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The good, the bad and the enduring

Wild West City

by Andy Drysdale

Urban and nearby suburban summers are now reasonably bearable for most of the population with air conditioning, modern medicine and better sanitation. In the nineteenth century, however, those who could afford to do so fled the metropolitan areas of New York, Newark and Jersey City for the cool green mountains and pristine lakes of northwestern New Jersey. In time, a host of summer resorts and amusements sprouted up to serve weary city dwellers seeking relief and recreation. Following the Second World War, the lake country's many summer bungalows were "winterized" and the region began its conversion to a year-round residential area. But improved roads and automobiles, coupled with a booming economy, inspired some entrepreneurs to seek new ways to attract a local as well as metropolitan tourist trade. It was in this climate that Wild West City came into being. A group of investors banded together, purchased a sizable tract of land in Byram Township, just above Netcong and started construction of a replica western town, even flying off to study Dodge City, Kansas, which was used as a model. The project started in the fall of 1956, and, by the following spring, the site opened.

The fortunes of the site waned a little in the first few years. Just why is unclear, as things western, particularly on television, were at peak popularity. In 1964, Wild West city was acquired by Michael Stabile, of Nutley, and his wife Mary. The couple originally planned only to upgrade the operation and then sell it as a short-term investment. But, with the involvement of their children, it literally became the family business.


Mike Stabile Jr. and musician Bill Green
have appeared regularly at Wild West City
since the 1960s.

Mike Stabile was a determined army veteran, and both he and Mary possessed an ability to manage as well as to deal with the "hands-on" work. Within a few years, Wild West City featured live-action shows, a working stage coach, numerous shops, exhibits and a whole series of special programs with guest performers. The best part was that it was live. Long before the "living history" movement of costumed interpreters presenting replicated period activities in historical settings, the Stabile family offered the public a day of real galloping horses, cowboys and lawmen, actors taking genuine risks in their performances; a visual and sensory experience. Hundreds of thousands of people, particularly children, over the many years since, have carried away indelible images of America's western frontier after a visit to the site's wide and gritty main street.

Today, Wild West City stands as one of the last examples of post-war tourist culture in the Skylands region, and perhaps the most unchanged. Each season the site presents its program developed in the mid and late 1960s with the same vitality as if it were for the very first time. Twenty-two continuous live shows are presented each day; the stage runs approximately every fifteen minutes. The 1950s miniature train "Old 97" still makes its regular trips through "Arapaho Territory", and the Earps, Doc Holliday, along with a score of banditos, good guys and bad guys, still square off in recreations of the West's most famous episodes. The buildings which line the street contain various shops and museums, each with a character all its own where there is the informal feeling that the visitor has just stumbled upon a relative's attic full of past time treasures. At the "Golden Nugget Saloon" is a full service bar. Food is available here, as well as at the "Silver Dollar" down the street. There is a candy shop, a general store, a collection of Native American artifacts, a working blacksmith shop, pony corral rides for young guests, and a petting zoo. Non-denominational chapel services are conducted each Sunday morning at 10:40am.

In 1997, the site launched a new frontier education program for schools and special groups. This was the first alteration of the regular street schedule in over 30 years. School classes are treated to narrative programs about the historical cowboy as well as the western lawman, their clothing, gear and their horses. Selected topics, exploring the California Gold Rush, telegraphy (featuring a working 1880s model), horsemanship and horse lore, are offered by special arrangement. Chic Stourch, of Blairstown, regularly provides an interpretation of the 1830s "mountain men", the free trappers who explored the early West. Joan Morris, of Mount Arlington, teaches domestic skills of pioneer women at her camp located adjacent to the park's entrance. And then there is Robert "Pony Bob" Erven, who first appeared on the street of Wild West City around 1961, a veteran of the now-defunct "Cowboy City" in Asbury Park. "Pony Bob" led a now legendary wagon train from St. Louis to New York City during the 1964 World's Fair. An accomplished horseman, farrier and teamster, as well as a youthful, vigorous man, he drives the Wild West City stagecoach and can sometimes be found upon a horse at full gallop, vaulting into the saddle to bring in the mail for the local version of the Pony Express.

Special events, programs and performances are offered each weekend, including trick riders like Cowboy Joe Phillips, who appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and at Radio City Music Hall; Joe Walsh, the Guiness Book of World Records champion quick-draw artist, as well as Native American dancers and recreated encampments of Civil War soldiers and frontiersmen.

After a lifetime of hard work, Mike Stabile passed away in 1993. The family tradition continues as Mike Stabile, Jr. has taken the reins as the president of the corporation, with the assistance of his sister Mary. Mike Jr. literally grew up as a Wild West City cowboy and has appeared daily from his teenage years in the 1960s to the present. An expert rider, stage driver and performer, Mike continues to thrill audiences every afternoon with feats of skill using bullwhips and lariats. In addition to his western skills, Mike is well-known as an expert mechanic, serving the site as manager, repairman, carpenter, heavy equipment operator and much more. His sister Mary is similarly accomplished, balancing her career as a local attorney with her duties at Wild West, her two young children often at her side, along with husband Ron Benson, originally of Netcong, who started his career here as a cowboy and continues to assist the theme park as horse buyer and part time teamster.

The mustached face of town marshal Rick McPeek is well-known to a generation of Wild West City fans. Rick has trod the dusty main street as cowboy, marshal and street manager for twenty-five years. Sussex County born and raised, Rick's father was a prominent local veterinarian who befriended Mike Stabile, Sr. The two men, along with family and staff, produced a series of voice-over tapes used for the daily performances. Though "Doc" McPeek passed away in 1975, Rick rides out each morning to the sound of his father's voice over the speaker system.

There is much family history in the family theme park and the close ties of kinship and friendship among the staff surely translate into the good will that has been generated to the public over the years.

Wild West City shows and activities have in their very essence, an ageless theme: the triumph of good over evil. Perhaps our most basic commonly-held trait as Americans is the optimism that the good guys will ultimately triumph if they stand their ground; that despite defeats, tragedies and injustices, our story is full of brave people from all backgrounds, sometimes even pitted against one another.

Wild West City reminds us that a sense of justice and fair play can be learned in an environment of good old-fashioned entertainment. The big lake resorts may be gone, and the times have changed, but Wild West City's cowboys still ride, spirited and free, just as we, young and old, happy and careworn, want them to, always.

Wild West City is open weekends, late spring through Columbus Day and daily from June 21 through Labor Day. The park opens at 10:30 am, shows begin at approximately 11am and run until 6pm. The site is easily accessible from Exit 25 off Route 80 west, then three miles north ) 100right at the third traffic light after the exit) to Lackawanna Drive in Byram Township. Please call 973-347-8900 for further information. Or go to website

Andy is a veteran staff member and administrator for numerous local attractions, museums and parks. He serves occasionally as blacksmith at Wild West City.

Comments

Ronald Meier
14 Mar 2012, 08:05
I love Wild West City
thelma scott
03 Aug 2011, 15:33
Iam so very glad that your park is still going strong after al these years. My family enjoyed the western frontier in 1963. we all loved it,and now my children & grands are enjoying it.
Mark
14 Jun 2011, 11:49
Does anyone know the latest on the trial of Michael Stabile regarding the gun accident many years ago at Wild West City?
Pat
02 Jun 2011, 06:57
I love this place I took my daughter & niece there 20 yrs ago,and last summer took my grandson he's 4 .He had a great time I love the fact he can run around without me yelling at him to stay close.\r\nIts a very safe place for children to get involved.He loved it & we will be going again this year. Thank u
Unhappy Mother
08 May 2011, 18:47
Wild West City is more like Run Down Ghost Town City. The $13 charge for adults is $13 too much. This place hasn't had any upkeep during it 50 year history. Highly advise not bringing small children as the cap gun wielding actors and patrons make little children upset and scared. Extra $$$ are charged for the stage coach, mini golf and train ride. You are already gouged paying $13 to walk down a dusty street, and milked for more money for a 5 minute ride. I won't recommend this to any mom or dad.
marta casteel
14 Aug 2010, 15:17
Hello love your website. we are in cabo san lucas mexico and we will love to build a old west store a (replica) we want to sell oll equestriam items... maybe you could give us ideas on how to build and old store... thanks
Marisol
20 Mar 2010, 10:36
please send me a brochure. lookin for a get away that is fun...
Carl
01 Nov 2009, 14:40
I'm 48 and had fond memories of Wild West City from my childhood. My wife and I took our two boys, ages 11 and 6, there over Labor Day weekend 2009. The older one didn't want to go because he thought it sounded "boring." Both boys had a fantastic time. The day unfolds in continuous episodes with live actors, with a new episode about every 15 minutes, all entertaining, with many featuring gunfights and stunt horseback riding. There's also a lot of room for the kids to run around and play. We bought them a couple of old-fashioned cap guns that they carried around all day and for about a week afterward. We all enjoyed the buildings that lined the street. The kids especially the jail, the bank, the post office, the blacksmith, and Doc Holliday's office.
Cassandra Thomas
18 Oct 2009, 19:06
Oh my god, finally i found this place! I'm 45 yrs. old and i remember when my elementary school teacher took us on a field trip to Wild West City. It was my favorite field trip of all. That place is a place that everyone should visit, at least once in their life. Now that i know exactly where it is, i want to plan a trip whit my five children ages 29-12 and my two grand children. Of course my husband will join us. This place cannot be explained to anyone. You have to enjoy the experience your self.. We will definetly be there....
schlock
23 Sep 2009, 20:37
I am now closing in on 40 with a family of my own. I too fondly remember going with my family to WWC in the 70s. I live in California now and I hope to return to NJ with my kids to experience the awesome shootouts in the middle of town. What a great family place and I'm so glad to hear it's still in business and run by the same family.
Valerie
27 Aug 2009, 03:30
I will be 57 years old this week and was taken to Wild West City by my parents when I was young. I always remember having a great time there and in turn took my children there.Today I will be taking my grandsons there and they will be able to experience the same things that I did as a child. Going back in time and imagining what it was like to live in the old west. Thank you for all the years you have been there.
Katie
21 Jul 2009, 08:27
I go to wild west city everyday because im the owners daughter its so fun to ride the horses and to hel my mom with all diferent kinds of things. And (Rick McPeek) still works and wild west city he runs the sound system.
esther moseson
12 Apr 2009, 08:16
please sens me a broshore about wild west \r\n thank you,\r\n Esther.
Debbie Kobriger
23 Feb 2009, 15:39
please send me a brochure, Debbie kobriger 56 evelyn ave Vineland NJ 08360
Jennifer
20 Jul 2008, 09:10
My mother in-law goes there with her grandson along with other family and friends every year for my nephew's birthday. He is just turned 9 this past July 11th. She was wondering what happened to the marshal that has been there so long,(Rick McPeek). I can not find any articles on why he is not there anymore. Can you please tell me so I can let her know. Thank you for any information you can give me.
nancy tarasco
25 May 2008, 12:44
would like updates for summer and fall. I came here on a class trip as a little girl. I'm now 43 and would love to bring my own kids.
THERESA
17 May 2008, 19:59
MY FATHER HELPED TO BUILD THE PARK AND WE WERE THE FIRST INDIAN FAMILY TO WORK THERE. MY BROTHER HAD HIS NAMEING CEREMONY THERE.

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