Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The “Progressive Era” is what Kellogg’s time was called, the period of social reform and new attitudes about health and medicine between the Civil and Second World Wars. It was the era that gave us Grape Nuts, alcohol prohibition, gym class and eugenics. People got cleaner, more racist, and sometimes less drunk. And it was illegal to spit in public in New York City, because everyone was reasonably afraid of TB (The Progressive Era’s Health Reform Movement, by Ruth C. Engs. Page 268).

The late 1800s saw the first gym craze. Exercise outside of physical labor (the sort of thing the middle and upper classes had no part in anyway) was increasingly being seen as essential to a healthy lifestyle. It was “considered necessary for the prevention of racial degeneration, along with hygiene and the avoidance of racial pollutions such as alcohol, tobacco, and venereal diseases,” (ibid, 258). As I said before, it was a racist time. I am also tickled by the idea that working out can help prevent venereal disease. Just run a few laps, James, and I’m certain that you won’t catch the clap! I imagine the idea was to prevent the young people from fornicating by having them devote their time and energy to sport. As we know now, athletes are notoriously abstinent.

The health movement and contemporary religious movements blended to increase tourism to towns that could accommodate the needs of both sets simultaneously, as middle and upper class tourists and spa goers were often both vacationers and pilgrims.

The town of Saratoga Springs, for example, managed to encompass all things trendy at the time. Upstate New York was the vacation destination of choice between the end of the civil war and the 2nd Great Depression. Disney is, appropriately enough, nearly finished building (it’s open, still being touched up) a Saratoga Springs resort in Orlando, emulating as they have with the Wilderness Lodge, the Grand Floridian, et al the classic vacation style once preferred by the upper middle class, but minus the typhoid carrying help, constant fires, and authenticity.

Saratoga was home to both, of course, the springs, which drew health enthusiasts and those who believed the town was spiritually gifts to “take the waters.” On the flip side, there was (and still is, of course) the race track. You could purify yourself and then gamble your life savings away in 24 hours.

The irony of the Disney Saratoga Springs experience is that Saratoga Springs itself is still there, and still looks much as it did 125 years ago…creepy Victorian houses and all.
(Batcheller Mansion Inn)

It just isn’t 80 degrees outside in November in upstate New York, at least not yet. Saratoga had it’s share of winter sports for tourists, but it doesn’t quite feel like vacation some people without anthropomorphic mice and dogs serving you tea before you head out to get a sunburn.

My second wwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh! about Disney’s Saratoga Resort stems from the fact that Saratoga is at the foot of a mountain range, and Orlando is almost completely flat.

But I’m being a cynic. As a child I loved Disney World in part because of the mock Victorian/Edwardian “frozen in time” with all the modern conveniences charm of the Magic Kingdom. Then I moved to a town crumbling after its Victorian hey-day, and fell even more in love with the real thing. Victorian architecture has always been a fetish of mine. Saratoga Springs, the mansions around Lake George and the Adirondacks, Great Barrington and the southern Berkshire Mountains are just bursting with the sort of thing Disney replicates well, minus the creepiness. The movies may have done it to me, but a 2nd empire or Italianate Victorian sends chills down my spine and fills me with envy for the person who gets to live there. I spent most of my childhood in a hideous contemporary build in 1985 (attached to an 1807 one room schoolhouse, creating an odd and not at all charming mish-mash).

I honeymooned in Lake George Village, which was comprised of an unsettling and freaking awesome mix of 1960’s style hotels and Victorian homes, shops and municipal buildings. One side of the street was in one era, the other side in another.

Not that Lake George itself didn’t have its share of gimmicky amusement parks and attractions mimicking the “Gay ‘90s” peak of Adirondack tourism (Gaslight Village, for example). In the 1950s/60s second wave (what I suppose could be called a sort of silver age of Lake George tourism), the legendary Charley Wood build a number of amusement parks and hotels in the Lake George area, many of which still exist in some form.

A good biography of Charley Wood, posted a couple of years before his death at a ripe old age:

Wood was a man with a head for the tourism, a Walt Disney minus the artistic aspirations. He built in Lake George a little something for everyone…Storytown during the day for families with children of all ages, Gaslight Village for older children and adults who wanted entertainment in the afternoon and evening, and the Tiki Resort, featuring some purely adult entertainment. Storytown became the Great Escape and then Six Flags. The Tiki Lodge remains the same (metal palm trees and all…but more on that later), and Gaslight Village is now a skeleton of it’s former self, awaiting conversion back into wetlands.

Charley wood was something of a misogynist, but it was a misogynistic time so that was hardly a problem. Story Town, for instance, featured a “Ghost town” with a salon for males only where, as Charley said, “a man could take his son for a beer. We only served root beer, but we made it a real ‘man’s bar.’” Of the bartender at the Tiki Lounge, Charley once said she had “the biggest bosoms in the country. She made a mint of money. She’d put her boobs right up on the counter and say, ‘What can I help you with?’”

Charley also opened sexist steak houses, a classic car museum and a wax museum at the southern end of Lake George.
The the few remaining "kiddie" and independent amusement parks in the Lake George area are sort of repositories for disgarded but still operational rides from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. And boy are they creepy. More to come!

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