A remote Old West town teeming with creepy, malfunctioning robots that stare at you with murderous eyes, where everything seems on the verge of going haywire while its enigmatic creator sits back waiting for the chaos to unfold.
No, but probably the closest thing to it you're gonna find in the real world, save for Tweetsie Railroad in Boone, North Carolina. This is the 1880 Cowboy Town in Buffalo Ridge, South Dakota: roadside Americana at its weirdest and most surreal.
One-part museum, one-part ghostly amusement park, one-part outsider art exposition, and about 27 parts Whaaaaat the fuuuuuuuuck this is so uncomfortable and awesome, it's a dilapidated simulacrum of a one-horse frontier outpost with the requisite saloon, wagon repair shop, post office and, why not, an opera house and Chinese laundry, too. But what makes this place memorably disturbing and great and well worth the visit (that is, if you just happen to be passing through the area, as we were not long ago on our way to the Badlands) are the dusty, decaying animatronic townsfolk who are steadily coming unglued, quite literally.
Populating the filthy, cluttered innards of each of the crumbling buildings, these tattered automatons—the ones that are still moderately functional, anyhow—reenact various tableaus at the push of a button or when you trigger a hidden pressure plate on the floor when you walk in. Scenes range from a blacksmith hammering horseshoes to a macabre quintet singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on a tiny stage covered with mothballs, or a Stetsoned, patchy bearded doctor dispassionately amputating a man's leg with a rusty saw while a wide-eyed, smiling mannequin teen watches the hilariously grotesque robot surgery with undisguised glee.
Scratchy ancient audio seemingly beamed in from another planet gives voice to many of the town's mechanized denizens, whose jaws and limbs look like they're going to break off as they move either glacially slow or all herky jerky like 19th-century tweakers. The accompanying hand-scrawled or press-on-letters signage—which delves into such topics as the "prairie loneliness" of frontier wives or how the Chinese railroad workers of the era enjoyed blasting tunnels through mountains due to "their natural love of fireworks"—help fill in the blanks for the automatons who can no longer speak or move due to various circuitry snafus. The whole freaky scene is the brainchild of one Dean Songstad, son of South Dakota and retired high school social studies teacher, who clearly didn't intend for the place to be any kind of a bizarro land when he bought a bunch of acres outside Sioux Falls in 1970. Along with his pal Bill Jorgenson and a few others, Songstad built the replica frontier and its animatronic inhabitants behind his gas station and opened 1880 Cowboy Town in 1972—a year before the original Westworld opened in movie theaters.
Songstad is 85 now, and not in the best of health. Most days, you can find him manning the till inside the gas station, which serves as a fireworks emporium and souvenir shop as well. If you're interested, he'll sell you buffalo meat from the modest herd kept on the property. Songstad's son, Brad, co-runs the joint, and butchers buffalo every Wednesday. Songstad's perfectly polite, but he's not an eager conversationalist. And despite all visual evidence to the contrary, he doesn't think his 1880 Cowboy Town is particularly eerie, just a little run-down. He's fiercely proud of the place and the frontier history lessons he designed it to impart. "Make sure you pay attention and read everything, you'll probably learn something," he intoned after we plunked down our eight bucks. Songstad pointed us to the screen door at the back of the gas station, beyond which a quarter-mile-long dirt path lined with wagon wheels and rusting farm equipment leads you to oddball land.
You'll pass real-life buffalo idling in the tall grass, waiting to be turned into delicious real-deal jerky. And then you're right smack in the middle of the run-down, screwy splendor.
Inside you'll find a robot Abraham Lincoln. Press the button, and he starts talking about the Dakota Territory, created under his watch. But truly all you're really thinking about is how fucking ghoulish this mechanized iteration of ol' Abe looks with his bulging eyes, terrifying teeth, peeling face, decrepit beard, and chewed-up stovepipe hat. It's the silenced robots and dead-eyed mannequins that are perhaps the most unsettling, whether it's the bowed clergyman who sorta resembles Tall Man from Phantasm, the grinning gunslinger bellied up to the bar, or the unintentionally sinister little girl in the post office who is the stuff of enduring nightmares. Many dwell in the shadows, looking like they're sizing you up. We visited at the height of tourist season and the place was deserted, no one to help us in the event of an android-cowboy uprising (which, when you're standing in the midst of 1880 Cowboy Town, seems like a totally real thing that could happen). Songstad's friend Bill used to make an annual visit to repair the robots and tableaus as best he could, but he passed on about five years ago. "We don't have anyone now as steady or as good as Bill was," Songstad lamented. "So the ones that don't work anymore, I just take the push buttons out."
We rang Songstad up this week to see if Westworld had helped generate an uptick in interest for 1880 Cowboy Town. "What's that?" he responded, saying he hadn't heard of either the show or the movie, and that if any visitors have ever noted any similarities, they've never articulated them to him. "People come here from all over the world because they love the history of it," Songstad insisted. "Maybe Brad might know something about the show, but he's out working with the buffalo right now," he added. In the end, Dean Songstad and his weird, remarkable creation are one and the same—hanging on defiantly against the ravages of time, and both indelible parts of the American landscape. You should stop by.
And though we didn't ask, no, you can't fuck the robots.
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