, Newburyport, MA

September 30, 2013

Interest growing in Newbury's long-shuttered theme park


---- — It’s hard to imagine gunfights, stage coach robberies and nursery tale characters sharing anything in common with the state police barracks on Scotland Road.

But the connection is getting a lot clearer these days. The Massachusetts State Police Troop A barracks is on the site of a 1950s-era theme park known as Adventureland, and the barracks’ new commander has a keen interest in the ruins behind his building.

Learning more about the history of the amusement park fascinates Troop A commander, Lt. Paul Zipper. Hanging outside his office there’s an authentic Adventureland sign, and he’s even had the name stenciled on T-shirts.

“Although most of it’s grown over, in the back of our building you can still make out some of the foundations of the park,” Zipper said. “You can see the trails and the cement pads where there were rides or buildings.”

Zipper has a nice, clean area in the corridor outside his office all ready to become the Adventureland wall of honor, if anyone would be good enough to share their Adventureland memorabilia with Troop A.

Although Newburyport resident Nancy (Elwell) Lewis and Salisbury’s Denise (Duggan) Callahan have plenty of great memories to share about the place, they aren’t ready to let go of their Adventureland treasures just yet.

Adventureland officially opened in June 1957, right off Scotland Road, on about 50 acres of land wedged between it and what would become I-95. A multi-venue family park, Adventureland included two sections: Storyland and an area with a Wild West motif. Storyland was complete with a Story Book Castle, a village green, as well as exhibits that highlighted nursery rhymes, like the Old Woman in the Shoe, Jack in the Beanstalk, Little Bo Peep and Jack and Jill.

Dodge City had a saloon, stables, blacksmith, jail, general store, a saddlery, the works. Other offerings included the Pony Express, a Well Fargo Stage Coach Ride, as well as Fort Apache, a native American village. There were plenty of horses and Wild West shows that included mock bank robberies and shootouts.

The then-Nancy Elwell was still living in West Newbury with her parents after high school graduation when she took her first job at Adventureland in 1957. She would work there two summers and didn’t take a honeymoon after marrying Rodney Lewis in 1958, because she had to work at Adventureland.

“It was built by a man named George Spalt, and Fred Allan managed the place,” Lewis said. “I worked the first year in the castle at the entrance selling (admission) tickets,” she said. “Then a company named Boston Concessions came in to run the food stands. I worked for that company managing the concessions stands that were in Dodge City and Storyland. It was fun. It was an interesting experience.”

Lewis ended up being Callahan’s boss when she was still Denise Duggan and a Newburyport High School junior grilling hamburgers for visitors during the summer and fall when Adventureland was open.

“I worked at the Root Beer Saloon in Dodge City,” Callahan said, stopping to laugh. “I worked at Adventureland for two years. The second year I ran the Flying Horses merry-go-round. I sold the tickets and pushed the (start) button. It was small, but very cute. The kids just loved it.”

Callahan applied for a job at Adventureland after a visit.

“It looked like such fun,” she said. “A lot of people wanted to work there. One of my best friends, Liane McWilliams, had a horse and she could ride. She was one of the cowgirls. She went out and robbed the stage coach. “

Horses played a big part of Adventureland and its attraction for kids. That’s not surprising, since television programming in the late 1950s and early ’60s held more than its share of Westerns in the top 10 ratings.

Finding people with a Western flare to handle all the horses wasn’t hard, according to both Lewis and Callahan.

“Back then Pease was an Air Force base (in Portsmouth, N.H.),” Callahan said. “A lot of the guys who worked at Adventureland were Pease Air Force men from out West who loved it there because they could work with the horses.”

“They were called the ‘fly boys,’” Lewis recalled. “They were all over the place.”

Men from the Air Force, as well as some local off-duty police officers, performed in skits, the women said. They could be the sheriff or the bad guy, a bank robber killed making his get-away, rolling off a roof to the dirt street below, all to the applause of park visitors.

The place was popular, at least at first, and it became part of the summer social scene for teenagers in the region.

“I had other high school friends who had jobs there,” Callahan said. “They played Little Bo Peep and the Old Lady in the Shoe.”

Zipper’s police intern, Isidro Estrada, researched the park, finding Adventureland had a romantic side.

“Two of those who worked there throughout their high school days were local residents Wilma and James Buckley,” Estrada wrote. “The Buckleys met 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963, and two years later they were married. During their time at Adventureland, Wilma worked in a concession stand in the Gingerbread House ..., while James was busy robbing banks and running away from sheriff’s deputies, part of his role as a Dodge City cowboy.”

And when it first opened, Lewis said, business was brisk, for she remembers selling lots of tickets. But it just didn’t last.

“I think it just wasn’t successful enough,” Lewis said.

Spalt, who died in 2009, built a number of small amusement parks during his lifetime, including Cowboy Town in Plainville and Storyland in Hyannis, as well as the one in Newbury.

Past Daily News stories indicate by the fall of 1966, when Adventureland’s Pirate Ship burned to the ground, the place had been closed for a couple of years. The three-masted ship had been perched atop an outcrop of rock, clearly visible from I-95, until fire claimed it.

“I think interest just petered out eventually,” Callahan said. “The core group was very gung-ho. But a lot of us who worked there began to drift away after we graduated (from high school) and went off to college.”

In 1969, according to a Daily News story, the state took the 56 acres of land and buildings to expand the Interstate and eventually build Troop A’s current barracks. Spalt, then of Harwichport, initially received $112,000 for the land. Dissatisfied with the amount, he sued, and was awarded $125,000 by the court.

But little did Spalt know that 56 years after his amusement park dream opened, there’d be “a new sheriff” in his former Dodge City, and Adventureland would become the unofficial logo for state troopers who now call those acres home.