A Wild Ride: When Sherman’s Amusement Park Was Our Family Business

by Gregory Volk | August 2023

Last summer, I was delighted to discover an article in this magazine about how the Caroga Arts Collective is bringing a musical revival to long-shuttered Sherman’s Amusement Park in Caroga Lake.

Caroga Lake, my mother’s small hometown in Fulton County, has been dear to me my whole life. I lived there summers with my family when I was young. Many of my relatives were year-round residents; some still are.

Sherman’s is also dear. The amusement park, in the center of town, opened in 1921 and was the chief business and main attraction for decades. I frequented it as a kid and worked in it as a teenager and young adult. With its large pavilion, midway ringed by rides, abundant colors and carnival signs, it made Caroga Lake special, a destination. The towering Ferris Wheel was a marvel, especially at night.

I was stunned, though, to read, “the Sherman family sold the park, in 1970, and it began to fall into disrepair.”

It’s true that Frank Sherman Jr. sold the park in 1970. The new owners were my father, Paul Volk, of Scotia; grandfather Bill Morris, of Caroga Lake; and uncle Ron Morris, also of Caroga Lake. We—parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins—became the new amusement park family. I didn’t just work there, I grew up there. Same for all the younger members of my family.

By 1970 Sherman’s was getting creaky. While famous in its prime, little had changed in years. Still, it had ample charms, among them the beach, an old-time soda fountain and aging rides, including the carousel, with its extravagant wooden animals made by German immigrant Charles I.D. Looff, one of the greatest carousel horse carvers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Enter us. Far from letting Sherman’s fall into disrepair, we revitalized and modernized it, added new rides, updated the arcade and reopened the dance hall. We restored it not to its former glory—an impossible feat—but to viability, while facing constant headwinds, including newer, ampler attractions in nearby Lake George.

We also faced local opposition, those in the conservative town who were suspicious of us as disruptors of the Sherman family’s legacy.

Ours was a family business writ large: My uncle Bill, manager and maintainer of the rides and midway; cousin Ron on the rides; Grampa, Uncle Ron, Aunty Ruth, and cousins Cathy, Karen and Beth in the restaurant; cousin Lori, the lifeguard; my aunt Tammie (first an employee, then a concessionaire) and cousin Terri at the soda fountain and popcorn stand; Debbie (Pensack) Volk, my brother’s future wife, in the dance hall. Nana (my grandmother Thelma Morris) worked in the tiny, time warp office, which seemed straight from 1921.

We also had a small store, the Morris Foodarama, beloved for its donuts, pizzas, and more, helmed by my mother, Amy (Morris) Volk, and dad. My brother, Paul, and sister, Maryl, worked there as well as at Sherman’s. Close family friend Gail Girvin was a longtime mainstay.

Many employees returned each summer. Concessionaire Tommy De­vine (“Toss in your number 1 ball!” he intoned through the PA system) was a fixture, as was Eric Smeland on the midway.

My dad was in the store at the crack of dawn, in Sherman’s the rest of the time, typically working 18-hour days. My station was the arcade.

That first summer, when I was 11, was magical. My brother, sister, cousins and I could suddenly go on the rides ticketless, order food gratis, ice cream and popcorn too. This wasn’t just good fortune; it was the best fortune ever. But then came work, part-time at 12 years old, full-time at 14 for family members.

The arcade was basically a museum with decades-old games costing a nickel or a dime, even a penny, like the squeezable Love Meter. There were two weathered photo booths, the ersatz fortune teller, a Jack Dempsey–era boxing game, an antiquated baseball game, vintage pinball. Those games were not lucrative.

My dad brought in modern games costing a quarter, while keeping some of the old ones for historical flavor: action-packed pinball with whopping scores; military video games, precursors to today’s extravaganzas; foosball, air hockey, and a daring motorcycle racing game with a Sly and the Family Stone soundtrack. Revenue surged. I used to empty the machines of coins, which I then brought to the office. Mighty waterfalls of quarters filled my plastic buckets. I could have been a heck of an embezzler, but never stole a thing.

Betsy (Thomas) Cleland was my co-worker and close friend. Many years later, she speaks of that time with joy. The best was when we worked in tandem on noisy, nerve-jangling nights. When we had separate shifts, we’d leave handwritten notes for one another, heartfelt messages seeded with song lyrics from the Eagles and James Taylor. I still have them.

The arcade, when busy, was indicative of the whole park: waves of people of all types—old and young, urban and rural, white, Black and everything in between. Small towns can be insular. Sherman’s was not. My brother thinks this inclusiveness was Sherman’s best attribute.

Our restaurant was a standout. Headed by my grandfather and uncle Ron, both talented chefs, it featured typical amusement park fare but also homemade daily specials: full turkey dinners, baked ham, roast beef with gravy, fried chicken, corned beef and cabbage. My grandfather, a pro-capitalist Republican, paradoxically insisted on keeping prices low. He was worried that people wouldn’t show up for his great food.

He was also Republican chairman of Fulton County. Politicians and government officials were always coming to meet him, the kingpin in a stained apron. My dad met the young Hugh Farley, who aspired to be state senator, and took a liking to him; Farley was a dark-horse candidate for the Republican nomination in 1976. My dad arranged for Farley to meet my grandfather; this likely occurred at the employees’ table. Grampa sized Farley up, and ultimately endorsed him. Senator Hugh Farley went on to win the election and was a renowned state senator for the next 40 years. 

All was not always swell. There were many slow weekdays. There were fights, thefts and arrests. Sherman’s had its tawdry side. There were mishaps. The Fourth of July was always our best, most jam-packed day, leading to fireworks over the lake at night. One summer the first two fireworks went well, but then the rest exploded, sounding like a war and damaging the carousel. It’s a wonder no one was gravely hurt.

The worst was the fire. 

It broke out early one morning in the kitchen and was bad. Much of the kitchen and restaurant was ruined, also the upstairs dance hall/bar. I remember how stricken my grandfather was, the only time I ever saw him cry.

We almost closed for good but decided to rebuild. I was glad. Sherman’s was in my blood. To pay for renovations and now whopping insurance, we sold the antique carousel animals, replacing them with metal ones. This was tragic.

My father had a dream, to bring live music and dancing back to Sherman’s. It had once been famous for both—major national acts performed there—but that ended in the 1950s.

I went upstairs in the pavilion with my dad for the first time; I was 12, maybe 13. Old arcade games, cash registers, piles of invoices and mail were strewn about. “We are going to clear this out,” my dad declared, “and here will be the dance hall.”

We did, it was, and initially it was a total flop. A desultory country-and-western band with maybe 10 people in attendance, a wretched rock band from Dolge­ville with even fewer attendees. My dad persisted, trying various things, including square dancing and a washboard band, before settling on big bands. The music of his youth.

Freddy Clute and his Orchestra performed in 1973, according to an old advertisement in the Leader-Herald. Many others, too. The Mohicans became the house band. Crowds increased. My dad added polka. Skeptics scoffed, but on Sunday afternoons polka bands played to enthusiastic crowds. It is excellent that the Caroga Arts Collective is bringing live music back to Sherman’s. So did we, in the 1970s and ’80s.

When the dance hall was packed and the bar humming, my dad—a physical education teacher during the school year—was in his element, chatting with customers, accepting congratulations, dapper in a sport coat and tie. And I was proud of him.

Our wild ride came to an end in 1987 when we sold Sherman’s, although our experiences there have continued to reverberate throughout our lives.    

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