Southern Vermont’s North Pole a nostalgic step back to simpler times
By Kevin O’Connor
Log on to the website for Santa’s Land in the Vermont town of Putney and it might seem that Saint Nick has replaced his elves with computer engineers. But meander 4 miles off Interstate 91’s Exit 4 to the Christmas-themed amusement park and you’ll find comfort and joy in what hasn’t changed.
When the self-described “New England tradition” opened in 1957, the property offered fair-weather visitors the opportunity to step into a wintry forest seeded with picnic tables, playground swings and clapboard cottages blanketed in Styrofoam snow.
“The project is designed to appeal to children and their elders alike,” the local newspaper reported of the 40-acre site promising homegrown products, such as maple syrup, and an on-site post office with its own cancellation, “Santa’s Land, U.S.A.”
Now sitting in the shadows of national attractions packed with thrill rides and name-brand characters, the property might seem quaint. But no pizzazz is no problem for adults who first visited as children.
“We’ve been coming for years,” said one mother escorting three generations of family. “It’s relaxing.”
That’s because as the outside world keeps shifting, the memories inside do not. Walk under the canopy of towering trees and you still can smell the evergreens. Hear the whistle of the miniature train. See the same tracks circled by the same plywood candy canes.
The fact that it all seems smaller and simpler only adds to its stature.
Big was the hope back when New Jersey native Jack Poppele founded the park six decades ago. The local paper reported news of his plans next to a photo of Vermont officials viewing blueprints of the state’s first stretch of interstate highway that promised to cut travel time and cultivate tourism.
Santa’s Land flourished under Poppele and the succeeding Brewer family, which operated the property from 1970 to 1998. But the turn of the current millennium brought a series of unexpected challenges.
In 2003, an outsider proposed turning the pine-covered property into a $6 million “Silverado” cowboy attraction complete with a Wild West saloon, staged high-noon shootouts and live buffalo.
Skeptical neighbors in Putney, population 2,621, noted the prospective buyer had yet to file permit paperwork and, after a bar fight, faced court charges. But they could see the need for renovations, be it through the peeling paint or persnickety petting zoo animals.
Visitors soon offered warnings on travel websites: “In Southern Vermont, where most folks’ thoughts turn to when recalling those Currier & Ives Christmas card images, how could this have happened?”
The park, facing rising expenses and reduced attendance, has changed hands several times. Take the woman who purchased it in 2013.
“It was maternal instinct,” she explained. “I couldn’t see capitalism destroying family tradition and family values.”
A year later, she was in court, after running out of money to care for the animals.
Santa’s Land shut in 2014. But the Christmas season is known for miracles. Enter Connecticut magician David Haversat, a childhood fan who bought the site in 2017.
“Considering its condition, the park could easily have been wiped away by a purchaser hoping to redevelop the large property,” the Preservation Trust of Vermont noted.
Instead, Haversat has restored much of the original 1950s architecture and artifacts, as well as added a historic 32-horse carousel from Coney Island’s Astroland.
“To many who have loved the place over the decades, the reopening was a thrill only matched by the delight of children seeing it for the first time,” the trust said in granting the new owner a preservation award.
“A time capsule of far more innocent days,” the Vermont weekly paper Seven Days has opined of the park. “A delightfully kitschy time was had by all.”
Haversat, for his part, hopes the storybook ending is only the beginning.
“The internet has changed a lot of things,” he told the press upon purchasing the property. “Sometimes people don’t spend as much time together as a family. This is something that may remind you of the past. An iPad or an app will never take that place.”
Santa’s Land in the Vermont town of Putney has welcomed visitors since its opening in 1957.
Kevin O’Connor is a Vermont native and Brattleboro Reformer contributor.