Local historian Kurt Reed entertains his audience with a lively talk

When I was a little boy, my Dad used to pile all of us in the station wagon every weekend for a drive to Lake Ariel.

There, we'd spend countless carefree hours playing on the Edwards Family Farm, remnants of which remain to this day at the bottom of Bidwell Hill.

These are wonderful memories … everything from sleigh riding, ice skating and maple syrup making to hunting, fishing and swimming … it's the stuff of Norman Rockwell's rural America.

While I grew up in Honesdale, Lake Ariel has always held a special place in my heart. Heck, I even had my very first driving lessons there on the farm at the tender age of 13.

Me: Perched behind the wheel of an old pick-up truck, pumping the clutch and grinding the gears.

Dad: Wincing and gesticulating wildly as I bounced across the back pasture simultaneously terrified and invigorated.

Great memories!

And so, when I heard that a special talk on Lake Ariel was slated for this week, I promptly penciled it in on my Wanderings calendar.

At the Podium

The lecture took place on Monday afternoon at the Greene Dreher Historical Society in South Sterling.

Peggy Bancroft Hall was packed with a standing-room only crowd when featured speaker Kurt Reed stepped up to the podium.

Kurt has lived his entire life in Wayne County and is descended from some of the earliest settlers.

In fact, he still resides in the same area where his ancestors originally settled in the late 18th century.

Reed boasts a passion for local history, which he inherited from his paternal grandmother, Ronna Shaffer Reed. He's written many articles on the topic and is the author of “Around Lake Ariel.”

He also co-wrote “A History of Wayne County” with Dr. Walter Barbe.

Kurt was educated in the Western Wayne School District and at Marywood College. He is recognized as an authority on brilliant cut glass.

He's also a popular lecturer on topics such as Dorflinger, Wayne County glass, and fine dining at the White House.

One of his most popular presentations deals with Christmas traditions through the ages. I had the pleasure of witnessing one of these in person and highly recommend it. Not only does Kurt possess an encyclopedic knowledge of his material, but he also has a flair for the dramatic.

In this particular case, he hosted his talk at the Dorflinger Worker's House in White Mills … and he did so decked out in period clothing that gave him the appearance of a character right out of Dickens.

It was an an informative and charming experience.

The Cyclone

Like any good story-teller, Kurt has an intuitive sense when it comes to balancing hard facts with entertaining anecdotes.

This particular lecture centered on the history of the legendary amusement park that once stood on the shores of Lake Ariel.

While Reed has total recall when it comes to the names and dates of those who played key roles in the history of the park, he's careful not to bore his audience with a verbatim recitation of those names and dates.

During Monday's talk, Kurt detailed a precise timeline of the park from its beginnings in the late 1800s through its melancholy end in the 1950s.

At its height, the Lake Ariel Amusement Park attracted tens of thousands of folks from all over the region. They arrived by every conveyance imaginable … from horse and train to car and bus.

While there were many attractions over the years, the one that still fascinates today is the massive wooden rollercoaster which once dominated the scene.

This state-of-the-art ride was built by the Miller Speedway Coaster Company in 1929. It took an army of 20 men many months to construct. When it was completed though (at an eye-popping cost of $50,000!) it made the park nationally famous.

“The Cyclone” stretched over an area of 2,500 square yards. It featured a stomach-clenching 65-foot drop at its highest point with turns banked anywhere from 5-20 degrees.

Those brave enough to strap in were in for an unforgettable ride at speeds reaching 70 mph.

Sadly, there is nothing left of this engineering marvel today. But, its legend lives on in the stories handed down from generation to generation.

Legends

In addition to the Cyclone tale, another story resonated with Monday's audience.

It hearkens all the way back to the earliest days of the area and deals with name changes.

Early settlers in the region congregated at the southern end of the lake in a village that eventually became known as “Jonestown.” There was also a hamlet on the north shore, but it was just known as “Number 19” after a stationary steam engine anchored there to serve the Gravity Railroad.

During the Civil War, a certain postmaster was a well-known southern sympathizer who went so far as to fly the Confederate flag above the Jonestown post office.

As you can imagine, this didn't sit well with local folks who petitioned the Lincoln Administration, which quickly removed the man. He was replaced by an eminent Honesdale attorney and judge.

Giles Greene assessed the situation and took bold action. He moved the post office to the north end of the lake, which (not surprisingly) caused many families to relocate.

Eventually, Jonestown dried up and “Lake Ariel” was born.

To this day, there are two competing accounts as to what inspired “Ariel.”

According to one local paper, the lake was named for a spirit in Shakespeare's Tempest. Another claims that the inspiration came from the Old Testament book of Isaiah and means “Home of David.”

Over & Out

I wish that I had several pages to recount more of Kurt Reed's riveting Lake Ariel stories.

Since I don't, though, I will simply close by saying this: Local history is an endlessly fascinating topic. It has the power both to entertain and inform.

We live in complicated times, but it's comforting to look back and remember where we all came from.

Wayne County has evolved into its current state through decades and decades of sometimes painful growth.

And, while old-time wonders like the Lake Ariel Amusement Park have faded into memory, I believe there are many equally amazing things just beyond the horizon.

So, let's keep looking to the future, folks … but, with the occasional glance at our historic past.