Awhile back I was doing shows in South Dakota. I didn’t get a chance to see Mt. Rushmore, but I found something way… way… better.
I always love to find quirky little attractions that I can’t do anywhere else. 1880 Cowboy Town in Buffalo Ridge, SD definitely hits both those qualifications.
I love a concept that is absolutely well-intentioned with just a little crazy thrown in. Like a spice. Like a vanilla cupcake with a hint of chili powder. The kind of the thing that just catches your attention and makes you go “WTF?”
A little bit of crazy is awesome. Too much crazy… Holocaust. Way bad.
1880 Cowboy Town was built in the 1960’s by former history teacher Dean Songstadt and his friend Bill Jorgenson. The good intention? A place to teach the history of the Dakota territories in a entertaining and education way through diorama displays featuring animated figures.
The reality? A creepy abandoned Wild West town populated only by freaky robots. Like if Westworld were built by the Chuck E. Cheese people. While drunk.
You arrive at Dean’s gas station and buy the ticket from him ($7). Then he gives you a little opening spiel about the awesome experience awaiting you. The store connected to the gas station is full of dusty tourist trinkets that look like they haven’t been touched in decades. It’s a regular store that turned into an antique store naturally over the years. There’s also a selection of coin operated robot tableaus. I waited on those until after my tour of the town.
Dean sends you out the back screen door to head down a really long dirt path. As I started down the path I encountered a couple just coming back. I asked, “Is it everything I’m hoping for?” The man said, “And more…” The woman looked exasperated.
Now, if it were a sunny day and there were a crowd of people in there, you might just go, “Wow, this is dopey.” But I’m pretty sure the place has never seen a crowd. And it was overcast that day. And I was completely and totally alone. Not alone, as in I didn’t take someone with me. I mean alone, as in “I went through the desert on a horse with no name.” Minus the horse.
And it wasn’t dopey. It was creepy as shit. Like Scooby Doo creepy. I fully expected to be pulling the mask off the caretaker at some point during my visit. Ruh roh.
The town is a single L-shaped street featuring the iconic buildings of the old west. A saloon, a gold mine, a fort, a gallows, etc. To me it looked like a Disneyland that had been built on a fraction of the budget, failed, and then was abandoned 50 years ago.
Inside the buildings there are scenes featuring a load of dirty and dusty mannequins dressed in old west garb and posed in the midst of some old west activity: milling, denistry, bloodletting (yep)… It’s like someone unplugged the Matrix and everything just stopped.
But it didn’t stop! In many of the displays you can push a red button and theses animatronic abominations come to life and start moving and talking. Not in a fluid, smooth, Disney-esque way. More like an autistic off his meds.
Those freaked me out enough. I’d press the button and still jump a little when they started moving. The worse ones were the ones activated by stepping on a pressure plate in the floorboard, automatically activating the scenes. Like a creepy “giant zombie toys come to life” movie.
And they’re talking to you, but the sound is coming from these fuzzy old speakers. So it sounds more like a message from the Great Beyond. “Please Spirit, don’t harm me. But do teach me about the Louisiana Purchase.”
Each display has these educational signs talking about whatever the exhibit is about. They’re either hand painted or lettered with adhesive letters of all different sizes and colors. They look like giant educational ransom notes. They’ve got their basic robotics in order. But apparently using a ruler for some straight lines was outside their lexicon.
The piece de resistance is the Abraham Lincoln figure giving a speech about the Dakota Territory. Despite the fact that Lincoln had been dead for 15 years by 1880 and never visited the Dakota Territory anyway. You can’t have a tourist attraction without a star.
Now every picture of Abraham Lincoln you see has a calm wisdom about his look. This one not so much. Bug eyes and a Nutrcracker jaw. Looks like Rape-raham Lincoln. Like 4 score and 7 years ago he killed a Thai hooker with a pencil because she touched his hat.
And he’s going on about the formation of the Dakota Territory through those crappy 4th dimension speakers and he’s surrounded by dead, motionless, dusty mannequins and rusted out farm equipment, all set behind chicken wire. Now, somewhere in the back of my head, Abe Lincoln has merged with Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And I need a night light. Best $7 I ever spent.