The Other 1880 Town in South Dakota. (The one with robots)

The Western States are full of Old West themed tourist attractions and old west towns both real and manufactured. There is one in South Dakota called 1880 Town which by most accounts seems to be one of the better ones. Visitors can dress up in period clothing and they have a wonderful collection of props from Dances with Wolves. I’ve never been to it. This is not about that 1880 Town. This is about a different one.

If you’ve seen Dances with Wolves you actually know what a lot of the state really looks like. It’s very… grassy.

This is about the one in the town of Buffalo Ridge, which as near as I can tell is actually just a gas station. This is about the one populated entirely by robots.

this one



Now, I experience a self doubt spiral and question my talents and career approximately twice a week, but one thing that always fills me with seething regret is animatronics. Why on Earth didn’t I ever pick up any basic robotic engineering!?

In retrospect, of course, the signs were there. There were so many sparks that could have lit the fire in my developing brain: the singing gang of anthropomorphic animals at Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, the swarthying pirates of the Pirates of Caribbean Ride at Disney, the almooost lifelike repetitive movements of jungle animals at Rainforest Cafe, the scene in Wayne’s World where Garth casually works on a robotic hand in his free time. None of it did. Maybe I’ll go ahead and blame society for not pushing girls towards science and engineering or my art oriented right brain dominance, but at the time of this writing, I never picked up the skills required to do much more than install an after market radio in my car, but I sorely wish I had.

A man named Bill in South Dakota apparently did not miss the signs. The story goes that he is singularly responsible for the building and once a year maintenance of all of the robots here since it’s building in the 70’s. Those in the best condition are inside the store and include a full saloon in all it’s gambling, piano playing, bar tending, potential prostitution glory and a very strange singing gorilla.

For the love of God, do not let this be the robot that develops sentience

This one man job through 40 years of plains dust and plains snow has left in just the sort of condition I love the most… various stages of decay and function.

early Westworld prototype

The town itself is behind the Buffalo Ridge gas station and store where you buy buffalo meat and a range of Knick knacks and admission to the town out back. It contains all the greatest hits of the Old West Town of our collective mind arranged along one Main Street: A gallows, a saloon, a gold mine, a post office, even a dentists office.

the main drag the usual suspects

Each of these contains a tableau, either moving or formerly moving, operated by pressing a button or sometimes standing on a certain place

oh this is gonna be good

yep, it’s really good.

These scenes show ordinary life not much different than ours besides the fashions, and scenes quite a lot more “frontier-sy” . There were a lot more ghosts back then you know.

post office customer service is one of the constants of the universe

all haunted saloons should come with signs like this so consumers can make educated choices

Hand painted signage explains the scenes before you so as to make the town theoretically educational, probably one of the bullet points any kitch roadside attraction has to hit to qualify for my top 10.

rare photo of the man who went on to become the Cryptkeeper in his younger years

mmmmmmmmm I feel awkward

Some of 1880 Cowboy Town’s characters and information are familiar like its homage to Abraham Lincoln, and some less so, like the story of Potato Creek Johnny, a very small man who found gold in the Dakota Territory and who I had never heard of, so I guess this truly is an educational place.

Abe lost his hat

actually pretty terrifying

now you too know the Legend of Potato Creek Johnny

And even some of the familiar characters may seem different than you remember

wtf y’all

The town has everything it needs for both the life and the death of its citizens. Including a sheriff station with a gallows and a coffin shop.

try this on for size

Perhaps best of all, it has it’s own frontier cemetery, complete with period correct wooden tombstones and hand painted witty epitaphs.

Dad jokes for… well, eternity I guess

In what I might call the town square in this circumstance, stands The Worlds Largest Six Gun Shooter, the gun that won the West.

wondering where the “big things” was gonna come in were ya?

This thing actually seems pretty small but the sign says it’s the biggest and really if some jerk went and built a bigger six gun to steal the title from this one gas station town, I wouldn’t acknowledge them. Choose a different number of chambers, man.

I’ve always wanted to take one of these wacky perspective photos and then I just go and blink

Overall, 1880 Cowboy town isn’t exactly a museum. It’s not even what I would call “accurate”. The year 1880 here isn’t exactly idealized, but it’s not really realistic either.

I’m hesitant to wholly condemn the romanticization of the American West. I’m certainly guilty of it, but it was never something I did on purpose. Life on the frontier was, for the most part, horrible and short for both the settlers and the Natives they displaced. In my mind though, there has always been another American West. Not the real one, full of cholera and lawlessness and genocide, but the other one. The one you see when you put on a sheriff badge and a cap gun as a child. The one full of heroes and outlaws who were still good guys, and horse chases and buffalo herds and dying by flipping over and turning into a tidy tombstone in Oregon Trail. As you grow up, and learn more, you slowly realize that was never the West, and how you pictured it fades and gets grittier and more dirty and the parts that used to fit together fall apart. 1880 Cowboy Town sort of looks like that; A child’s dream of the American West, exposed to truth and wind and dust for 40 years.

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