You better watch out…No really, you better watch out, because this one is a doozy. Santa’s Land in Putney, VT has a history dating back to 1957, when Jack Poppele, a radio broadcaster from Newark, N.J. first founded the park. Perhaps by some sort of Christmas miracle, the park has survived through various owners for more than 55 years. However, in recent years it has fallen on hard times. It nearly closed in 2011, until a mystery buyer bought the property. WWF wrestler, Mick Foley (who is a big fan of the Jolly Old Elf, and is even known to don a red suit at the holidays) was considering purchasing the park, but decided against it as he would be unfit to care for the animals that live there.
The park sat dormant for about a year, and reopened in 2013 under the new ownership of Lillian Billewicz. Just as things were looking up, and the park was preparing for its 2013 season, a Sheriff’s office investigation resulted in a grisly discovery of 16 deer carcasses that had died on the property due to neglect. The investigators also found a dead pheasant and a pot bellied pig. Lillian Billewicz and animal caretaker, Brian Deistler were both cited with animal cruelty, and a strict care plan for the remaining animals was established and mandated by the court. However, the new owners failed to follow the plan and due to worsening conditions, the animals were removed and sent to foster care earlier this year. This recent tragedy is the worst in this Santa’s Land history, and has tarnished the image and the memories made in this once happy land.
We visited the park in 2010, and despite being a bit run down and barren, we had a great day.
The park has a lot of the things that readers of this site have come to expect. We were advised by the cashier that there were no rides for adults in the park, which we knew going in. We told her we just wanted to walk around and take some photos, and she seemed pleased to see two paying customers. We entered the gates, and saw familiar fiberglass statues of Frosty, Rudolph, and of course Santa! There was the Candy Cane Cupboard snack bar, and Iceberg Slide for kids. A dusty little arcade dubbed “Santa’s Arcade” housed a few games and some strangely juxtaposed Christmas ornaments between the cabinets of shooters and fighting games. The park was mostly empty, save for a few other local families with small children.
It is not unusual for a Santa Park to have a reindeer and a few other animals, but unlike many Santa parks, this one was primarily a petting zoo with peacocks, pigs, and donkeys. There were Emu, camel, and the visiting “Goat Girls”. The most fascinating aspect, though, was the deer enclosure. On our self guided tour, we found a sign for “Santa’s Deer Park”. Unmanned dual fence doors opened into several acres of forested land, and inside, deer roamed free; some so used to people that they would eat right out of your hand! We were some of the only calm and slow-moving adults that were not chasing the deer, so the less skittish ones came right up to us and licked our hands or cautiously allowed us to touch their flocked antlers. Even though I grew up in rural Western Pennsylvania, I had never been this close to a deer in the wild, and Some stood so still that I was able to take Polaroid portraits of them. Sadly, my memory of this is now somewhat unsettling, as many of these deer are the ones that were found dead on the property two years later.
We never did find Santa, but the Mrs. was waiting to greet us, in her Birkenstocks and white socks…It is Vermont, afterall!
Although it should have been a merry place, there was a strange sadness to the whole park. Paths were a bit overgrown, paint was chipped, and children seemed bored looking for rides. Some of the run down buildings were no longer in use, and a satellite dish sat atop the now abandoned “Igloo Pancake House“. Inside the dirty windows, you could still see tables and chairs along with dusty books and stored park items. Apparently the park’s former owners have lived in the igloo house in the past, and perhaps they do again. I would have loved enjoying some real Vermont maple syrup on my pancakes with Santa, but alas…it was not to be. You could sense that it used to be an exciting place filled with laughter. Now the only sounds were our shoes cracking the branches beneath our feet, and the noises made by the caged animals. An occasional parent could be heard warning children”Don’t touch that, its dirty!” Vintage souvenirs in a glass case reminded us of the past glory days of Santa’s Land.
Before leaving, we rode the small train. When the operator called “All Aboard” we realized that other than his two grandchildren, we were the only paying passengers on board. We exited through the gift shop, and as usual, bought one of everything bearing a “Santa’s Land” logo. Everything was inexpensive and cheaply made, but we cherished each piece, and felt good putting some money back into the park. It would not surprise me if some of this merchandise was sitting quietly in this shop since 1957’s opening season. The cashier again, thought us peculiar with our armloads of souvenirs, but seemed happy to be making a large $23 sale while parents dragged their kids toward the exit in lieu of taking out their wallets.
Santa’s Land almost did not open for its annual Christmas visits with Santa as they encountered issues having proper electrical permits. Despite its tragedies, near closures, and investigations, the park remains open, with today marking the final day of the 2014 season. Without the animals, we sincerely hope to see it revitalized; but I’m not sure how they plan to progress from here. Although bittersweet, naturally we agree with the seizure of those remaining animals due to continued neglect, but it is heartbreaking to see the memories of this once beloved place tarnish in light of this tragic story. Though the current owners do appear to have their hearts in the right place, I am not sure that they have the resources or information needed to maintain an animal themed attraction like Santa’s Land. The loss of the animals is yet another blow to an already struggling park.
We hope that Santa can pull out another Christmas miracle and that Santa’s Land will open for the 2015 season.
Have you ever visited the park?