By LISA CAPOBIANCO
What began as a scientific experiment on the family-owned lake of Gad Norton in 1846 has now become a park that sits on 404 acres and offers 44 rides.
In her new book, local author Lynda Russell takes readers on a journey through the history of Lake Compounce, the oldest, continuously-operating theme park in the country. “Lake Compounce” is the newest addition to Arcadia Publishing’s newest series, “Images of Modern America.” Royalties of the book will be donated to the Bristol Historical Society.
Russell’s book is the first one yet on Lake Compounce, highlighting never seen before pictures and a history of the park that expands from the 1800s to the present day.
“It’s the only book on the park, and I wanted to make sure it was out there for people to see,” said Russell, who has a passion for history.
The story begins on Oct. 6, 1846 when Gad Norton invited the public to see a scientific experiment conducted at his family-owned lake. Although the experiment failed, crowds of folks inspired him to open a recreation area.
For Russell, the transformation of Lake Compounce from private land to a nationally-known amusement park is fascinating. The Norton family grew tobacco and corn, and their lake was enjoyed by not only family members, fishermen, and neighboring children who took a swim there.
“It was a working farm,” said Russell. “When that experiment happened I can just visualize how that day was. When it failed, [Norton] could still visualize everyone who had a great time that day.”
For Russell, the book is special, as that same day of the experiment that took place on Gad Norton’s land (Oct. 6) also marks her birthday.
“We have that connection,” said Russell.
Over the years, Lake Compounce went through different periods of ownership.
In 1851, the firm Pierce and Norton began land improvements, developing the park that became known as “America’s Pioneer Playground.” In September 1875, Pierce and Norton invited local legislators to a Southern-style sheep roast to thank them for changing both their residences from Southington to Bristol—an annual event now known as the “Crocodile Club.” In 1895, the casino building (later known as the pavilion), along with a ballroom and dining room were added.
By 1966, the Norton family gained ownership of the park again, and continued it until 1984 when they decided to sell it to a buyer. A year later, the park was sold to Stephen Barberino Sr., along with his son and J.D. “Chuck” Arute, who ended up selling their majority holdings to Hershey Entertainment and Resort Company. Hershey invested millions of dollars, adding new rides and opening the park as Hershey Lake Compounce.
But in 1987, the park was sold to Joseph Entertainment Group, which renamed the park, Lake Compounce Festival Park and built a 20,000-seat outdoor amphitheater where famous artists performed, including Cher, Barry Manilow, Jimmy Buffet, and Elvis Costello, among others.
“So many people went there, worked there, [and] met their families there,” said Russell. “There’s still so many people alive who remember how the park used to be.”
After Joseph Entertainment filed for bankruptcy in 1991, a group led by Stephen Barberino took over the park again, keeping it open just for Labor Day weekend between 1992 and 1993. When Funtime, Inc. became managers of Lake Compounce in 1994, the state pledged $18 million as an economic development grant for the park. In 1995, Funtime became part of Premier Parks, but was not interested in continuing the contract, and a year later, Kennywood Entertainment bought the park, adding new rides and making repairs.
“It was a rough time for a short time,” said Russell. “But each group improved on [Lake Compounce] because everybody just wanted to see it continue.”
In 2007, Palace Entertainment took ownership of Lake Compounce.
From Wildcat and Boulder Dash Roller Coasters to Thunder Rapids to Splash Harbor Water Park to Crocodile Cove, Lake Compounce now offers over 40 rides and counting. Last year, a laser show that lights up the sky, called “Illuminate the Night,” was introduced, and the Bear Creek Campground opened, featuring 20 cabins, give tepees, tent and RV accommodations. In 2013, a new wave pool called Bayou Bay was installed.
During the off-season, the park continues entertaining through its Halloween-themed event, Haunted Graveyard and the Holiday Lights event in December.
Through her book, Russell said she hopes the community realizes book the variety of attractions Lake Compounce provides for families all-year-round.
“I love the park,” said Russell, adding how the park continues to grow every year. “It’s a great place to visit that is family-oriented.”
Since the Norton family is still around today, they were able to provide pictures of the park’s early days when they owned it at the time. Since word spread about Russell’s book, a number of people reached out to Russell to share their photos of the park. Since she first thought about Lake Compounce, Russell said she saved any information she found about the park, which she applied to the pictures.
From the Bristol Historical Society to Bristol Public Library to other individuals in the community, different members of the community contributed pictures for Russell’s book, which was dedicated in memory of J. Harwood “Stretch” Norton.
Russell’s research on the park was based on the pictures she gathered. Russell said with each of her books, she collects at least 400 photos or postcards from people. From there, it is a matter of deciding how to put everything together, starting from the oldest to the newest.
“I just love history,” said Russell, adding how proud she feels of the final product.
Russell added how the book serves as a great resource for Lake Compounce itself, as staff members and visitors now have access to an extensive background of the park.
Sara Frias, marketing director for Lake Compounce, said Russell’s book covers the “amazingly rich and exciting history” of the park, which will spark the interests of visitors. The book was released just in time for the park’s 2015 season, which kicked off last weekend.
“I’m sure that the timing of this new book will renew the historical interest in our guests and will surely serve to not only increase visitors but also enhance their experience at the park,” said Frias.
A resident of Bristol since 1971, Russell is the author of several other books, including “Bristol Historic Homes,” “Plainville,” and “Bristol Business and Industries.” Russell began writing on local history when the Quota Club of Bristol (which she is a member of) was celebrating the 10th anniversary of conducting historic tours of homes in Bristol’s Federal Hill section. After researching about the homes and the people who lived there, Russell wrote her first book, “Bristol Historic Homes.”
“I have so many people I met because of these books,” said Russell.
Copies of Russell’s book will be sold at Bristol Historical Society, Maple End Package Store and Lake Compounce, as well as The Window Shop in Plainville, the Plainville Municipal Center, the gift shop at the Hospital of Central Connecticut’s Bradley Memorial campus in Southington, the UConn Bookstore and Barnes & Noble store in Farmington. The book also will be available on Barnes and Noble’s website.
Upcoming book signings will take place on Saturday, June 13, 1 to 4 p.m. in the Bristol Room of Bristol Public Library, and on Saturday, June 20, 1 to 4 p.m. at the Plainville Historical Society.
By LISA CAPOBIANCO