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1950s cowboy theme park lives on in memory

Killingworth (AP) - Like a sagebrush Brigadoon, Cowboy Valley sprang to life in the Connecticut woods and then, just as suddenly, vanished.

It was a place where you could witness a brazen stagecoach robbery in broad daylight, and then get deputized by the local sheriff to hunt down the dirty varmints who did it. It had its own blacksmith shop, its own general store, its own saloon.

Even now, more than 50 years after Cowboy Valley hung up its six-guns, people in town still talk about it with childlike reverence.

"It put us on the map," says Marty Machold, 70, who worked at Cowboy Valley in 1957. "Nobody ever heard of such a thing here before, around here. We sure had some fun there."

How could you not? There were gun-toting galoots roaming the streets, a jail with real metal bars, an ornery frontier judge and pony rides for the kids.

Then, BLAM, it was gone, like a slippery card shark after the last hand of seven-card stud.

Luckily, the memories remain. So please, return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear at Cowboy Valley.

Go East, young man

The country was crazy about cowboys back then. Westerns dominated the nation's TV and movie screens, and children routinely toted cap guns and wore cowboy hats.

It was in this environment that a Newington man named Art DuBois started Cowboy Valley, partnered with a money man from New Jersey and accounting help from his brother-in-law.

They bought the land, a modest parcel of 20 acres or more, near the intersection of Route 81 and Stevens Road. Dick Downing, who had owned the land, subsequently took on the part of Cowboy Valley judge and dispensed justice from a fictional courthouse.

Why Killingworth?

"They were capitalizing on the shore crowd," says town native Dan Perkins, 69, who worked at Cowboy Valley in 1958. "This was before I-95, so people on their way to the Cape and Rhode Island came through Route 1."

Machold, also a Killingworth native, hired on as a carpenter's helper when he saw workers start to build a Western main street from scratch. "I just pulled in there and told them who I was," he says. "I probably made $1 an hour, if that."

The main street had just about everything a cowpoke needed. There was a bank, a gunsmith, a Wells Fargo express office, a hotel, a barbershop, a boot maker, a doctor's office, an outfitter and the Red Eye Saloon. There also were Native American wigwams, where a real Narragansett Indian set up shop.

Behind the scenes, there were stables for horses and other livestock.

Cowboy Valley opened in the summer of 1957 to large crowds of mesmerized kids and their parents.

"It went over big the first year," says Brent Kirby, 70, of Madison. He worked there as a trick rider from 1957 to 1958. "The kids would be screaming and hollering and running us down after we robbed the bank."

Reach for the sky

Basically, it was just a big game of good guys versus bad guys - with live guns.

"We used real .22 pistols," Perkins says, shaking his head and smiling. "For the first year, and half of the second year, they weren't plugged. We used blanks."

Most of the employees, including Perkins, Machold and Kirby, were teenagers. They simply mimicked the cowboy characters they saw on TV and had fun.

"We robbed a bank every two hours," Perkins remembers. "Two of us would come riding into town from our hideout, and Brent would go around to the back of the bank.

"The sheriff was out front, deputizing all the kids," Perkins says. "All of a sudden, Brent comes running out of the bank and throwing us bags of money. Then Brent would get shot and the rest of us, we'd go off to our hideout. The sheriff and kids would come and capture us.

"They'd take us to the courthouse," Perkins adds. "Dick Downing would be the judge. He'd sentence us to be ridden out of town. We'd ride out and almost immediately go rob the stagecoach."

Machold did double duty as both sheriff and outlaw.

"Once, I was in the jail and a kid hit me with a cap pistol and laid my finger open," he laughs.

"We were all just kids having the time of our life. The first year, they brought the stagecoach up to Hartford and we rode it all the way down old Route 9," he adds. "Oh, and a bunch of us went to New Haven and were on the 'Happy the Clown' TV show."

Some of their antics were less successful than others. On occasion, the outlaws took personal items away from stagecoach passengers during robberies, then return them later. They eventually stopped doing this.

A few times, they also kidnapped female stagecoach passengers out in the woods. That had to stop, too.

"One day, the stagecoach driver fell asleep during the show," Kirby says. "He came around a corner and tipped the stage over. No one got hurt. It was a miracle."

Adios, Pardner

After its third season, in 1959, the sun went down on Cowboy Valley.

Kirby and the others say competing cowboy attractions, including the soon-to-be completed Freedomland in New York City, threatened to take too much business away from Killingworth.

DuBois and his crew pulled up stakes.

Cowboy Valley's main street, buildings and all, sat abandoned for years. Eventually, vandalism and development erased it from sight.

A church and a few houses now sit on the site.

But like any good Western yarn, Cowboy Valley abides. The local historical society holds a cache of photos and memorabilia, and has organized a couple of reunions of former staff and patrons.

They all say it was a wondrous bit of fun that never can be recreated.

"Times have changed too much," Kirby says.

"Just the idea of having Brent riding down the street with no barrier between him and people, you couldn't do that," Perkins says.

"And there was no such thing as zoning," Machold adds. "It was out of this world."


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