American frontier comes to New Jersey suburbs
BYRAM, N.J. (AP) — Sand shifts under wooden wheels as a stagecoach glides toward the Golden Nugget Saloon.
Onlookers know a band of thieves will soon stick up the coach’s passengers near the general store. Still, the gathered crowd suspends disbelief to soak in a slice of the Old West that survives “by the grace of God” in northern New Jersey, said Mary Benson, manager of Wild West City.
“We’ve had a lot of trials and tribulations over the years, but we’ve very blessed with people who are happy to be here,” Benson said.
Opened in the spring of 1957, Wild West City is a family-owned, western-themed park created by the American Foundation for the Preservation of the Old West.
The authentically sandy main street about 2,000 feet from Route 206 is lined with scale replicas of buildings from famed western towns such as Dodge City, Kansas and Tombstone, Arizona. Among them is C.S. Fly’s Photography Gallery, where the gun fight at the O.K. Corral is re-enacted daily at 3:45 p.m. from mid-June to Labor Day.
Live action shows, namely faux gunfights based on legends of the American West, are the park’s steady stream of daily entertainment. A palpable spirit of frontier justice is imbued in each of more than 20 daily shows.
The marshal and his young deputies invariably catch the bad guys. Every 15 minutes, good triumphs over evil on horseback.
“This place has heart,” said employee Jon Butz-Fiscina. “It takes you to another place and time, but it appeals to the family because it’s grounded in family values and morals. I think that’s a good bedrock.”
The park operated under private ownership for its first five years before being leased by the local government in 1962. A subsequent closure led a consortium to purchase the site in the fall of 1963. Among the group were Michael and Mary Stabile of Nutley. The family bought out their partners in 1966 and retains ownership of the park today.
The sense of family stretches to the employees said Frank Benson, Mary Benson’s son. At 23, the park performer said he is aware of the rarity of the park and his job.
“You say you are a cowboy and people look at you with four eyes,” he said.
On a recent Wednesday, Butz-Fiscina manned the Studebaker chuck wagon and opined about frontier cuisine. A licensed commercial pilot, he has also served as the city’s train driver, blacksmith, schoolhouse headmaster and mountain man.
The roles are designed to spur guest interaction and education. However, they also shape the park. The blacksmith creates hooks for the chuck wagon’s cooking utensils, arrow tips for the mountain man’s new bow and hinges for a creaking barn door.
“We want everything to be as authentic as possible. The chickens and the turkey over there come from our farm,” Butz-Fiscina said.
Annie Oinkley, a noisy pig, is also over at the long barn, try as she might to bust out. The expanded Barnyard Zoo and a few coats of paint are among the park’s few obvious changes over the years, park employees said.
The air of originality that draws visitors today was not always a hallmark of Wild West City, however.
After World War II, western-themed parks were dotted across the East Coast. There was Wild West Ranch in Lake George, New York; Frontier Town in North Hudson, New York; and Cowboy City in Farmingdale. Now, Wild West City stands alone.
Owen Turner, a 12-year-old visiting from Pennsylvania in August, said his family drove about an hour to reach the park. A return trip was already in his thoughts.
“I heard it was fun, and it really is,” Turner said.
Dawn Taylor, a retiree from Florida, said the park reminded her of living in Arizona and riding horses to the grocery store. Taylor said she was brought to the park by her Rockaway-based grandchildren, who said they wanted to show her the horses.
Taylor said was happy for the suggestion, as she had the chance to show her grandchildren a different culture where horseback riding and working the soil outrank cellphones and television.
“I think places like this should be everywhere,” she said. “Are kids going to learn from books only?”
Glen Umland, a retired teacher from Hampton Township, said he brought classes to the park for 15 years before he took a job there. Nicknamed “Grubstake,” a term for a prospecting investment, Umland now dons different hats to educate visitors of all ages about frontier life.
“It reminds me of the time when our ancestors struggled but persevered,” he said. “It’s definitely an interesting place to work.”
Pony rides, panning for “gold” and riding the stagecoach are among the few active amusements at the park. Modern concessions, such as an arcade and miniature golf course, exist but are often deserted. The main street, where hitching posts serve as velvet ropes to define the stage, is the center of the action.
For the most part, daily events are light-hearted. Beyond the occasional wedding party, visitors rarely hit the chapel. Though, it may be wise to pray for safe passage.
Stick-up kids stalk the woods and are quick to ask “which one of you has the most money.” If they spot a bag with a brand that is “played” or a youth with a freshly-loaded cap gun, however, expect the keen-eyed and evidently-seasoned robbers to make haste.
As expected, the sound of cap guns is steady. The city’s shops sell the guns and various trinkets, while many other buildings house historic artifacts and showcase living histories.
Butz-Fiscina said the dozens of cap guns sold and used in the park each day rarely see sunlight outside the gates. Wild West City is a place to be somebody else, or simply lose yourself, if just for a few hours, he said.
“It’s a place where people can come and not feel intruded upon,” he said. “It’s not like the big amusement parks. It’s a place to relax and think of a simpler time.”
As peaceful as it typically seems, however, the park has seen calamity.
In July 2006, a 37-year-old actor named Scott Harris took a bullet to the head during the “The Sundance Kid” skit, now scheduled for 2:30 p.m. each day.
His shooter, 17-year-old DaSean Sears, told authorities he mistook live rounds, which were prohibited from the worksite, for blanks. The shooting left Harris partially paralyzed and resulted in a nearly $2 million settlement.
Sears served six months’ probation after pleading guilty to causing injury with a deadly weapon in 2007. The park was issued a $7,500 fine by the courts and told to adopt new safety protocols after park owner Michael Stabile admitted to being an accomplice by giving guns to employees to use without permits.
A ban of live ammunition and guns that can fire live rounds was coupled with required employee training, the appointment of a designated safety officer and other safeguards. Today, the marshal’s quarters are typically locked. Inside sits a desk with a cup of blanks and a ledger to track their distribution. The sand shifts, but Wild West City survives.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com