History Of New York’s Frontier Town

New York's Frontier Town History

Photo: Brian Kachejian 2021

Many New York natives and visitors have fond memories of Frontier Town. The unique attraction was off the beaten path. It was an opportunity for people to get a small glimpse of what it may have been like to live and work in the old West. Frontier Town was founded by Arthur Bensen. The Staten Island phone tech created the attraction with kids and parents in mind. The park was developed on a plot of land in Schroon Lake, New York, that is also a part of the Adirondack Mountains.

Bensen’s goal was to have a park that would allow visitors to step back in time for a while. His original concept was to help people understand what life was like in the 18th Century. Daniel Boone and frontier outfits were ordered for employees. Unfortunately, the mens’ costumes didn’t arrive in time for the opening. Bensen was then forced to change his strategy and adopt a frontier theme.

Several Western-themed elements were integrated. Prairie Junction replicated traditional main streets found in the late 19th Century. Visitors could browse and shop at Pioneer VIllage. There was also a small railroad, a rodeo area and an Indian village.

Frontier Town also had several unique events, some of which would take unexpecting visitors by surprise. It wasn’t uncommon to witness old fashioned shootouts and stagecoach robberies as you walked through the park grounds. These and other authentic recreations made spectators feel at times like they were part of the action! Most events were posted on schedules in the park that were available in both French and English.

The park first opened for business on July 4th, 1952. At the height of its popularity in the 1960’s and 1970’s, more than 40,000 people visited the park every year. Kids could pretend to be a blacksmith and admire the horseback riders as they carefully strolled along the streets. Attendees could pan for gold and partake in many other activities that weren’t offered by other similar attractions.

Interest in Frontier Town began to wane, leading to the park’s eventual closure in 1985. Several reasons were given for its demise. There were more large scale parks in other locations that were easier to get to. The general public’s interest in the Wild West had also started to wane, as evidenced by the cancellations of popular televisions that centered on the genre. Parents were also starting to object to violence being displayed on television, in the movies and popular attractions including Frontier Town.

Bensen had difficulty at times keeping the park afloat. He and his business partners would later sell the property in 1983. Frontier Town reopened in 1989 after several changes and upgrades were made. The attraction was now owned by Panther Mountain Water Park. However, the improvements weren’t enough to keep it operating for very long. The park closed for good in 1998. A second Frontier Town location was planned in Branson, Missouri in the mid-1990’s, but the project was later scrapped and has never been completed.

Frontier Town’s ownership reverted to Essex County in 2004 because of unpaid property taxes. The Schroon Lake amusement park located just off of Route 9 laid vacant for several decades. No one bothered to visit, except for a few historians and explorers who wanted to see the once-renowned attraction for themselves. The land, buildings, trains, stagecoaches and other associated items were auctioned off in October 2004. The owners of Panther Mountain Water Park filed an appeal in an effort to declare the tax sale of the property declared null and void, but lost their court case in 2007.

In the fall of 2018, the site was reopened for camping. The former Frontier Town is now a New York state park. Individuals and groups are able to camp, traverse the spacious trails by horse and bike and picnic. Certain trails remain off limits for guests, although the majority of the trails are open year round. Camping is allowed from May through October. Several of the original Frontier Town signs still remain on the property.

The park is now known as the Frontier Town Campground, Equestrian and Day Use Area. It encompasses 91 acres of land and is situated on the shores of the Schroon River. It was redeveloped and repurposed by the Open Space Institute, the State of New York and five Adirondack counties.

There are pieces of Frontier Town spread across the country. The Alaskan Husky known as Fritz found a new home at the Carrie M. McLain Museum in Nome, Alaska. The bears Dolly and Molly, who were park inhabitants from 1990 to 2004, were relocated to the Peace River Refuge and Ranch in Zolfo Springs, Florida. A train was purchased and put to good use at the Adirondack Animal Land in nearby Gloversville.Other items, such as the iconic cannon and others can still be found in Schroon Lake.

Diehard fans have hosted their own Frontier Town Days in recent years. These events have been held at the Adirondack Hub in North Hudson, New York where false storefronts were erected to evoke a sense of nostalgia. People have gathered to share their memories of the beloved park, make friends and view and purchase memorabilia from the park’s heydays. Visitors can also learn more about the history of the revered amusement park.

It’s highly unlikely that the theme park’s concept will be revived any time soon. People’s tastes and interests have changed significantly over the years. However, there are still plenty of parents and grandparents who remember visiting Frontier Town with their friends and family members. Some of them may have their picture postcards, replica sheriff’s badges or other keepsakes stored away.

Frontier Town was a product of its era. Visitors arrived from across the country and even around the world to enjoy the shows and activities. It was a great place for vacations, holidays and other special events. The amusement park has been gone for more than twenty years, but it won’t be forgotten any time soon.

Editor’s Note:

The entrance way to Frontier Town now stands as a deluxe rest stop with food, souvenirs and bathrooms. The place also caters and hosts local parties. I was just there.

 

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