In 1961 Michael McCafferty did the unimaginable. He opened a place behind Lawson’s where kids, nearly every day, played Cowboys and Indians from 8 in the morning until it was time for them to go home. This was no ordinary Cowboys and Indians theme park — that is, if there were other geniuses in the U.S. with guns big enough to carry out an idea like this. For 75 cents your parents would drop you off on their way to work and you would become Wyatt Earp or Geronimo for a day. The registration office handed out authentic-looking cowboy hats, pistols, sheriff badges, cowboy vests, chaps, and spurs that you would clip on your sneakers. Or you could ask for Indians clothes, bows and arrows, and rifles. Chiefs and tribal elders wore elaborate headdresses. Getting around town, which included a 4-acre prairie and an old west main street with a barber shop and saloon, was easy. Michael handed out Schwinn bicycles in all sorts of colors. Even though they didn’t look like horses, Michael made them sound like horses by putting playing cards in the spokes that went clip-clop when you pedaled. The kids who played Indians hid in the hills and shot arrows at the cowboys riding into town, then stole their horses and pedaled like the dickens back to the hills! Everyone buried their hatchets at noon to eat candy bars and peanuts at the concession stand. Then off to a shootout at 12:30, their guns blazing. It was the life!
By the 1980s, adults who came to Michael McCafferty’s when they were children were now bringing their kids to this place of frontier wonder. When Dances with Wolves hit theaters in 1990 it was so popular with the kids at Michael McCafferty’s that there were suddenly more Indians raising hell out there than cowboys. Tomahawk cries and soaring arrows pierced the summer sky that hung above this land of make-believe. It was a good time to be a kid. Then political correctness crept into South Newburg like a weird uncle.
“I’ll change the name to Cattle Drivers and Native Americans, but, please, don’t ruin my business!” McCafferty cried.
But it wouldn’t stop.
“It’s preposterous to think that anyone would want to relive that ugly part of U.S. history!” argued Robert Huggins, who estimated that he might be 1/16 Cherokee and claimed that he never played Cattle Drivers and Native Americans when he was a boy.
Offering a different viewpoint, but complaining nonetheless, was Mitch Kalinowski who didn’t like when cattle drivers were depicted as bandana-wearing, gun-toting, jerky-chewing outlaws instead of the integral players of late 19th century U.S. beef production and logistics.
“People, please! It’s just a game — FOR KIDS! Let me make my living!” begged Michael McCafferty.
Fearing the worse, Michael again changed the name of his park to just “Cattle Drive.” He kept the bikes, got rid of the Indians, and threw in some dogs. Kids now had to lead as many as 30 mutts across the river (a narrow, 12” deep creek) by corralling them on bikes and coaxing them with dog treats. But when a dog bit a boy, Michael was sued by angry parents. To complicate matters, animal rights activists came knocking on Michael’s door.
“You’ll have to get in line behind the People for the Ethical Treatment of Cowboys!” wept Michael.
Michael had mounting legal fees. So he scrapped the cattle drive idea and decided to give “Pioneers and Rattlesnakes” a try. He kept the bikes, got rid of the dogs, and bought 1000 rubber snakes that he placed under trees, on haystacks, and by rocks around his park. His customers, who by now had trickled down to only a few, plopped down $2.50 to ride two-wheeled horses in and out of a maze. Problem was, the game made no sense. And the kids were bored as hell. You have to remember it was the 90s, when parents were learning how to raise their children by reading How-To books. They took the chapter about sheltering their kids from horseplay very seriously, “Timmy, don’t run around outside! Sit on that couch and play with your PlayStation.”
Michael McCafferty’s watered-down wild-west theme park officially closed on July 7, 2000, nearly 40 years after it all started. Michael still lives in South Newburg. He reads books by Larry McMurtry and Sherman Alexie because “nobody writes about cowboys and Indians like they do.” He’ll be celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in August by taking his wife to Tombstone, Arizona for a reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral.