Nostalgia Draws Visitors To Closed Catskill Game Farm

Special to The Courant

Oh yes, our family remembers the Catskill Game Farm well.

Thanks to the miracle of cherished, vintage, 16-mm movie reels, we revisit those day trips to a must-go family vacation destination in Catskill, N.Y., reliving the sights of gentle but determined deer nosing their way into the baby carriage where the food cup of grain is hidden, of mesmerized toddlers pressed up against a chain link fence hoping for a better look at the gentle giraffes, and of exuberant 5- and 6-year-olds waving as they waited for the train ride around the landmark park.

The bad news is that the animal park closed 11 years ago; the good news is that you can still return to the grounds for a nostalgia trip.

Catskill Game Farm, now called "Old Game Farm," is poised for a facelift and a new identity. Cathy and Ben Ballone, who now own the 206-acre property, are finalizing a plan that would turn the 9,600-square-foot giraffe house into Long Neck Bed & Breakfast, and they are grooming the property to become a special events venue.

In the meantime, people are returning to the farm grounds with their memories while viewing the remnants of its past — from the dilapidated horse stables and concession stands to the eerily empty pet nursery and petting zoo.

"Every day we have people who come to visit" said Cathy Ballone who with her husband, allow pre-registered visitors to tour the historic sight and photography groups to conduct workshops focusing on the farm's architectural "ruins" and picturesque mountain setting.

"I think parents or grandparents bring the kids to share their own visits from the past when the game farm was here," she said. "And for the people who want to photograph the buildings and the grounds, it's a chance to document art and architecture."

Ballone said the farm holds special memories for her, as well. When she and her husband purchased the property in 2012, they knew their focus would be on preserving and honoring the history of the farm.

"I think the game farm was such a piece of childhood for so many in New England and the surrounding states," Ballone said. "We appreciate that so our plans is to preserve as much as we can here as we move forward with a new use."

'Abandoned America'

Founded in 1933 by Roland Lindermann, the nation's first privately owned zoo began with some deer, sheep and donkeys. As interest in the place grew, more and more animals were added, and at its height in the 1960s and early 1970s, the game farm was home to 2,000 animals and hosted about 500,000 visitors a year. American culture and vacation habits changed, though, and attendance began to diminish. In 2006, the animals were sold and the park closed.

As the Ballones proceed with their plans, which include a campground and other amenities, photographer and historical preservationist Matthew Christopher holds regular photography workshops at the former zoo, one of the places included in his book, "Abandoning America: Dismantling the Dream."

"I think people love this place for a lot of reasons," said Christopher. " Many of the people who come for the workshops are coming for nostalgia. I think part of the allure is to reconnect with happy childhood memories and come away with some photographs of what remains," he continued.

"As far as the architecture goes, there are images that are unique and special," he said, referring to the seemingly odd collection of remnants ranging from broken fences and dilapidated concession stands to faded, hand painted signs and once-upon-a-time animal cages. " It's still a beautiful area and spending an afternoon with fond memories makes the trip worth it."

It's an even more special place because it was the birthplace of one of America's most recent celebrities, April the Giraffe.

April was watched around the world by live-stream in anticipation the birth of her calf at the Animal Adventure Farm in Harpursville, N.Y., was born at the Catskill Game Farm in 2002. She gave birth to a male calf on April 15.

The Ballones have unearthed boxes of old souvenirs and scoured the place for archival pieces that will be featured in a museum they plan to develop as part of the property's rebirth.

Ballone, a wedding planner by trade, said that the game farm will never be a zoo again but that, with the help of investors, the farm will be preserved and repurposed in another manner, one that allows a new generation to enjoy and create new memories.

"We have had so many visitors with great stories about their own memories here," Ballone said.

There's the story told by an elderly woman who visited with her son so she could show him the custard stand his grandfather once ran there. Others have returned as adults to pose at cages and fences trying to replicate the photographs taken in the same spots when they were children.

"I am a sentimental person," Ballone said. "So to me, it is not odd that people want to come back."

Visitors must pre-register and a donation to tour the grounds is suggested. For more information go to theoldgamefarm.com. For more information on the upcoming photography workshop go to abandedamerica.us

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