Warren County Historical Society Presents …
The Digital Version * * * “REWIND”
February 2, 2013
CHARLES R. WOOD – FATHER OF THE AMERICAN THEME PARK
Charles Reeves Wood parlayed his business know-how into a wealthy tourist and amusement center in Warren County, after which he funded many charitable causes, becoming the area’s most outstanding philanthropist.
Charles R. Wood Ca. 1968, Photo courtesy the Internet.
Born on April 28, 1914 in Lockport, New York, Charley, as he was known to many people, surfaced at an early age as an entrepreneur. At 13 he bought a stately home for his parents and converted the carriage house into a rental property. He also restored his own Model T.
Wood attended the University of Michigan for one year. He then joined General Motors as a mechanic and worked for Curtiss-Wright Aircraft. During World War II he supervised hundreds of airplane mechanics for the RAF in the Pacific and for Douglas Aircraft in Egypt.
At age 23 Charley visited Knott’s Berry Farm in California. The site was exciting to him and he developed a desire to get into the amusement business. With $500 in his pocket he tried to get a business loan and was turned down. In the early 1940s he and his wife, Margaret (1), developed Arrowhead Lodge at Schroon Lake and Holiday House (Wikiosco) on the Bolton Road in Lake George.
In 1954, the Woods purchased five acres of swampland on the east side of Route 9 between Lake George and Glens Falls for $75,000. Here Storytown was built and opened a year before Disneyworld, arguably make Wood the founder of the American theme park.
The Storytown, USA sign. Photo courtesy of the internet.
Arto Monacco, “Mister Make-believe of the Adirondacks” Photo courtesy of the
Warren County Historical Society.
In the Storytown adventure, Charley was joined by Art Monaco from Upper Jay, NY. Monaco designed and developed many of the houses and attractions on the site. For the next fifty years Wood operated the park which utilized children’s themes and nursery rhymes. He added Jungleland, International Village, and Ghost Town to the facility.
In 1982, the park became The Great Escape, reflecting a vision that would move the park from fairy tales to thrill rides. In 1989 the Great Escape was sold for $36 million to International Broadcasting Corporation along with Fantasy Island, another Wood venture near Buffalo, NY. This company filed for bankruptcy four years later and Wood repurchased the Great Escape for $14 million.
In 1996 Charley sold the park again, this time to Premier Parks, Inc. Premier became Six Flags, Inc. and they continue to upgrade and operate the park today.
He also was responsible for bringing many other venues to the area. In 1959, Wood developed Gaslight Village, an adult facility with a Gay Nineties theme capable of remaining open into the evening for tourists. Wood continued to own and operate Gaslight Village from 1959 until it closed in 1991. From 1995 until 2000, the site was operated as Lake George Action Park. That park was open evenings and included rides, games and entertainment.
Charley Wood reviews plans for the Raging River with this son-in-law, Tom Wages, at the Great Escape property. Photo courtesy of the Queensbury Town Historian.
Charley Wood also came up with Waxlife USA, perhaps the first wax museum in the area and the Cavalcade of Cars to house his collection of vintage automobiles. These were bested by the Tiki Resort with a Polynesian theme with restaurant, motel, and nightclub bringing Hurricane Hattie and Kaena as leading entertainers in the area. His Blacksmith Shop on Aviation Road in Queensbury featured waitresses dressed as Daisy Mae in short skirts and off the shoulder blouses and a steak menu.
In the 1990s Wood added two main attractions to the Great Escape, Splashwater Kingdom, a 40 acre water park, and the Comet, one of the world’s top ten wooden roller coasters, which he purchased from Crystal Beach in Canada.
Advancing in years, Wood turned to philanthropy turning his wealth into special endeavors to benefit the arts, healthcare and critically ill children. A total of $15 to $17 million has been given to Wood’s special causes that still continue to this day.
Charles R. Wood – Photo courtesy of the internet.
The Charles R Wood Foundation was created in 1978. Through the foundation, $1.4 million was given for the Charles R Wood Cancer Center at Glens Falls Hospital. A children’s wing at Albany Medical Center was opened. A children’s room at Crandall Public Library was funded at $1 million. The Charles R Wood Theatre with seats for 300 patrons came into being with a gift of $500,000.
Charley Wood with Paul Newman. Photo courtesy of the internet.
Charley was an avid art collector, acquiring many works of Frederic Remington.
The sale of his Russian urns for $3.4million and his Duesenberg car, formerly owned by movie star, Greta Garbo, for $1.4 million served to boost the Hyde Art Collection in Glens Falls.
Wood served on many boards including the Hyde Museum, International Board of Naples Philharmonic Center of Arts (Florida), the Frederic Remington Art Museum, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
In 1993, Wood teamed with actor Paul Newman to develop the Double H Hole in the Woods in Lake Luzerne. The site was funded with $3.5 million from Newman while
Wood purchased and renovated for $10 million the site as a camp for children with cancer and blood related disorders.
The Charles R. Wood Foundation continues to be an important philanthropic institution in the area. In 2008, Josie Beckos Wood, Charles’ second wife, presented $1 million from the Charles R Wood Foundation for the renovation and new addition to Crandall Public Library.
Wood died at age 90 in 2004. The Washington Post said of him, “He had fun all his life, made a fortune providing thrills and chills to people of all ages, and then had fun giving away millions.”
A few postcard photos of Storytown and associated attractions:
© February 2 2013, Warren County Historical Society.
(1) First Wife’s name corrected; their daughters named Barbara and Charlene. Added 8-15-2013 by web master.
The beginnings of this article comes from Warren County (New York): Its People & Their History Over Time, Chapter 13, by Michelle Collins. It was further expanded by Stan Cianfarano for the Warren County Historical Society.
The Storytown post cards photographed are in the collection of the Warren County Historical Society.