Harveys Lake History

Mohawk Riding Academy

Riding guests on start to trail.

For four decades Lake visitors had the unique experience of horse-back riding at the Mohawk Riding Academy. Located on Old Lake Road a short distance from the bridge at Sunset, the facility was owned and operated by the Norman James family.

Norman James (1905-1991) was a life-long resident of Edwardsville, a former Burgess of the coal community, and a self-employed retail coal hauler. He was also associated with a truck farm which his father, William, acquired in 1926. Located in south Wilkes-Barre now generally known as the Crossroads area, the farm, called Fort Durkee, was also the site of a small public riding academy which also boarded horses for prominent Wyoming Valley families.

In 1931 a group of seven friends, including Norman James, all single, acquired a lot along Old Lake Road and built a four-bedroom club house known as the Mohawk Club. The membership by-laws required members to forfeit formal membership upon marriage but they retained limited privileges. In these early years the grounds included a boxing ring and a sand-based tennis court. Adjoining land later grew hay and corn and occasionally oats for horses and additional feed had to be purchased from area supplies.

Over time the original club was expanded and improved. The club house was excavated beneath the home to create additional space for Army cots to accommodate a junior youth group-along with the seasonal riding academy. On surrounding land leased from the Park Estate the club built the earliest stables and out-buildings for the academy.

Mohawk riders at Plymouth Parade: Left to right - Skip Heller, Dave Foerster, Dan Parise.

By 1940 Norman James was the sole owner of the Mohawk Club which he opened to the public. He married Mary Tomasura and with their three children, Norman D., Kenneth and William, the expanding academy was a family business. In these early years the Lake facility was a summer attraction with the truck farm in Wilkes-Barre also supplying hay, corn or oats for horse feed for the Lake and the Fort Durkee academy.

In time, the Lake barn was expanded to accommodate more horses including extra stalls to board horses for people who had summer homes at the Lake. After World War II, south Wilkes-Barre had a building boom and Fort Durkee was sold. (The Half-Circle bar-b-cue restaurant would also thrive here.)

In the late 1930s-early 1940s, the Mohawk site at the Lake was the base for the North Mountain Ride, a 110 mile three-day horse-riding event from the Lake to Mountain Springs (near Ricketts Glen) and on to Forkston, Wyoming County, before a return trip to the Lake. The local ride was established in 1939 and was designed to be less formal than a similar rigorous event held in Vermont.

Paul "Skip" Heller and Princess.

The manager of Mohawk Riding Academy, and its only salaried employee for its entire history, was Paul Kenneth "Skip" Heller (1927-2014), assisted by his wife Madlyn (Madge) Heller to whom he was married for sixty-one years. Raised in Laurel Run and later Lyndwood, "Skip" was given his life-long nickname by an older sister whose very youthful brother reminded her of Skippy, a young boy in a newspaper cartoon series. As an older boy, Skip had "hung around" the Fort Durkee riding academy. He helped out there and at the Lake. He became a self-taught expert horseman and left school at age 16 to assist James. He moved into the Mohawk Club home where he lived with the James family. During World War II automobile gas rationing impacted the Lake business. Skip helped at the Lake in the war summers and at Fort Durkee in other seasons. For a time he also managed Christmas season pony rides on the fifth floor of the Pomeroy's department store on Public Square. This attraction was owned by Mike Godek who had a pony ride service and barn on James' Fort Durkee farm.

In the mid-war years, Skip was effectively the manager of the seasonal Lake academy. But in late 1945 and 1946 he served in the U.S. Marines and for a time was based in Cuba. After the war the Lake business rapidly grew and Skip's role as manager at the Lake was formalized. By the late 1940s-early 1950s the Lake academy was a seven-day year-round operation. Over time Skip's seven children also grew into the business.

In its early years the academy's horse trail used an abandoned portion of the former trolley line, which once ran behind the academy grounds to its end at the top of Oneonta Hill near Sunset, along with old road trails in the area. The trolley from Wilkes-Barre to the Lake was completed in 1898. In July 1931 the section between Idetown and the Lake was closed. In September 1931 the Idetown to Dallas section also closed. In April 1939 the line between Dallas and Wilkes-Barre closed. With the trolley closure the Academy used the 2.5 rail line to Idetown for its horse trail. The 5 mile round-trip usually took one hour. If demand required, the academy could run hourly trips from 9 or 10 a.m. through the late afternoon. The initial fee was $1.00 (later $1.03 when a PA sales tax was imposed). The fee rose to $1.25 and $1.50 and was $3.00 in its last years.

The horses were usually purchased from an auction house in New Holland, Lancaster County. But horses were at times acquired at Doylestown and Unadilla, New York. The academy exercised special care to acquire gentle horses. If a horse was later determined to have an unsuitable temperament, the horse was returned to New Holland to re-auction for an alternative purpose other than general public use. If a horse were later too aged or injured for academy purposes, the horse could be sold to a firm which specialized in horse-meat for sale to the foreign public-by export usually to France. Or, a horse could be rendered into dog food, the hooves for glue, and the hide for coat fashion or other purposes.

Norman James, Sr., at Fort Durkee c. 1930.

The principal veterinarian was Dr. Richard Post, Dallas, but occasionally other local vets were used. The trolley track had a coal and coal ash base which was wearing on horse shoes. Local blacksmiths were retained to periodically re-shod the horses.

In the 1950s the academy also ran pony rides at Sunset Park, generally a children's amusement park adjacent to the Grotto. The park was owned by "Red" Ambrose with a carousel as its main attraction. The carousel is now in service at Knoebel's Park in Elysburg. Also at Sunset there was an access area to the Lake where academy horses were occasionally taken for a swim.

Skip Heller and academy friends also participated in horse shows at Lehman and in parades in the Valley-a form of advertising for Mohawk. The academy generally did not need to advertise in conventional terms as the reputation was sufficient to draw patrons.

In the late 1940s the academy introduced hay-rides in the fall when horse-riding declined with colder weather. Skip Heller's earliest hay-rides were drawn by a horse-team but riders would sometimes object to certain associations with this "natural" riding experience. A special hay-wagon was built for a short turning radius on the narrow trolley path and a tractor was used to pull it. This led to a boom in hay-riding and the outdoor weiner-roast led to building a modern recreation hall for dancing to a record- player-later jukebox-and indoor parties.

Mohawk Riding Academy

The academy attracted generations of "social workers"-teens and others who loved the site and volunteered to serve as trail guides on the horse trail. In these times the horses were gentle and trained and the public riders generally followed instructions. New or younger riders had the choice of a pony rather than a seemingly challenging full-grown horse. When there were difficulties on the trail, it was usually when riders failed to maintain a reasonable distance between horses. If a horse ran up against the rear of another horse, the horse in front might instinctively kick back-perhaps hitting the rider behind-or spooking the rear horse or rider. There were occasional riders who were bitten or more rarely fell from a horse. Even these few claims led to higher insurance rates for the academy. While there were opportunities to trot or "canter" a horse, sometimes a rider sought to race a horse which disrupted the experience for other riders and occasioned unnecessary risk.

After 35 years at the academy Skip Heller resigned. He had a family to support and in 1976 he left for a more productive wage elsewhere. He later owned the Bar H Stables, Sweet Valley.

The academy was then managed by William James (1948-1983). While there was no decline in business, rising insurance costs effectively killed the business as it did for Hanson's Amusement Park in 1984. The Mohawk Riding Academy closed in the early 1980s.

The academy site is now owned by Norman D. James. His daughters, Donna Sue and Carolyn, are accomplished horse riders and were honored in several horse shows as young women. On July 6, 1984, a tornado swept through Sunset and collapsed a hay barn at Mohawk, killing two ponies, Cindy and Betsy Boo, owned by the James family. The Park Estate has been sold and one day the academy site facilities may be razed to permit future development.

Norman James, Jr., at the Mohawk Riding Academy site.

Copyright 2018 F. Charles Petrillo