Frontier Village opened in 1961, surrounded by undeveloped property just steps away from San Jose’s ornate Haye’s Mansion. Modeled in part after Disney’s Frontierland, designer Laurie Hollins aimed for the park to be a sort of tongue-in-cheek approach to the Wild West. For two decades, families would flood the park in beehive hairdos, tube socks with sandals, and loud polyester. For a few hours, they’d steep themselves in this strange hybrid of eras past, in which miniature model-T cars and stage coaches coexisted mere miles from a parking lot full of pick ups and wood-paneled station wagons. Indian Jim—a broad, half-Huron man in fringed buckskin—ran his trading post in the same teepee-specked country where a pale neon green gorilla named Kactus Kong also roamed.
In September of 1980, a mere 13 months before I was born, the park ended what marketers called its Last Round Up and—in true Silicon Valley fashion—developers shuttered and leveled the park to make way for a housing development. It still stands today, in a neighborhood that was once its own city called Edenvale.
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The archivist who assists me at the San Jose Public Library’s California Room lights up when I ask for the Frontier Village files. Having visited the park as a child, she describes the experience as immersive and says it was more like a Renaissance Faire than a Six Flags. This comparison clicks for me. I have been to a Renaissance Faire. I can replace the wenches in my mind with gunslingers, the mammoth turkey leg drumsticks with pints from the Sarsaparilla Saloon. I can also predict that as a child I would have disliked Frontier Village. An observer by nature, I prefer people-watching to people-interacting.
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On the Remembering Frontier Village website, which I devote myself to reading page for page, visitors like me are addressed in copy as pardner and as cowboys and injuns. It is a concept I find off-putting: white supremacy made cutesy, the Gold Rush and other fraught histories recast as good clean family fun. A 1961 Ukiah Daily Journal article describes the park as having a storybook atmosphere. My first reaction: some bygone eras should really stay bygone.
Even so, I find myself alarmed at the enduring nostalgia of others. I join a Facebook group of 13,000 park nostalgists. There, boomers and Gen Xers bemoan the loss of the good ole days, back when unaccompanied tots could fire off real BB guns and knock back tumblers of milk in a saloon. The same tykes who wore construction paper “headdresses” regardless of ancestry shrank back laughing when the train conductor said there were bloodthirsty Indians crouched in the bushes. There wasn’t a cellphone or a Pokemon in sight.
One of the group’s moderators, Shaughnessy McGehee, is perhaps the most famous nostalgist. Over the course of two decades, McGehee—having visited Frontier Village 8 or 9 times as a child—built a small-scale replica of the park in his Campbell, California backyard. In a Mercury News article he remarks of Frontier Village: It was so magical. The biggest thing you felt was love. [ . . . ] I actually dream that I am there again. I wake up and my heart aches.
Do you remember being led through a theme park, holding a grown up’s coarse paw? Hopping around and begging to go on a ride? Holding a waxed paper cup in two tiny hands, careful not to stain your small t-shirt? Etching smiley faces and swear words in the cup’s wax with the edge of your thumbnail? I imagine McGehee yawning to life in his present-day bed sheets, pangs in his much older chest.
With the aid of his sons, McGehee dug a creek and constructed a bright red schoolhouse, a saloon, a mine, and a marshal’s office. He built a garage to house his Frontier Village memorabilia and installed a sound system to blast authentic park music. One song employees insist they could never escape: Marty Robbins’ gunslinger ballad, El Paso. On Facebook I read how the soundtrack spewed out on a loop.
Downsized, McGehee sold the home to relocate to a 40-acre spread in Oregon. It is enough land to recreate the 39-acre theme park in full. Human hands dismantled his miniature Frontier Village. The replica, an article notes, was once visible from Google Earth.
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In an attempt to soak in the park’s vibe, I listen to El Paso on repeat on YouTube.
The ballad is a strange choice for the setting. In it, a cantina patron murders a man for buying a drink for Feleena, a “Mexican maiden” who works as a dancer at the bar. Depending on your read of the lyrics, the patron is either courting or stalking Feleena, and Feleena is either returning his affections or just doing the flirting that’s part of her job. He later returns to his own crime scene astride a stolen horse, pursuing Feleena while a posse of cowboys chase him to avenge their friend’s death. The cowboys deliver a fatal shot to the cantina patron’s chest and he lands in Feleena’s arms, receiving her parting kiss on his cheek.
I’ll admit that I have always thought of this jam in childish terms as a “boy song”—and boys who drive Chevy’s specifically. My father would sing it in an over-the-top maudlin tone while cruising through Alum Rock in his battered old pick up.
Once, in a fiery argument, the details of which I can no longer recall, I cast an ex-boyfriend’s beloved cassette tape—a thrifted compilation containing the hit—out the window of his teal blue Beretta with Michigan plates. It was the sort of dime-a-dozen comp you could find near the dusty register at a remote gas station—back in the olden days when cassettes were sold new. Whose tape deck it spooled in before ours we’ll never know. It landed somewhere along 680 between East San Jose and Milpitas, roughly fifteen miles from where Frontier Village once stood. Though I regret this impulsive cruel act, my ex and I remain friends ten years later. When I ask him to articulate the chart-topper’s appeal he says: Marty Robbins does a good job of producing a western pop product with just enough grit. Like, he’s a western story ham, with bits of the real scattered in there.
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For weeks I ask acquaintances if they remember the park, and their faces take on a glow. I caught my first fish there, one guy exclaims at a dinner party. We’d all pile into the bed of Dad’s pick-up truck, says another, nobody cared about seat belts. A coworker tells me that she did not realize Frontier Village was in San Jose. Recollecting the long car ride into the uncharted south side, she says: It really felt so far away. It was the boonies back then.
A frontier is the extreme limit of settled land beyond which lies wilderness.
A village is a self-contained district.
This notion that the park was a refuge—a safe space amidst divorce, poverty, bullying, and other kid worries—is a theme in nostalgists’ old stories.
No matter how sheltered one feels in a sanctum, we humans are always at risk. I encounter a series of 1977 news articles describing a Hayward teen’s death at Frontier Village. Anthony Ricca, age 15, interrupted his kid brother who was firing at moving metal ducks with a .22- caliber constant velocity air rifle. Human hands had connected the rifle to the counter by an air hose, with enough slack in the line that the younger boy could aim it outside of the shooting gallery. He pointed the weapon at Anthony and pulled the trigger, striking him square in the chest with a BB the size of a bullet. He told police that he did not think the shot would hurt his brother. And so, Frontier Village became the site of one family’s trauma. The papers never name the child who survived his big brother, so I cannot pry into his whereabouts on the Internet.
I resist posting a jpg of the news clipping on the Remembering Frontier Village Facebook page. I’m uncertain of what angst it might yield.
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It would seem that Mary Hayes Chynoweth—the famed 19th century faith healer on whose descendants’ land the theme park once stood—would not have approved of nostalgia. In an 1891 compendium of The True Life, her religious newsletter, she writes: Live not on the old dead stuff. Leave the old songs, the old stories, the old experiences, the old literature, all that has been lived through the past, and forget all about it. I entertain a cruel fantasy of posting the quote on the Remembering Frontier Village Facebook Page, just to watch the nostalgists squirm, but again I think better of it. Let them have their cake. From the joyless tone of her ministry, much of which focuses on abandoning the “lower appetites” in pursuit of holiness, I suspect she would have objected to the tomfoolery of theme parks all together.
Mary Hayes Chynoweth possessed a divine form of x-ray vision that allowed her to locate diseased sites within her patients’ bodies. She would then relieve them of symptoms by taking them into herself: breaking out into blisters, rashes, or tumors. As a young woman she undertook saint-like mortifications: praying nonstop and subsisting solely on bread. In an ecstasy, she led her two grown sons, nicknamed Red and Black for their respective beard’s hues, to the site of the mine that would yield her family’s fortune. With their newfound riches she grew a San Jose colony called Edenvale where she took in ~3,500 new patients each year. Her intriguing and suspect last words: I have never wronged anyone.
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The park’s attractions included a jail, a general store, a Hollywood-style stunt show, burro pack rides, a stagecoach run, and a petting zoo. One roller coaster was called the Apache Whirlwind. Another, the Lost Dutchman Mine, allowed park-goers to travel underground via ore cart, swerving through waterfalls, burbling sulfur, stalactites, and falling boulders, all aglow under blacklights. At Rainbow Pond, youngsters caught live trout—roughly the length of a ruler—and took their carcasses home for their moms to forget in their freezers. In photographs, children hold bags of hooked trout. How many fish corpses did park-goers forget on the premises, for pimpled employees to find them under ride seats or in darkening corners of the Candy Shop?
Frontier Village’s mascot was a Deputy Marshal, first portrayed by a brawny, real-life ex-policeman, who saved the town from make-believe “dangerous outlaws” in hourly mock shoot outs. Children recoiled at the crack of shot pistols and, according to one nostalgist on Facebook, they often lost hold of their balloons or their ice creams which sunny employees would rush to replace. The losing gunman—playing dead—got carted away by an undertaker in a wheelbarrow marked “Hurt’s Rent-A-Hearse”.
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On 6 May 2017, near twilight, my partner and I visit Edenvale Garden Park. Edged by the oatmeal-colored housing development that shares a name with Frontier Village, the grounds once housed rides and other attractions. The landscape is more dirt piles than lawn, peppered with stubbed cigarette butts, Handy Snack sticks, and the silvery corners of chip bags. Every so often, a post will appear in the uneven ground, with a dilapidated, haunted-looking birdfeeder shaped like a Frontier Village landmark atop it in miniature. A pint-sized Main Street is gauzy with cobwebs: a trio of vacant storefronts that spiders and house wrens can occupy. A dog walker in his fifties listens in as I narrate to my partner how the drab landscape once looked technicolor on postcards. I imagine that the dog walker—unlike me—then roamed the real Frontier Village, and he is having a clearer, more authentic encounter with the park’s ghosts as he roams. I wonder if indeed there are wraiths here. I imagine spectres slicing through toddlers on the present’s playground equipment and athletic casual power walkers, giving them chills without warning.
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I yearn to relocate my own nostalgia for a Hollywood version of history, however remote it might feel. The thing I can summon is this:
As a child, Little House on the Prairie bewitched me. I wore period-inappropriate floor-length calico sundresses—knock off Gunne Sax from the 1970s—hand-me-downs I pulled from a Hefty bag. Burrs snagged my hem while I waded in waist-high foxtails in my Eastside backyard, staring out at the Foothills, imagining myself near a sod house on the banks of Plum Creek. As I write this I am unsure if foxtails can grow to a kid’s waist, but rather than fact check my memories, I leave the detail as is. My reverie broke during lunch-time, when my mother would hand me a period-inappropriate meal: a cold hot dog wrapped in tortilla or a cold tortilla slathered in margarine.
Phrases like wear your sunbonnet or you’ll be brown as an Indian gave me no pause as a child. In 1998, while working as a Rides Operator at a kiddie zoo, I’d suffer from heat exhaustion and get sent home early for wearing a hoodie in hundred-degree weather. I worried my olive-tone skin would darken and turn off my pale-as-a-snowdrift goth girlfriend.
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The day of the 2017 Remembering Frontier Village Reunion Picnic, my parents and I walk the nine-tenths of a mile from their house to Edenvale Garden Park. Don’t make me engage with anyone, I beg of them. I’m just here to gawk. The Facebook invitation lists the event as open to fans and former employees, with free hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, corn on the cob, corn dogs, popcorn, and cotton candy available to the first 200 guests. I misinterpret this to mean that they will host at least 200 guests.
Upon entering the park, we veer towards a large group that turns out to be a trio of children’s birthday parties, each with its own piñata. A cruciform Dora the Explorer hangs by her head from a tree, arms opening wide as if for a hug. Another is lemon yellow and shaped like a 5. Today’s children zigzag through gossiping parents to get to the crowded play structure, none of them sporting plastic holsters or firing off cap guns. And while members of the Remembering Frontier Village Facebook group have sometimes bemoaned that certain attractions would, as one commenter said, no longer fly in this PC world of ours, it strikes me that hordes of tots will soon be battering Dora the Explorer with a broomstick. When her small body bursts, they’ll descend upon it, fighting for sweet bits of her knocked out entrails.
Just beyond the play structure in the shade, I notice small knots of boomers mingling. The crowd is white and male: fathers and grandads in loose stonewash jeans. I spy one person in costume: a slim blond woman in a blue-and-white fringed mini-skirt who calls herself Miss Wild West. Specializing in lassos and rope tricks, she once broke the record for spinning the world’s largest loop. I read on her website how she credits her ancestors—a Cherokee princess great-grandmother and an aunt who nearly married Wild Bill Cody—with the stage presence she describes there as sizzling. Children in matching pink sunglasses pose for a photo with her. The catered buffet goes uneaten.
I think again of my stint at the kiddie zoo, and how disinterested I’d be in attending a reunion of their unhappy staff, none of whose names I remember. In lieu of a campfire or a water cooler, we huddled around the nacho cheese vat in the snack shack, dipping individual corn chips in the neon orange goop. I recall sponging mouse droppings off the lids of the 7 pound cheese cans. Rumors went round about the squeaky clean park manager, whose ponytail bounced when she walked. She doled out our orders with a tiresome pep like a cheerleader. If you got to the parking lot early enough, one colleague alleged, you could catch her railing lines in her pick-up truck. Even the park-goers were hostile. One child kicked at my shins yelling there’s a man in there there’s a man in there when I greeted him at the entrance in a dragon costume.
Anxious, my parents and I don’t stay long. I inspect some wooden park signs and other memorabilia on the crowd’s edges.
Upon exiting the park, we stroll through the Frontier Village housing development. My mother and I pause in front of one unit for sale, thumbing through photographs on a Real Estate App on my phone. Welcome home to this end unit townhome in desirable Frontier Village, the description reads. Charming patio is nestled among Redwood trees, a perfect garden setting in a cul-de-sac location. Everything from the garage door to the carpeting is beige, or as the app says recently madeover in a neutral color palette.
It would make a good starter home, my mother offers, and I think Silicon Valley starter homes are a concept of the past. Neither of us can name many people just starting out with resources enough for a $150k down payment.
In 1966, my father—then a newlywed eighteen-year-old gas station attendant—almost bought his first home in San Jose’s Tropicana Village. It was just what you did back then, he’s told me before. You graduated high school, got married, and got a house. Before he could check the last box off his list, he got drafted and became what he calls a Vietnam Era Vet. He claims he almost went in on a gas station in Cupertino, at that time out in the sticks. Today it is the home of Apple headquarters. Had he done so, I’d wager, I would be among the 20% of present-day San Jose humans who bought a house before the age of 35.
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It is not until death strikes twice in one week in my family that I begin to think of the Remembering Frontier Village page as a digital wake: it’s followers, public mourners. When mere mortal loved ones pass on, some survivors recast them as saints. When places pass on, some survivors recast them as sanctums.
Places can die just like creatures can. Even a rapid decline can feel slow when you’re living through it. Subtle changes compound and become alarming when you look back on old photographs and note all that’s wasted away. She’s gone, her body just doesn’t know it yet, my father has said of creatures who approach their last breaths. Their shadowy condition, in which the light goes dim in their eyes, he christens the dwindles. It is gutting to watch these dwindles play out. Large knots take their root in my torso. On bleak days I see San Jose as having the dwindles. Bodies and landscapes transform every second, and they are ultimately built for erasure. Gloom can enshroud a formerly sunny location when tragedy ruptures the landscape. Our bodies go out and betray us: they deteriorate, ceasing to move how we will them to. Both places and creatures die out, and are forgotten, in cycles. And still we resist the inevitable. This resisting, while often futile, is part of the process. Don’t hold on when you realize it’s time to let go, wrote a friend of a friend who passed on of cancer six days ago. These words, and some others, circulate as part of a Facebook memorial post. I try (and still fail) to take them to heart.