Travels with Harvey: High Noon Showdown, Mini-Golf at Dusk

Facebook Twitter Email Pinterest Linkedin Reddit Tumblr

By STEPHANIE  IAQUINTO

Shootouts are serious business, but that doesn’t stop these actors from having fun on the job.

Shootouts are serious business, but that doesn’t stop these actors from having fun on the job.

The shot cracked loudly, and the victim collapsed onto the dusty street.

“He’s dead,” my companion announced, smiling. “He dies every day around this time.”

That’s true. We’d seen him die 48 hours before, when the whole family had visited Frontier Town’s Western theme park, adjacent to the campground that would be our home for the week.  I’d returned on Friday to chat with its manager, Fran, who, along with her husband, Todd, had inherited control of the park from his dad.  In the background, the outlaw arose to onlookers’ applause.

“Everybody tries hard to be historically accurate,” Fran said, her British accent a notable incongruity. The employee manual is full of Old West history, and the train, original to the park from 1959, is fueled by coal, not electricity – “people get soot on their clothes; it’s authentic.”

It’s an American era – albeit one not particularly familiar to us Virginians – brought to life just 150 miles north, in Ocean City.

After 45 minutes of searching for tiny pieces of pyrite, we declared our $3 well spent.

After 45 minutes of searching for tiny pieces of pyrite, we declared our $3 well spent.

The first week of summer vacation, we’d packed up Harvey, our RV, and headed up the Eastern Shore.  Having selected our destination based only on its flashy website, I felt a bit of reservation remorse. A Western theme park in Maryland?  In 2013?  The more I thought about it, the more I envisioned a kitschy roadside relic, like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine.

But if Frontier Town is an attraction whose time has passed, nobody’s told the thousands of visitors at the adjacent campground.  We’d secured what seemed like the last remaining spot among 600 when we checked in on a cloudy afternoon.

Some campgrounds have a sleepy feel, but not this one. It’s a bustling community in constant flux as temporary residents come and go: young couples pushing strollers, barefooted children crisscrossing the playground, packs of teenagers riding bikes, retirees walking dogs of all sizes, fishermen, boaters, tent campers, RVers, families grilling out beside air-conditioned cabins, and others tooling around in golf carts.  Some stay for a night, while others settle in for a week or more, having secured a waterfront spot with a reservation made two years in advance.

It’s no wonder the campground, situated along the lovely Sinepuxent Bay, attracts plenty of boaters and fishermen.

It’s no wonder the campground, situated along the lovely Sinepuxent Bay, attracts plenty of boaters and fishermen.

Those seeking peace found refuge on the pier or in a kayak on Sinepuxent Bay. Everyone else flocked to the water park, miniature golf course, or ice cream shop, or headed to Assateague Island or the Ocean City boardwalk courtesy of the free shuttle service.

At the heart of it all, surrounded by horse pastures and barns, was the attraction that birthed the rest – the Wild West Show.  I figured it would hold the boys’ attention for an hour, maybe two.

We moseyed down its main street between two rows of brightly painted buildings: a chapel, bank, jail, barber shop, newspaper office, and undertaker. We wandered through the general store, where cowboy hats and cap guns lined the walls. Outside, a crowd of about a hundred, including at least a dozen boys wearing brand-new hats and holsters, sat in benches and atop hitching posts awaiting the hourly show.  The black-caped, hirsute actors played their roles earnestly. Good versus evil wasn’t going to be taken lightly, but it was evident they were still having fun.

Afterwards, we found the mill, where, for a buck each, the kids could pan for gold.  For boys who could complain of boredom at a carnival, they sifted patiently through sand for an unusually long time. We finally coaxed them onto the rides, starting with a six-seat, pony-powered swinging carousel that had been rescued from a similar, but unrelated Frontier Town in upstate New York.

Halfway through our stagecoach ride, we were “held up” by a masked bandit who demanded our gold and delighted the kids.  (A personal note to said bandit: Yes, that was my smart-alecky son who wouldn’t play along and who followed you around all afternoon with the I’m-watching-you gesture a la DeNiro. We did not teach him that. Well, maybe his father did.  Anyway, thanks for being a good sport.)

A young cowboy waits outside the chapel for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

A young cowboy waits outside the chapel for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Later, as we waited to board the train, we watched as the sheriff marched a bare-chested young man across the tracks to the lake, a crowd of tourists in tow. According to the schedule, this was the Trial of Lopez. He’d apparently been found guilty and his punishment was a series of dunkings in the frigid water. (Probably the new employee.) When he escaped, the sheriff shouted that whoever caught the soaking wet criminal would be entitled to free ice cream.

My kids didn’t wait to decide if he was joking.  Poor Jonathan slipped and fell spectacularly into the mud, but Alex took off and returned minutes later, out of breath and claiming his prize. The sheriff looked surprised, but true to his word, he led Alex to the ice cream parlor for a scoop of mint chocolate chip.

Our last hour was spent shooting arrows at the Indian Village, stumbling through the disorienting Mysterious Mine, and petting ponies at the stable.  By 5:00, most visitors had gone, leaving tiny yellow sheriff’s badges and spent plastic cap rings in the dirt.

It seemed to me that the Old West wasn’t the only slice of American life Frontier Town was preserving.  I asked Fran about it when I returned.

This newly-refurbished boat advertises Frontier Town to Ocean City beachgoers. Recently, its actors donned costumes and took to the boardwalk to spread the word.

This newly-refurbished boat advertises Frontier Town to Ocean City beachgoers. Recently, its actors donned costumes and took to the boardwalk to spread the word.

“In today’s high-tech world,” she said, her thumbs bobbing up and down in a video-game mimic, “we think this is the kind of fun kids should have.”

She often encounters visitors who, fueled by their own childhood memories of the place, return with their children or grandchildren. When they do, they find many things just as they remember. The voice piped through the loudspeakers?  Same.  The train?  Same.  The stagecoach driver?  Remarkably, the same (now his daughter and granddaughters work there, too.)  The shows?  Mostly the same, and Fran and Todd have been studying decades-old film in order to replicate the rest.

Even at the campground, where neighbors wave howdies and where kids dash off to the store for candy, where little boys dress up like cowboys and where an evening stroll caps off each day, it seems like a nod to an era that’s just out of reach.  One I can’t remember myself, but one I’m happy to experience, if only for a week.

Facebook Twitter Email Pinterest Linkedin Reddit Tumblr

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>