Does anyone remember Frontier Village in San Jose, Calif.? It was a really fun Western theme park that was demolished—but has been rebuilt! Here’s a cool article from Peter Hartlaub at SFGate.com. I visited the park with my elementary school and loved it.
“I’ve always been kind of a nostalgic person,” says Shaughnessy McGehee, as he walks into his tree-filled backyard.
It’s an almost comical understatement. The 46-year-old Campbell resident has in his garage a 1957 Chevy Bel Air, which he tracked down, bought back and restored … all because it was the exact car in which McGehee and his wife, Cindy, shared their first date.
But the biggest monument to his love of things past – the one that can be seen from Google Earth – is in his sprawling backyard. The father of four teenagers has spent much of the past decade rebuilding Frontier Village, the long-since-demolished San Jose amusement park that he loved as a child.
He has looked at old photos of the park, talked to former employees and trusted his memory to create scaled-down versions of the park’s schoolhouse, saloon, marshal’s office and mine shaft. McGehee opens his backyard every year for Halloween, and he’s hosted events including a wedding and his oldest son’s graduation.
“It’s interesting how much emotion that all of this brings up,” McGehee says, of the equally nostalgic visitors who come to his home. “Some people start crying. At some point almost everyone will say, ‘I used to love that place.’ “
Frontier Village, the family-friendly Old West-themed amusement park, closed 30 years ago next month. But interest in the park has not waned. Less than a year old, the Remembering Frontier Village page on Facebook has more than 7,300 fans. In June, the Frontier Village reunion picnic will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Allen Weitzel, a park staffer and manager for 13 years, says he never dreamed he would still be discussing Frontier Village three decades later.
“We knew the place was popular when we were there,” Weitzel says. “But when it was done, we moved on. We figured that would be the last we would hear of it.”
Frontier Village was built in 1961 by Joe Zukin and Laurie Hollings on San Jose property that was once part of the Hayes Mansion. Stagecoach and canoe rides, choreographed gunbattles on Main Street and a trout-fishing pond were among the attractions. The Old West theme wasn’t a stretch – the park originally seemed as if it was in the middle of nowhere.
Frontier Village had plans for expansion, but they were scuttled in the late 1970s as the prime Silicon Valley property became more valuable. The park closed on Sept. 28, 1980, and its buildings and attractions – including Indian Jim’s Canoes and the Duster-Turnpike car ride – were sold for scrap or auctioned off.
Interest in the park increased in 2000, when two fans created a website at frontiervillage.net, initially posting a few photos of the condominiums and parkland that replaced Frontier Village. A decade later, Remembering Frontier Village is filled with history, photos, videos and testimonials.
Much of the memorabilia is provided by Tim Stephens, a San Jose police officer and the park’s unofficial record-keeper, whose annual visits to Frontier Village became special after his parents divorced when he was 8 years old.
“My mother couldn’t afford to do a lot of things for us,” Stephens says. “But she would save her money in the winter so we could go to Frontier Village in the spring.”
Stephens bought his first piece of memorabilia from eBay in the late 1990s – a “Color Souvenir Booklet” for a few bucks – and says “it just kind of snowballed from there.” He now has 5,000 Frontier Village images and hundreds of collectibles, from pennants to part of the train station’s clock face.
McGehee says he’s been shocked how many of the park’s landmarks have shown up for sale or auction. McGehee owns four gas-powered Model T and Maxwell replicas from the Antique Autos ride, which were originally sold to the Happy Hollow Park and Zoo, and later auctioned off by the city of San Jose.
Like Stephens, McGehee’s Frontier Village interest started small, beginning about 15 years ago when he began clearing out junk that had accumulated in the backyard of the family home. A carpenter by trade, McGehee built a couple of Western-looking structures and a tree house in some of the cleared space.
“People would come over and say, ‘This kind of reminds me of Frontier Village,’ ” McGehee says. “That was kind of what I had in mind.”
After discovering the website, he started working without blueprints on scaled-down structures from the park. Added touches include a sound system, which plays authentic park music.
Impressive, enchanting and overwhelming are three words that come to mind when seeing McGehee’s work in progress. McGehee defends his passion, explaining that the family values of Frontier Village are harder to find in modern corporate entertainment. McGehee also bonded with his oldest son, Michael, now 19, who learned construction skills helping his dad in the backyard.
“We have four kids, and I wanted them to experience it. And it’s gone,” McGehee says. “How would they ever be able to have the fond memories that I did and love the place as much as I did?”
So Frontier Village lives on. McGehee says 400 people walked through the saloon doors in front of his house last Halloween. Stephens sells a Frontier Village DVD and has made classic-looking bumper stickers that are showing up around town. And Weitzel, who used to stage gunbattles in Frontier Village, continues to put on private exhibitions with the original crew.
“We didn’t think we’d be old and crotchety and still doing gunfights 40 years later,” Weitzel says.
Even with his kids getting older, McGehee says he’s not done. Among his more recent finds is a tired-looking model horse with almost no paint left, which he acquired in return for hours of handyman work at a former Frontier Village manager’s house.
“When I brought it home, my wife said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me – you didn’t do all that work for that? That thing is ugly,’ ” McGehee says. “I said, ‘Cindy, it came from Frontier Village. Who cares what it looks like?’ “