A Day at the Arcade
CAROGA LAKE – Janet Sherman Shepard remembers “Skippy” well.
When she was a kid growing up and working at Sherman’s Amusement Park, her father, Frank Sherman Jr., built the small, red, white and blue car from Ford Model A parts and other pieces he either fabricated or found. He used it to travel from his home to all the various buildings in the park, which he ran with his brother, Floyd, from 1955 until selling it to the Morris family in 1970.
“We called it ‘Skippy’ because [my father’s] dog was named Skippy,” Shepard said.
“When I was a kid … he was always working on something in his cellar; he had his workshops down there,” she continued. “There wasn’t anything he couldn’t build or fix. If anything went wrong in the pavillion, he could fix it. He was just a terrific person, I’ll tell you.”
The car was what initially drew Judy Smith, vice president of the Caroga Historical Museum and curator of the museum’s Sherman Arcade Building exhibit, to the story of Sherman’s Amusement Park. Smith and her husband, Doug Smith, have been the primary caretakers of the building since its completion in 2006.
“He was truly a mechanical genius,” Smith said recently while standing in front of the car, which now permanently resides in the museum. “If there was something that he needed, or he didn’t have a tool to do something with, he made it.”
During the museum’s season last summer, the Arcade exhibit was closed to the public for renovations. It will be reopening as a teaching museum Thursday with the rest of the museum’s exhibits for this year’s season, which runs through the end of August.
During its 2003 season, the museum displayed a one-off exhibit focused on Sherman’s Amusement Park, which was opened by Frank Sherman Sr. in 1920. However, the exhibit’s popularity led the museum to form a committee the following year to raise money to open the permanent exhibit that now exists, Smith said.
“We had such a high attendance that year because people wanted to see the Sherman’s memorabilia,” Smith said. “And they’d come in and they would have tears in their eyes, and laughter, and telling us all about, ‘Oh, I remember when I came and did such-and-such.'”
The building is modeled off of the original arcade at the amusement park, only smaller. The lettering above the door was made using the original letter templates from that building.
Inside the building, everything on display is an original piece from the park’s heyday. Shepard, who used to sell the amusement park’s famed “yellow” popcorn, donated many of the inventions her father created, including the car, a large ridable snowblower, a fire hose contraption that drew water from the lake and her father’s workshop and desk. Many of the park’s original rides and games were originally loaned to the museum by John Papa and Guy Parenti.
Through grants from the Howard Argersinger Trust Fund, the Perella Trust Fund and others, the museum was able to purchase these items. The Perrella grant in particular allowed the museum to purchase the park’s original fortune teller machine in 2011. The machine is still in operation, Smith said, and is one of the new items in the renovated space.
“Doug, my husband, works here selling popcorn, and he said people would come in and they’d be like, ‘All right, where is she?'” Smith said. “I remember as a child, the fortune teller was in the arcade at Sherman’s, and to me, it was very scary and very haunting. But people were looking for this, because it made such an impression on so many people.”
The Smiths’ daughter, Christianne Smith, who owns Design Smith Studio in Saratoga Springs, created new signage throughout the whole exhibit detailing the history of the park and the Sherman family. Arrows on the ground point people through the museum, taking patrons from the start of the park as a dance hall and bathhouse in the ’20s, through its amusement park heyday.
“[Christianne] walked in and she said – obviously, we didn’t have any of this; we had posters and we had handwritten things and we had pictures, but we didn’t have anything professionally done,” Judy Smith said. “And she walked in and she said, ‘Mom, what is this? Why is that there?’ She’s too young to remember what Sherman’s was all about.”
Prior to its sale in 1970, the park was a major attraction in the Capital Region and beyond, drawing visitors from as far away as Utica, Smith said. Don Hoffman, the son of Dorothy Sherman Hoffman, one of Frank Sr.’s three children, also worked at the park with the rest of his family. He remembers the park in its heyday as a “family affair.”
“It was nice, it really was. … It was a family park,” Hoffman said. “Years ago, people came up from Gloversville and Johnstown, and it was an all-day affair, because that was quite a trip at that time. They’d come up and they’d spend the day; they’d pay games and be eating, they’d dance, they’d have fun. It was quite nice, and it was that way for years and years.”
In 1989, Ruth and George Abdella purchased the park, initially hoping to renovate and host bands once again. In the park’s heyday, musicians ranging from Cab Calloway to Louis Armstrong performed on the weekends.
Today, the Abdellas are looking to sell the park. According to an article in the Leader-Herald in October, town Supervisor Ralph Ottuso was looking to revitalize the park with future events. On Memorial Day, the town held its annual flower sale in the park.
The museum’s exhibit, though, is focused on the park’s heyday and the lives of the Shermans, Smith said.
“You know what my dream is? It’s to make a movie of all this,” Smith said.
“[Frank Jr.] said, ‘I have to make a living somehow,'” Smith added. “But still, he provided so many years of memories for so many families.”