Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Adirondack Wild West: Ned Buntline to Frontier Town

Earl Woodward, a school teacher from Ohio, decided that Warren County would be a good place to situate western style dude ranches. Art Bensen, a telephone company employee from Staten Island, was no less certain that North Hudson was a suitable location for an old west theme park, which he called Frontier Town.

If the relationship between the wild west and the southern Adirondacks strikes you as casual at best, a moment’s reflection will clarify matters.

There is, of course, as little connection between cowboys and the Adirondack native as there is between the guide-boat builder and Santa Claus and Mother Goose, sources of inspiration for other well-known Adirondack attractions.
But Earl Woodward and Art Bensen, so far as we can judge, were not especially interested in the Adirondacks. In all likelihood, they cared even less about the wild west. They were, however, entrepreneurs. Land in the Adirondacks was cheap, the region was easily accessible from the cities, and tourists, whose imaginations had been fed by movies and radio, craved a western experience.

Earl Woodward and Art Bensen saw an opportunity, and they created an experience which tourists wanted.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Woodward and Bensen as flatlanders. In an important sense, they are within the Adirondack grain, for the popular taste for things western which they capitalized upon appears to have originated with a man who also had Adirondack connections – Ned Buntline.

According to one of the rarer books in my Adirondack library, Buntline – his real name was Edward Judson – was a magazine publisher, lecturer and author of more than seventy paperback thrillers who purchased property in the Adirondacks in 1857.

In 1861 he left the Adirondacks to fight in the civil war, and after the war traveled through the west lecturing, oddly enough, on temperance (in his Adirondack days he was known as a legendary drinker). There he became acquainted with Wyatt Earp, Bill Hickock and in 1869, at Fort Mcpherson, Nebraska, a cowboy and buffalo hunter named William Frederick Cody.

At the time, Cody was an employee of the Kansas Pacific Railroad and a scout for the U.S. cavalry. Buntline saw within him other possibilities. He christened him Buffalo Bill and wrote a best selling account of his exploits – ‘Buffalo Bill, King of the Border Men.’

He then put him on stage, writing and producing ‘Scouts of the Prairie,’ which played in Chicago and New York. By 1873, Cody was generating thousands of dollars in revenues – most of which went to Buntline. Not surprisingly, Cody severed the connection as soon as possible. Buntline died, affluent and happy, in 1886.

Today, with the exception of Great Escape, Adirondack theme parks are less popular than the Adirondack Museum, which, appeals to those who want to experience, not the wild west, Santa’s World or Lands of Make Believe, but the Adirondacks themselves.

But it can be argued that Buntline is at least partially, and indirectly, responsible for the Adirondack Museum, too.

His home in the Adirondacks, near Blue Mountain Lake, which he called Eagle Nest, was purchased by William West Durant, who turned into a golf club and resort.

It later became the summer home of the Hochshild family, and Harold Hochshild, the founder of the Adirondack Museum, enjoyed showing visitors the remains of Buntline’s log house.

A friend of Hochshild’s once told me that it was Hochshild’s interest in Buntline that inspired his interest in Adirondack history, which produced not only his authoritative history of the region, ‘Township 34,‘ but the Adirondack Museum itself.

The Adirondack western theme parks and dude ranches that Buntline to some extent inspired in turn produced a reaction which still benefits the region. In the 1950’s, responsible people feared that these theme parks were obliterating the character and the landscape of the Adirondacks. That fear led Dick Lawrence to establish the Adirondack Center Museum in Elizabethtown so that people could learn something about the true Adirondacks.

There is another sense in which Ned Buntline is within the Adirondack grain. We have always been, to some extent, a frontier, and as a consequence we have attracted people who wanted opportunities to pursue their ambitions free of the restrictions found in more settled places. They have not always been good, or public spirited, or even law-abiding. But they have always been fascinating.

Photo of Frontier Town from Lake George Mirror files.

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Anthony F. Hall is the editor and publisher of the Lake George Mirror.

Anthony grew up in Warrensburg and after an education that included studying with beat poet Gregory Corso on an island in the Aegean, crewing a schooner in Hawaii, traveling through Greece and Turkey studying Byzantine art and archeology, and a stint at Lehman Brothers, he returned to the Adirondacks and took a job with legendary state senator Ron Stafford.

In 1998, Anthony and his wife Lisa acquired the Lake George Mirror, once part of a chain of weekly newspapers owned by his father Rob Hall.

Established in the 1880s, the Mirror is America’s oldest resort newspaper.

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