Arthur Benson opened Frontier Town in North Hudson on July 4, 1952, as a Wild West theme park filled with exciting cowboys, Indians, Cavalry charges, train robberies and rodeos.
For 46 years, it not only attracted thousands of visitors who got off the Adirondack Northway at Exit 29, but provided summer employment for many in the surrounding area.
Then, losing money in an era that saw fewer and fewer Western movies and books produced amid declining interest in the genre, it closed in 1998.
Nothing much has happened there since, except that most of its 267 acres are now owned by Essex County after forfeitures for unpaid back taxes, and may soon be offered for sale at the county’s scheduled April 30, 2014, tax auction.
Its contents — costumes, stagecoaches, saddles and so on — were already sold in a 2004 auction down the road at Gokey’s Auctions in North Hudson.
Frontier Town’s last animals, two black bears named Dolly and Molly, went to a Florida wildlife sanctuary in 2004.
The entrance building is owned by George Moore of Keeseville, and those taxes are fully paid, but taxes have gone unpaid on sections owned by the previous operator, Panther Mountain Water Park, and a company, Sunrise Land Development of Westchester, that bought parcels in a 2007 tax sale.
The Town of North Hudson has asked the Essex County Board of Supervisors for the parcels that are due to be placed in the sale, but no decision has been made on whether to do that. The sections for the sale include the Frontier Town motel, restaurant and gas station.
Benson, who died in 1988, has been remembered fondly as a kind man who treated his employees well.
Doug Benson of Schroon is Arthur Benson’s nephew and spent his childhood at Frontier Town.
“I grew up about a mile and a half north of Frontier Town, and starting at about age 6, I was at Frontier Town any day I wasn’t in school. I would dress Western, in jeans, hat and boots, and try to blend in with the staff.”
Doug said that every year he was enamored with a different aspect of the park.
“One year, I spent my time at the Indian village listening to Swift Eagle tell stories and watching him make a flute or a drum. One year it was the blacksmith shop. I would help the smith by pumping the bellows, and he would let me forge bar stock into what I thought looked like a horseshoe.
“My favorite summer, when I was 12 years old, was spent helping on the steam train. Every morning I would go in early and help the engineer start a wood fire in the boiler, and then he would back the train up to the coal bin and I would help fill the tender. I even got to drive the train, opening the steam valves and controlling the throttle to pull out of the station. The engineer would always pull the train into the station, because getting it to stop in the correct place took some skill.
“When I turned 14, I began to work summers at Frontier Town. My first two years were in the parking lot, putting on the cardboard bumper signs and directing traffic. Frequently, people would lock their keys in their cars, and come to us parking guys for help. We all got pretty good with the bent coat hanger. Usually a good tip for that.
“When help was needed in other areas, they would come get one of us parking lot guys. One day I printed newspapers. One day I helped put a roof on a barn. Several days I helped bale hay at the (Frontier Town) farm in Westport. Later, I worked three summers at the gas station across from the large A-frame restaurant.”
He even tried his hand at rodeo riding.
“When I was about 15 years old, my friend and I would go into the town in the evening and sneak some of the brahma bulls up into the rodeo arena and ride them out. Usually two or three jumps out of the chute and I was on the ground.”
Frontier Town treated its workers like a family, Doug said.
“Each summer, my uncle and his partners would host an employees cookout one day after work. Burgers, hot dogs and soda and everyone just hanging out relaxing, horseback riding and telling stories about the interesting guests we had met that summer.
“Frontier Town was like a second family. Everyone was willing to help you out when you needed it. I learned the value of hard work there. I learned about customer service, about how to help people. I learned to be flexible. I learned about different American cultures: people from the South, people from the West and Native American cultures.
“Years later, I worked as the facilities manager at a children’s summer camp that was horse/western themed. Most of what I did there, I learned at Frontier Town. Frontier Town was a unique experience. I was fortunate to have been a part of it.”
Benson and his partners sold Frontier Town in 1983. It went through several hands until 1989, when Panther Mountain Water Park took it over.
The Rev. Irving Cummings of Putnam has many happy memories of Frontier Town.
“A little-known or cared about factoid is that the park was situated on the farm previously owned by my great-grandfather, Lewis Wathsock, and where my grandfather, Irving Wathsock, grew up,” Cummings said. “They sold it to the original developer of Frontier Town, Arthur Benson.
“My great-uncle, Lewis Wathsock, drove the stage there for years, even way up to when he was an old man.”
Cummings remembers going there as child.
“I had a lot of fun at Frontier Town. Grandma used to tell them, always, at the turnstile, that the place had been grandpa’s father’s farm, and they would let us in for free. It was so embarrassing.”
Cummings said the train was the best part of Frontier Town for him.
“I’ve always been a train buff, and as a small child I remember the honest-to-goodness old time, live steam locomotive with the funnel stack, and steam busting out all over the place. The ‘bad guys’ would stop and hold up the train, and ask kids like me to open our mouths so they could see if we had gold in our teeth. I was terrified of them.”
The whole park was an interactive experience, he said.
“Uncle Lewie, as we called him, drove the stage and I think that frequently got held up too. There was a rodeo and theme music from the Western shows on TV at the time blaring from loudspeakers mounted on telegraph poles. There was a real, live blacksmith pounding out horseshoes which you could buy at the gift shop. It was a fabulous place to a child.”
Angela Nolan said her great-grandfather helped build the log cabins, which are still standing.
“My grandmother, Dot Liberty, made pea soup over the fireplace in the Frontier Home for many years, right up until it closed.
“I think at one point every member of my family has worked there, with the exception of my daughter, who was born after it closed. I wish it was still going. Frontier Town created jobs for many people young and retirees both. A lot of kids helped put themselves through school by working there.
“I guess my best memory is it was like one big family. Everyone helped, even if it was not their job. You were expected to be polite and help the customers have a great day, but at the same time it was fun, helping re-create the Old West. The original owners liked to have some of the employees’ kids around dressed in western clothes helping; it made it more realistic to life in a frontier town.”
A family of Plains Indians, Swift Eagle, his wife, Chee-Chee Bird, and their son, Dancing Eagles, worked at Frontier Town, and helped make the experience at the park even more realistic.
Frontier Town was originally supposed to have an 18th-century frontier theme, and the entrance had a giant Daniel Boone-like figure with a musket, but only Wild West costumes could be obtained by opening day.
The Wild West turned out to be a good decision for the park’s theme.
The Daniel Boone figure and one of the trains were sold to Adirondack Animal Land in Gloversville during the auction. The Old No. 99 train at Frontier Town was sold to Marshall’s Family Fun Park in Fitchburg, Mass.
Tammy Whitty-Brown of Plattsburgh worked in the pony park at Frontier Town from 1980 to 1984.
“I spend the best years of my teens working within the walls of Frontier Town. I worked there all through high school and even went back a couple summers after I graduated. I made so many wonderful memories, and had many wonderful friends there. I would not trade one of them for anything.
“It was the most rewarding experience to help children walk back into the past and see their happy faces. I think the consensus is that we all learned very important work ethics that we have all carried forward.”
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