1880 Cowboy Town
Buffalo Ridge, South Dakota
The town, despite its name, was built in the 1960s -- maybe -- by Dean Songstadt, his friend Bill Jorgenson, and two other guys whose names Dean either can't remember or just doesn't want to say. Dean and his son Brad run 1880 Cowboy Town. Dean is a cautious man, a little hard of hearing, and wary of people who ask too many questions.
There is no question, however, that he and his partners have built something really special: a totally automated Wild West town populated only by robots.
It was the vague promise of "animated displays" on an 1880 Cowboy Town billboard that lured us off of I-80. Seen from the interstate, the attraction looks abandoned. Yellow caution tape is strung around rusty hay rakes and corn planters parked in the Town's main street. Paint is peeling from the buildings, windows are broken. It's what an 1880 cowboy town probably really looked like, minus the caution tape.
The Town stands on a small hill next to the interstate, at the end of a sloping path leading from the Songstadts' gas station and store. On the morning that we arrived, activity in the store far exceeded that in the attraction, where we were the only customers. The Songstadts probably make more money selling fireworks and buffalo meat than they do selling admission to 1880 Cowboy Town. But those who only visit the store are missing most of the fun.
The Town's one street bisects a Greatest Hits collection of Wild West icons: a saloon, a fort, a Boot Hill, a gallows, even a gold mine. These are populated with robot residents who come to life at the push of a button, or by inadvertently stepping on pressure plates set into the floorboards of the buildings. Or maybe half-life is a better description. Forty years of prairie dust and summer heat have taken a toll on the cam rods and relay switches of the inhabitants. Dean told us that Bill, who built the robots, only returns to Buffalo Ridge once a year to perform repairs. This means that 1880 Cowboy Town will be different every time that you visit, because the dummies will always be in a different stage of entropy.
A good example of this is the Town's memorable tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Abe stands behind protective chicken wire, under a tin roof, at a lectern studded with rusted nails. We noticed that a large ball was stuck onto to the back of Abe's frayed stovepipe hat, and seemed to slowly pivot. The hat was pulled down over Lincoln's face, so that only his beard and mouth was visible. "My friend made some of them so the eyes move," Dean said of the dummies, "and I had a little trouble with the eyeballs." Dean's solution was to distract the viewer's attention. "I gotta improvise a little."
A sign fallen onto the ground proclaimed "President Lincoln Speaks," and indeed he did -- his nutcracker jaw moving up and down below the hat -- when we pressed his button. But hadn't Abe Lincoln been dead for 15 years by 1880? Dean assured us that Lincoln was nevertheless important to South Dakota, even though he never visited the place and although his only connection to it was his appointment of his doctor to be its first governor. Robot Abe says so during his two-minute monologue (and sounds suspiciously like Dean).
Similarly quirky displays are everywhere in 1880 Cowboy Town. "History of the Wheel" occupies just the upper half of a dutch door. A hole in a wall, titled "SEE The Ghost Horse Comanche," is surrounded by a stain from countless pressed faces, but inside is only blackness, no ghost. The "Hanging of Jack McCall" gallows lacks a dangling Jack, or even a noose. A hand-painted sign, "Billy the Kid," hangs above a pile of planks, not another talking robot. Dean told us that Billy "never did come into this area," which justifies the minimalist display. Next to it is a sign: "Gary Cooper, the cowboy movie star, referred to Billy the Kid as Homicidal."
In the absence of tour guides, 1880 Cowboy Town employs dozens of similar signs to explain itself. One praises tunnel-blasting Chinese railroad workers' "natural love of fireworks." Another asserts that York, a black servant on the Lewis and Clark expedition, "always put on a good show" when Indians asked him to dance. Some of these signs are hand-written in tightly-packed, dizzying calligraphy. Most are laboriously assembled with press-on letters whose size and color often vary from word to word ("Note the PIONEER potato machines before you"). All of them seem to have been made with a happy disregard for horizontal lines.
1880 Cowboy Town provides a near perfect balance of fear and fun. As we enter the "Gold Mine" building, a half dozen flying creatures swoop from the rafters and out the doors (bats, or perhaps barn swallows). We carefully walk back to the dimly lit rear of the Gold Mine, and peer through a mine shaft's yellowing plexiglass cover at a slowly twitching victim trapped at the bottom.
The robot citizens of 1880 Cowboy Town leave its most lasting impression. The patron in the Opera House wearing the eye patch (Another of Dean's wonky eye improvisations). The slouched Bat Masterson who looks like he's been eaten by rats. The raccoon-eyed, lady-sawing magician that doesn't move at all, but whose audiotape fills the air with bloodcurdling female screams when you press his button.
Dean assured us that his billboards and his attraction's name are in no way meant to waylay visitors headed for the other 1880 Town on the western side of state. "We don't compete with anybody," he said -- and that's a good thing for any would-be rivals. 1880 Cowboy Town is in a class by itself.