Although some consider California’s Disneyland, which opened in 1955, to be the first American theme park — not to be confused with an amusement park, which dates back far earlier — most argue that the first was actually Santa Claus Land in Santa Claus, Indiana, which opened in 1946.
In New York State, the North Pole in Wilmington, Essex County, is considered among the first. Opening in 1949 with instant popularity, North Pole is often credited with the wider development of theme parks – amusement parks centered on a single theme – in America, including Disneyland. North Pole led to two additional early theme parks in Essex County: Frontier Town in North Hudson (1952) and the Land of Makebelieve in Upper Jay (1954). In 1955 Fort William Henry was founded in Lake George.
Theme parks were largely a product of the late 1940s and 1950s, when American families began driving for fun, and wild west towns and fantasy lands began springing up all across the country.
In 1957 former Sullivan County Historian James W. Burbank opened the gates to Fort Delaware in Narrowsburg, NY. And like Santa Claus Land (still operating as Holiday Land) and Fort William Henry — Fort Delaware is still going strong, though it is more often referred to now as Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History.
It’s impossible to know exactly what influenced Burbank in his quest to build the reproduction of the lower fort of the colonial Cushetunk settlement on the Upper Delaware River, but it is obvious that the popularity of the Walt Disney television production of Davy Crockett played a role. One need only look at how Burbank chose to be photographed in publicity stills for the opening of the Fort — clad in buckskins and a coonskin cap — to recognize the impact the Crockett craze had on the finished product.
Burbank had spent years researching the life of men named Skinner and Thomas and Tyler and Tracy and the earliest European settlements along the river. He had written about the stockaded community at Cushetunk and the Delaware attack on the fort in 1763, at the beginning of Pontiac’s War (1763 –1766). He was determined that a replica of that stockade, with docents dressed in period costume, would lure people to Narrowsburg and entertain and inform them.
He made meticulous drawings of what the place should look like and how it should be built, right down to the fasteners to be used. He touted the idea far and wide, and interested enough of his neighbors in investing that the initial stock offering was sold out. He supervised the construction, and then manned
the fort as its chief docent, enlisting his daughter and a number of townspeople to help out.
The Burbank group ran Fort Delaware as a private enterprise until 1970, when, struggling, it was rescued by Sullivan County, which turned it over to the Department of Public Works. By that time, the Davy Crockett craze had long since faded, American history had lost a lot of its luster for school kids, and most
of the period-themed parks that had thrived in the 1950s and 1960s — including Sullivan County’s own western town, Cimarron City — had closed their doors long before.
While Burbank’s fringed buckskin jacket remained on display at Fort Delaware until very recently, when it was taken down to be restored and preserved, the docents today have adopted the less glamorized costumes typically worn along the New York frontier. Demonstrations of blacksmithing, candle making,
and other long forgotten skills are still featured regularly, and many aspects of the Fort have changed little since those early days, save for a concerted effort to focus more on a narrative based on an accurate history of the region.
The story of the founding of Fort Delaware and how it took its place in the pantheon of America’s theme parks remains a fascinating one, and one that is often repeated at the Fort to this day, including special programs devoted to the topic. Under the management of the non-profit history education group, The
Delaware Company, special programming, sponsored by Bold Gold Media, has become a staple of the Fort’s operation.
Upcoming Bold Gold Media Speaker Series programs include a weekend of 18th century medicine on Saturday and Sunday, July 29 and 30, with retired biology professor Donald Terpening presenting on the various medicines, implements, and techniques that were used by physicians during the Colonial period,
as well as the role that doctors played in society, on Saturday, and registered herbalist Richard Mandelbaum presenting on 18th century plant-based medicines on Sunday.
August programs sponsored by Bold Gold Media include African Americans in the Revolutionary War with re-enactor Noah Lewis on August 5, author Larry Kidder discussing his book, “The Revolutionary World of a Free Black Man: Jacob Francis: 1754-1836” on August 6, and Chief Adam Waterbear DePaul
and Clan Mother Shelley DePaul presenting on the life of the Lenape on August 12.
Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History is located on the Upper Delaware Scenic Byway at 6615 Route 97 in Narrowsburg, NY. It is open from 10 to 5 on Saturdays and Sundays in June, September and October, and Thursday thru Sunday in July and August. Fort Delaware is owned by Sullivan County and
operated by the Barryville based non-profit, The Delaware Company.
Illustrations from above: Fort Delaware Museum of Colonial History today; and James W. Burbank at Fort Delaware, circa 1957.