Talk to longtime Waterbury folks about their memories of Holy Land U.S.A., and — in addition to mentioning the big lighted cross that crowned it — they will tell you about the tour buses.
“I remember the buses that used to come in, the people who would always ask for directions to Holy Land,” said Waterbury native and Mayor Neil O’Leary, who is leading an effort to resuscitate the long-neglected site (see story here and official website here).
An aide in his office, Geraldo C. Reyes Jr., who grew up in the shadow of Pine Hill, said that in the 1960s and ’70s, tour buses poured in out-of-town pilgrims from all over the United States and abroad For him, it was an opportunity to earn a few bucks as an unofficial tour guide.
“We used to pick up the buses down on Baldwin Street,” he said. “The bus drivers knew eventually where to stop and get the guys that were going to take them up. We would jump on the bus, bring them right to the parking.”
He remembers 25 buses at a time parked just past the entrance.
“And, of course, we all knew the shortcut down the back of Pine Hill, so within 5 minutes we were right back down and we would wait for the next bus . So if you did a good enough job you would get $10 for the whole day, and you would be thrilled,” Reyes said.
The site now is overgrown, the attractions vandalized and crumbling, but in Holy Land’s heyday, visitors took it very seriously, Reyes said.
The past decade, with Holy Land just a memory, the cross has been the story. When the aging, steel, 52-foot illuminated version came down, replaced by a smaller cross about five years ago, town historian Phil Benevento said he couldn’t believe the interest.
“There was like a media blitz,” he said. “I had people calling me from radio stations I never heard of … newspapers … they were in my driveway.”
His memories of the property go back to when he picked blueberries there before Waterbury lawyer John Baptist Greco acquired the site in 1956 and turned it into Holy Land.
Over the years, he and his wife would take relatives to the attraction if they showed an interest — “They were always impressed by it.”
He said he thinks Waterbury residents would be happy to the site become an attraction again, to bring people into the city.