Sierra Hull photograph by Laura Carbone
Joyous music fills the calm atmosphere of a July afternoon. Children are playing, bellies are full and the lights of the Ferris wheel illuminate Sherman’s Amusement Park at Caroga Lake, in the southern Adirondacks. Hundreds of people sitting in camp chairs listen to bluegrass virtuoso Sierra Hull, who is performing. In the background, Caroga Lake hugs the park as the sun sets.
For people who spent the 1950s and ’60s in Caroga Lake, this moment offers a chance to relive some of their happiest times. Back then, Caroga Lake was an Adirondack destination, where personalities such as Elvis Presley and Irving Berlin are said to have visited, and where Cotton Club acts like Jimmie Lunceford and his swing orchestra performed.
Built in 1921, Sherman’s Amusement Park was an important part of Caroga Lake’s popularity. During its peak, in the mid-20th century, it had a go-cart ride, Tilt-a-Whirl, Ferris wheel, carousel, dancehall and more.
In the late 1960s, after the construction of the Northway and larger amusement parks in Lake George, Sherman’s could no longer compete. The Sherman family sold the park, in 1970, and after several ownership changes*, eventually began to fall into disrepair. By the 2010s, it was used only sporadically, for weddings and other events.
At 29 years old, Kyle Barrett Price is too young to remember Sherman’s in its heyday, but he has fond memories of spending summers at his grandmother’s house on the lake. The son of violist Deborah Barrett Price and a professional cellist himself, Kyle is the founder and artistic director of the Caroga Lake Music Festival.
During his early music career, Kyle spent much of his time traveling, performing and attending a conservatory. In the summer of 2012, during a visit to Caroga, he heard music coming from a nearby chapel and saw a line of cars parked outside. That gave him the idea to bring his musician friends to Caroga and put on a free concert for the community.
He and his friends continued to perform around Caroga Lake each summer, in bars, garages and on barges in the lake, attracting more and more people each year. “We were really going to the audience,” he said. “People got excited about what we were doing and it created a larger community. You’re building these connections, which is what made the festival more successful.”
In 2016, the Caroga Arts Collective (CAC)—the umbrella organization for the Caroga Lake Music Festival and other annual events—received nonprofit status. Around the same time, Bruce and Richard Veghte donated the 10-acre MyHil property near Sherman’s to the CAC. MyHil is the former estate of the prominent Schine family, who owned hotels and theaters nationwide, including the Glove and Hippodrome Theaters in Gloversville.
The following year, the Caroga Arts Collective started the Sherman’s Revival Series at the amusement park. “I chose Sherman’s because I felt like it was a great place for world-class music, arts and education,” Kyle said. “It’s centrally located on West Caroga Lake and it’s picturesque for concerts.”
The process of bringing the festival to Sherman’s wasn’t easy. It required months of “going back and forth” with the town of Caroga Lake, which owned the property at the time. The previous owner, George Abdella, had donated it in 2015, hoping the town would maintain it.
However, Abdella regained ownership of Sherman’s in 2019, following a legal battle with the town, and donated it to the CAC instead. But before the park could welcome visitors, the CAC had to ensure the eight-acre park and its facilities were up to code after years of inactivity. In 2020 and early 2021, when the pandemic put a hold on most public events, the organization took advantage of the break to focus on renovating the property.
One of the people who helped with the process was on-site manager Kathy Manning. She worked as a nurse for 31 years, but found a new passion in volunteering for the festival, becoming involved in the advisory board. Manning’s husband and sons are private contractors and they used that experience to help the property comply with codes. “Now we can actually have the public, not only musicians,” she said.
For Kyle, the success of the summer festival and the nonprofit is tightly linked to those who helped make the project a reality. “It’s all about the spirit of the collective and everyone pitching in to make it happen.” They created “something amazing.” A moment that brought that home was when the Ferris wheel was lit up for the first time in years.
The goal of the CAC is to put Caroga Lake back on the map. “We think that arts have a capability to essentially reignite local culture, business and life,” Kyle said. “We can help build interest in this area by creating an attraction and a destination.”
The CAC currently hosts five programs during the year, including collaborations with schools, a Winter Fest and the five-week summer music festival, which now draws more than 150 artists from all over the world.
Among the artists who have played at Caroga Lake are David Cook, Taylor Swift’s music director; Sawyer Fredericks, winner of NBC’s The Voice; Grammy award–winning bassist Geoff Saunders; and Matthew Whitaker, a jazz pianist who has been on the Ellen show.
At the festival, audience members are as close as a few feet away from the artists on the main stage, where the bumper car ride used to be. Hinano Ishii, executive consultant for Caroga Arts Collective and Associate Producer at Ravinia Festival in Chicago, said that Caroga’s festival offers an intimate experience for the audience and the performers. “As an audience member, you can tell the musicians are there because they want to be, not because it’s their job; they want to be there together, performing together,” she said. “You can just tell they’re having fun.”
As the summer music festival continues to grow, Kyle said that the nonprofit plans to build an amphitheater surrounding the stage at Sherman’s and an eight-bedroom, four-bath house at the MyHil property to host musicians and serve as the nonprofit’s offices.
Last August, the nonprofit received a $1 million donation from Caroga Lake–born film producer Ted Farnsworth and his partner, Rod Vanderbilt. The New York State Council of the Arts also granted the collective $1 million dollars. The funds will go toward the first phase of construction of the amphitheater.
Construction will likely start in 2023, Kyle said.
This summer’s festival, scheduled for July 18 to August 21, will feature performances from Rushad Eggleston, who describes himself as a “nomadic wild cello goblin”; Grammy-nominated guitarist Cory Wong from Vulfpeck; saxophonist Eddie Barbash, a member of the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert; prodigy electric guitarist Brandon “Taz” Niederauer from Broadway’s School of Rock; the Afro-Caribbean Jazz Collective; and The Bacon Brothers, with Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon and his brother Michael Bacon. In addition, the Caroga Arts Ensemble will present Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, among other chamber music, and kids’ carousel concerts.
In addition to Sherman’s, concerts will take place at the Caroga Lake Chapel, Caroga Museum and the barge at Canada Lake Store and Marine, as well as venues in Gloversville, Canajoharie, Johnstown and Cooperstown.
Find more information about the Caroga Lake Music Festival, including the complete 2022 lineup, at www.carogaarts.org.
*This is an updated version, edited to clarify that the amusement park’s disrepair did not begin immediately after the Shermans sold it.