Journey back to the Old West

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Forty-five years ago, in 1975, the sounds of gunshots echoed off the sides of Fort Mountain.  It wasn’t a hunting party or a feud, it was the sounds of an old west shootout and it occurred twice a day like clockwork. It was all part of the western themed “Frontier Lands” that operated for several years about a third of the way up Fort Mountain. The attraction consisted of a “wild west” town, a handful of carnival rides and a petting zoo. The gunfights were twice a day in the streets and between the gunfights you could go to the saloon to eat and watch the can-can girls and comics perform a show.

Brothers Mike and Tom Williamson were the sons of one of the owners, their mother Virginia Williamson, and they recently reminisced about their days as gunfighters.

Frontier Lands was built by McGann Construction out of Chattanooga. Virginia worked with them and was one of the partners along with Mac McGann and Paul Johnson.

Mike and Tom, both in their early twenties at the time, were already working at the construction company. Tom was going away to college and worked summers there so Mike was enlisted to oversee construction of the western town. He remembered that construction took about a year and that the difficult part wasn’t building the actual structures but the ground preparation for the site. It was on the side of the mountain and so a large, flat area had to be blasted out of the rock with dynamite.

The goal was to blast the rock so it crumbled in place and could then be removed, but he said one time a blast went off and sent small boulder-size rocks flying through the air. Workers raced down to the main road, Ga. Hwy. 52, to clear away the boulders before any cars came through.

During construction someone had to stay on site for security purposes. Different employees of the McGann company would spend a week at a time staying in a camper overnight. Mike remembers the area being very much a wilderness back then and after the petting zoo opened, the farm animals attracted all kinds of night visitors like wild dogs, coyotes and bobcats. Someone had to stay to chase away the predators. One of the prime spots to protect the animals was from the roof of the saloon.  One morning as workers arrived, there was a bobcat going through a trash can. One of the men had their dog with them who began chasing the bobcat. The dog chased the wildcat into the saloon. Someone slammed the door shut and the dog and bobcat ran amuck. Another person finally opened the door and the bobcat dashed out to freedom.  And all this just minutes before the first guests arrived.

The town consisted of a saloon, trading post, general store, jail, ice cream parlor, moonshine museum and several other buildings you would find in a typical western town of the 1800’s. There was also the petting zoo and a collection of rides including a Ferris Wheel, Merry-Go-Round and spinning kiddie rides.  One could also ride a chairlift up the mountain to the town, starting from the parking lot, or you could ride a type of “train” up the road.

Admission was about five or six dollars and the hours were between about 9 in the morning until 7 in the evening, depending on how long the day was. The town didn’t have lighting for night time activities.

At one end of the town was a western fort type log wall that opened to a performance space.  At various times big name performers would do shows there. These included people like Freddie Fender, Billy “Crash” Craddock and Mickey Gilley.  A sideline for the McGann company was a country and western nightclub and dance hall in Chattanooga and another in Florida, so they could book popular acts to play the nightclubs as well as Frontier Lands.

Of course the big attraction at the town was the gunfights. There were basic scenarios planned in advance, but the good guys and bad guys would do a lot of ad-libbing. The shootouts would take place all across the town and one of the bad guys would inevitably get shot off a roof.

To do this, the stuntman would roll down the part of the roof that covered the wooden sidewalk in front of the buildings and then make sure he rolled feet first as he went over the edge. This way he would land on his feet and take the impact in his legs and not on his head. Mike remembers one of the gunfighters breaking an ankle doing the fall, but he remained “dead” until the end of the show. Tom remembers another “bad guy’” who broke his collar bone when he tumbled off the roof.

Tom worked mainly on weekends when he came home from college.  Mike was a reluctant gunfighter, as he doesn’t consider himself much of a performer. He usually wore a white hat and played the sheriff, while the bad guys wore the black hats as tradition dictates.  There were guest gunfighters that would join in when they were visiting.  There was a costume room with spare cowboy outfits that they could slip on so they could join in the fun.  Local celebrities included the Murray County Sheriff, local Funeral Home Directors, friends of the McGann’s and even Billy “Crash” Craddock got in on one of the gunfights while he was there to perform.  Most of the special guests chose to play a bad guy because every actor loves a good death scene.  The weapons of choice were classic six-shooters and a double-barrel shotgun.

Mike remembers that very first gunfight. The lawmen and outlaws had rehearsed it over and over and had it down pat. Then when that opening day crowd was gathered around, the challenge was called out between combatants. When the guns started firing the blanks were so loud and startling that the little kids started crying.  Then, when the bad guys fell “dead” in the street before their eyes they went into a kind of shock.  Mike felt terrible. They reduced the gunpowder in the blanks so they wouldn’t be quite so loud and there was a comic undertaker that would come out after the shooting stopped to add some laughs to the otherwise grisly scene. “Digger” the undertaker was played by Dick Ray, who was the brother of local choreographer Linda Ray, who supervised the Dance Hall girls.

Mike and Tom Williamson remember their days as gunfighters at “Frontier Lands” as a real ball. They have both hung up their six-shooters, but once a good-guy, always a good-guy.

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