It's August 1962 and I'm entering the seventh grade at Hall Fletcher Junior High School in Asheville, NC. A "big" school, dozens of teachers and staff, and hundreds of students - my world was getting much bigger and much more interesting at 12 years old. But just as I was getting used to it all, I found a change was in the works. It was time to be uprooted and feel the experience all over again, this time at Fort King Junior High School in Ocala, Florida.
The tourism season on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in Cherokee, NC (the primary customer market for the American Indian Company) had ended after Labor Day, not to resume until Easter of next year. My parents' company manufactured souvenirs of interest to tourists: brightly-clad American Indian dolls, feathered headdresses, cap gun & holster sets, bow & arrow sets, and other now politically-incorrect items. Their other new interest, Six Gun Territory western theme park, now commanded their attention as it was to open in only five months. It was located in Ocala, Florida just a short drive from the world-famous Silver Springs attraction. The normal pattern was to streamline operations at the manufacturing company in Asheville and retain only essential workers throughout the off-season to build inventory for the upcoming spring sales. But this year, senior employees were left in charge and mother Kitty (Catherine), father Bill, my younger sister, Bobbie, and I were packed into the Chrysler station wagon and headed for central Florida.
The world just got bigger yet. Registering at another new school with dozens of teachers and staff and hundreds of different faces and personalities was a daunting experience. This place we were relocating to was an authentic reproduction of an 1880's town designed by "Colonel" Russell Pearson from Oklahoma City and financed through R.B. Coburn of Orangeburg, SC. As with their other projects, Ghost Town in the Sky and Frontierland (both located near Asheville in the mountains of western North Carolina), the architecture and attention to detail was exquisite. The design standards of each park were much like what one would later find on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom of Disney World when it opened 8 years later in 1971. The town was to become a living, breathing replica of an Old West town to entertain and inform visitors. Cowboys, saloon dancers, train engineers, and all the other necessary players had to be properly trained before the curtain went up. Six Gun Territory opened to the public in February 1963. The construction sounds of circular saws, hammers, and chain saws were replaced with the noise of large crowds teeming into the highly-sought attraction. I had never seen so many people in one place. Walking through the park was like walking through a movie set, so many colorful costumes and characters and uncontainable exhilaration at every street corner.
Just as the mundaneness of getting ready to open the park changed into this surreal excitement, winter was ending and it was time for the Murphys to return to Asheville for the impending tourism season there. Reenlistment into Hall Fletcher Junior High created anxiety and it was becoming difficult to put faces with names and remember at which school which things were happening. I knew a boy named Fletcher at each school and always got them mixed up. I think the one in Ocala later played in the band, The Royal Guardsmen, and recorded the song "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron", and its sequels.
Our family's world changed dramatically that year with Bill's death in June. Kitty held together the American Indian Company business that summer and, as customary, Labor Day brought a respite that was soon replaced with the urgency of dealing with Six Gun Territory. Things were different now for everyone. My older sisters, Anne and Joan, had taken a sabbatical from college in order to manage the Mexican Village gift shop until the rest of us returned for the winter season. I can't imagine how overwhelmed Kitty was at this point - responsible for 4 children and 2 businesses - and pressured to get things in order so that life could normalize in one place or the other. So we're on the road to Florida again - I didn't know this was going to be the last time.
I had already started the eighth grade at Hall Fletcher but now found myself back in Ocala and Fort King Junior High. School seemed expectedly normal but it was after school when the real experience began. Only a few other kids - those of families working at Six Gun - got to live in one of the mobile homes behind the park and have unrestricted access through the rear gate usually limited to delivery vehicles and VIPs. A short walk and you were listening to the western music blaring over the public address speakers invisibly mounted on the rooftops at every corner. Lawmen, cowboys, and outlaws walked the streets in full oufit and regalia. Usually hostered, Colt 45's were common, scatterguns too, but about once an hour mischief would break out. Whether it be a bank holdup, the settling of a feud, or retaliation against the Marshall, it always ended with a shootout. The good guys ALWAYS won, and "Digger the Undertaker" always got the dead men's boots (if they fit) and the standard casket and burial fees from the town.
After school ended each day, I would ride a yellow school bus through a long, circuitous route that ended at the visitor parking lot and the ticket office to Six Gun Territory. If not greeted by the family car, I understood that I needed to ride the old steam train back into the town with the paying customers. Some cold, winter days, I was the only passenger on the train. Every single time I took the 45-minute ride, the train was ambused first by a war party of Indians and, then later down the track, by a band of desperados intent on boarding the locomotive to steal the strongbox. I mean, every time at exactly the same place! Upon deboarding, I would gallop through the train station, past the Courthouse, within earshot of the music and sight of the cancan dancers at the Palace saloon, through the gate, and home to change my clothes.
By clothes, I mean my cowboy outfit replete with hat, boots, and holster. In the holster was a Rohm .22-caliber Colt-replica handgun (both of which I still have over 45 years later) loaded with .22 blank cartridges like used at the start of track and field races. Maybe because of two older, attractive sisters, or maybe just my glowing personality, I was taken under the wing of many of the gunfighters and street performers. Some were college students working part time, others were old-style cowboy types truly living the lifestyle. I was taught how to fast-draw, pistol-twirl, do rope tricks, toss throwing knives, and even crack a 10-foot bullwhip (which I also still have). In the era of so many successful weekly tv westerns, could life get any better? On some occasions when audiences were small because of poor attendance, the cowboys would let me participate in the scheduled gunfights. When I drew and fired my blanks, the bad guys would fall off roofs or would otherwise hit the dirt. This little Billy felt just like Billy the Kid.
As scheduled, we returned to Asheville that year about Easter-time. Hall Fletcher Junior High awaited me, the Cherokee business cycle awaited Kitty, and our interest in the Mexican Village of Six Gun Territory had been relinquished. I remember a class trip to the New York World's Fair before school ended in the spring of 1964. That summer, there were still trips to Ghost Town and Frontierland with Kitty to deliver merchandise but only for brief visits. I really missed not being in outfit and mingling behind the scenes. My teenage mind was now being occupied by other things and more contemporary activities (like girls and The Beatles) anyway, and not quite so many cowboys were on tv.
In 1973, I took my soon-to-be wife, Mardy, for a visit to Six Gun. It was still open but only as a fragment of what it had been. It went the way of other old-style parks and attractions which were located on the backroads and not the new interstate highway system. Now overshadowed by the glitz and glamour of parks like Six Flags and Disney World and under pressure from dwindling ticket sales, all three of these western towns added roller coasters and other non-authentic elements. They were trying to garner a more widespread audience, but it was short-lived. These magnificent recreations of late 19th Century life unfortunately fell from public favor - as did television westerns, Indian dolls, and cap guns. Six Gun Territory closed in 1984, soon to be razed and replaced with Six Gun Plaza Shopping Center. The signature steam train, I used to ride, traveled a rough track through several owners before finding a final home in Jefferson, Texas. In disrepair and headed for the scrap pile, it received a total rebuilding and now happily transports guests through the Historic Jefferson & Cypress Bayou Railway (click here to see the old Six Gun train). Additional historic information about Six Gun can be found here Virtual Six Gun Territory
My first thought when reflecting on this whole experience is "wow, for what more could a boy ask?" On a deeper level, though, I realize the impact was more than just child's play as it helped form the unique framework in which I would forever see the world as an adult. It was an experience that no other can claim. My upbringing was filled with many such rare opportunities served up by parents who were pioneers in providing memories and fun to many thousands of families during the era of travel and leisure which blossomed in the 1950-60's. They were on the cutting edge and we kids were always along for the ride.
Frontierland closed in 1982 and transformed into Cascade Waters water park for a short duration. It was later excavated as part of the site of Harrah's Casino in Cherokee, NC. Ghost Town In the Sky went through several facelifts and identity crises before closing in 2002. New owners purchased the property, immediately began historically-correct reconstruction, and it re-opened with some fanfare in 2007 (see Ghost Town In the Sky ).