack Northway which diverted traffic over the historic hamlet.

Undoubtedly early religious camp meetings were held at the grove where The Pottersville Fair was established by the Faxon family in 1877. The Faxons were the town’s leading industrial family, owner of Chester’s largest employer, a tannery. The fair was immediately popular, not so much for its agricultural exhibits – there generally weren’t any – but for its gambling opportunities. For thirty years gambling was the main attraction at the fair, and horse racing the main event. In 1897, the fair advertised “a fine program of races consisting of trotting and pacing, running, bicycle, and foot races in which liberal purses and prizes are offered.”

By 1906 anti-gambling forces were applying pressure and the Ticonderoga Sentinel reported that year that “The fair in Pottersville drew good crowds, the feature being the horse races. There were no exhibits made.” “It is the purpose of the management,” the paper suggested “to reorganize the Glendale Union Agricultural Society and devote the exhibition entirely to sports, giving large purses for the racing events.”

The anti-gambling crusade was part of a larger backlash against the free-spirited Gay Nineties. Throughout the country society’s moral guardians railed against the liberties and license of the period and chief among them was drinking and gambling. The heaviest attacks were leveled at the racetracks like the Glendale. Newspapers depicted horse bettors as dupes of a crooked alliance of track management, bookmakers, owners and politicians who continued to allow horse racing. Across the country state after state made tracks like the Glendale illegal. Only Kentucky, Maryland, and New York refused to join them in outlawing the popular sport. That was until the anti-gambling forces secured one of our own local boys Charles Evans Hughes, born in Glens Falls in 1859, as Governor of New York.

Soon after taking office in 1907 Hughes began pushing a bill to eliminate gambling at the state’s racetracks. Although resistance was formidable, the Agnew-Hart Bill [pdf] passed in June 1908 and it became illegal to openly quote odds, solicit gambling, or stand in a fixed place and record bets. Police detectives worked themselves into the crowds at the tracks and arrested those violating the law, the penalty for which was jail. The result was the near death of horse-racing in New York – including at the Pottersville Fair, although gaming and horsebetting continued there underground. In 1914, for example, it was reported to members of the state legislature that the Pottersville Fair “has long been famous… for the great variety of wide open gambling and lottery schemes.” If you want to read how the whole thing affected the horse racing stock, and more about how horseracing survived, take a look at the Thoroughbred TimesRacing Through the Century: 1911-1920.”

As local citizens and summer tourists began fearing arrest and imprisonment for gambling – they weren’t really there for the horses – gate receipts dropped and the Glendale Union Agricultural Society went bankrupt. In 1910, the Pottersville Fair Association took over the fair. The Ticonderoga Sentinel described the newly reopened fair grounds of 1910:

The Pottersville Fair, it is frankly admitted, is conducted solely for the amusement of its patrons. The exhibits of products of farm and factory, beautiful specimens of feminine handiwork, art subjects and curios found at other fairs are her conspicuous by their absence. The association makes no effort to get them and does not believe that the majority of people who go to the fair want them. Nobody would want them anyhow, for all over the grounds, in the midway, on the race track, on the stage in front of the grandstand, and in the dance hall, there is every minute something doing to amuse and interest the crowd.

In addition to the racing, gaming, dancing, and carnival and stage acts the renewed fair in 1910 featured “an areoplane flight, which is positively guaranteed, and which will mark the first appearance in these parts of an airship.”

In the 1920s the dance hall at what was then called Glendale Park featured dancing every Thursday, 9 pm to 1 am (later expanded to Friday and Saturday as well). Among the bands who played there were Val Jean and His Orchestra, Domino Orchestra, Guy LaPell’s Orchestra, and the James Healey Band. The park’s skating rink was reported in 1945 to be “almost too crowded to skate.” Eventually a drive-in movie theater would be installed. A neighbor of mine who worked in the kitchen at the Glendale reported that the bar there was staffed by seven bartenders at once.

A legacy of the Pottersville Fair was its stable of acrobats and stage shows. Under The Maples, an emerging resort of sorts on Echo Lake just south of the Wells House, carried on the carnival atmosphere with acrobats and tightrope walkers. General amusements were installed at Echo Lake and the new amusement park operated late into the 1950s, eventually under the name Gaslight Village as it still retained much of its Gay Nineties theme. In about 1958 Charley Woods purchased the whole kit and kaboodle and moved it to Lake George where the 1890s were relived until about 1990 at his own Gaslight Village. You can read about that here.

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