It’s Day 299 of my virtual Drive-In-a-Day Odyssey. It was another day of back highways through the forest as I thread the NY-PA border. This time it took over two hours to drive from the Elmira Drive-In Theatre, just west of Elmira NY, to the Garden Drive In, up the road from tiny Hunlock Creek PA and just across the Susquehanna River from Nanticoke PA.
This drive-in actually opened as the plural Gardens Drive-In Theatre (named for Hunlock Gardens) in July 1952. It was said to have room for 325 cars. It became the singular Garden in February 1954. I wonder whether the name change had anything to do with its amazing neon marquee, which looks about that old.
The drive-in was built by a group of investors headed by Theodore Roosevelt Cragle, who died of a heart attack in December 1955. His son Arthur took over the Garden.
More details emerge from Ronald Hontz’s sweeping History of Sweet Valley PA, written around 2003. Arthur Cragle ran the drive-in until 1986, when he sold it to Nelson and Diane Fey. They operated it until 1990 and passed it down to their daughter, Kimberly Barbacci, and her husband Doug. They’re still the owners now.
Current manager David Hudzik had been the Garden’s projectionist since 1979. Hontz wrote that Hudzik “has been the source for most of the info you read herein.” In 1986 the drive-in converted from in-car speakers to AM radio; they added FM in 1990.
Adjacent to the river, the Garden floods frequently. In June 1972, Hurricane Agnes caused extensive damage with water over the roof of the concession stand. Hontz wrote, “Following that event, Hudzik has gotten the removal of equipment down to a science. A team of five guys can now remove all the valuable items in three hours.”
Hontz wrote that the Garden added a second screen on the southeastern corner of its property in 2002. (The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, writing much later, said it was in 2000.) At any rate, the drive-in added a second marquee to hold more movie titles around 2004. The main screen area holds about 450 cars now, and the second has room for another 250 or so. They’ve made the change to digital projection, and I’ll bet Hudzik knows how to get that away from flood waters on a few hours’ notice.
The video of the day is from WNEP, Moosic PA’s News Leader. It celebrates the Garden’s May 2012 reopening after a September 2011 flood that was so powerful it ripped the roof off the concession stand.
“We were uncertain after that last flood about what we were going to do,” Doug Barbacci told the Times Leader years later. “It was really folks we got messages from on the internet and on the website or who called and said ‘Hey, if you need any help, we’ll come down.’ People were willing to help shovel dirt and move stuff. Whatever we needed help with, they were willing to do it. It may sound incidental but it was something that made a difference.”
I look forward to seeing that gorgeous marquee lit again, but for now, it’s closed for the season.
Miles Today / Total: 101 / 33971 (rounded to the nearest mile)
Movie Showing / Total Active Nights: dark / 182
Nearby Restaurant: On the way back to Nanticoke but still north of the Susquehanna is a place that’s been around even longer than the Garden, Stookey’s Bar-B-Que. The secret homemade sauce wasn’t what I’m used to, but the meat was as tender as any other good barbecue joint. The pork ribs dinner with baked potato and baked beans was better than many I’ve eaten at twice the price.
Where I Virtually Stayed: The closest hotels to the Garden are a few miles downriver in Wilkes-Barre. The top-rated hotel there according to Trip Advisor is the Hampton Inn. No one has to twist my arm to visit another nice hotel with dependable, if predictable, amenities. There were cookies at check-in, a clean, comfortable room, and the very good standard breakfast. No surprises, no problems.
Only in Hunlock Creek: On the outskirts of Nanticoke is Concrete City, a square of 20 double houses built in 1911 by the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad for a few of its workers. Everything including the outhouses was built entirely of concrete. ExplorePAHistory.com reports that despite measures to inhibit moisture absorption, eventually the interior walls dripped with condensation, and Concrete City was abandoned in 1924. The buildings were too tough to easily demolish, so they’re still there now.
Next stop: Mahoning Drive-In Theater, Lehighton PA.