Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Happyland — The Berkshires' very own 'Disneyland'
The recent Berkshire Eagle article about the Town of Dalton buying a popular hiking spot called Happy Land brought back memories of the amusement park named Happyland.
In the 1950s, there were at least a half-dozen amusement parks/zoos an hour or so away in the greater Springfield area, the Catskills and the Adirondacks. However, none were located in Berkshire County until Happyland.
This park was at the intersection of routes 8 and 20 in Becket, now the home of Bonny Rigg Campground. Happyland was created in 1958 by John Young of Springfield who bought and converted 118 acres to what he would promote as the "Disneyland of the East."
However this small "ma and pa" operation fell far short of the three-year-old California home of the entourage of cartoon characters from Disney movies and comics. Still, Happyland provided the only amusement park experience in Berkshire County and that was fine for us small fries.
There, we could experience nursery rhyme exhibits, live animals and a few kiddie rides. Mr. Young had constructed a dozen three-dimensional fairy tale and nursery rhyme structures, including "There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater," Mother Goose, "The Cat and the Fiddle," "Little Boy Blue," Willie the Whale and Humpty Dumpty. These wooden, concrete and plaster structures, similar to those in Lake George's Storytown, were mostly non-interactive where we could only view or peek into a building.
Sleeping Beauty's Castle served as a gift shop and the Gingerbread House was a snack bar. Costumed characters such as Little Red Riding Hood, The Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella, Snickers the Clown and the Riverboat Captain greeted youngsters as they went from exhibit to exhibit.
Happyland had a small menagerie of live animals representing fairy tales such as the "Three Billy Goats Gruff," "The Little Red Hen," "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep," "The Three Little Pigs," "Bambi," "The Ugly Ducking" and more.
The park had a small lake with a boat ride, a pedal car carousel, a circus train ride and a donkey cart ride. Kids could also play on an antique fire truck. The low budget park's theme was a bit disjointed but met the goal of making kids "happy."
The year the park opened (1958), 18,000 individuals attended. The next year, more than 40,000 came to the attraction. The all-inclusive admission price was 25 cents for children and 90 cents for adults. (By comparison, today's one-day price for those over 10 at Six Flags Park in Agawam is $50 and at Orlando's Disney World they are over $100. Of course sixty plus years have passed and these parks do offer much more.)
Happyland was open from the beginning of the summer until Labor Day each year. Within a few years from opening, the park added live country and western music on Sundays.
In 1959, Mr. Young added a 12-acre ski area with an 1,800-foot run, a 225-foot drop and two rope tows to make better use of the site year round. He also put in an 85-by-200 foot skating rink, lighting for night skiing and a ski shop.
In 1965, Mr. Young added more excitement by introducing Betsy, a live 2-year-old 300-pound female bear. Unfortunately someone had stolen the battery powering Betsey's electric fence enclosure, and the bear escaped from her pen.
Unwilling to be coaxed back in, Betsy was sadly shot by a state trooper. Some believe the incident and subsequent adverse PR led to the park's demise. Happyland's short run ended in 1965, and it had never met its goal of becoming the "Disneyland of the East." But it was in a beautiful area and was ripe for a picturesque "happy" campground.
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