In its day, Six Gun Territory was a hot property.
Opening with great fanfare on Feb. 2, 1963, the Western-themed attraction would draw thousands of visitors to Ocala during its 20-year lifespan. Six Gun and nearby Silver Springs attraction were among the premier stops in pre-Disney Florida.
Yet, even as this frontier town in the East reveled in its newness, the seeds of its demise were being sown some 100 miles to the south.
A cartoonist from California was looking to re-create some Western magic of his own in the eastern half of the country. And Florida was ripe.
In fact, had Florida’s Turnpike and Interstate 4 not intersected where they do just south of Orlando, that city’s fate might have been Ocala’s. For a time, Ocala was in the hunt for the new playground dubbed Walt Disney World.
To compound Six Gun’s eventual woes, while Orlando was urbanizing, so were the television networks; Westerns, a staple much of the 1950s into the ’70s, were disappearing from the airwaves.
The romantic image of the Wild West was passé, and Six Gun Territory eventually became a ghost town. It closed for good just shy of 21 years after opening.
In 1986, the deserted buildings were bulldozed and burned, making way for the Six Gun Plaza and the Oak Hill Plantation home on State Road 40 East.
“We used to have a good time out there,” recalled 77-year-old Herbert “Boots” Hooker, a barber whose shop in Six Gun Plaza is a few steps from where the aerial Sky Ride transported guests from the Silver Springs Boulevard entrance to the Old West town.
“When Disney came,” he said, “it kind of knocked us out.”
In the beginning
Silver Springs was an established attraction, she said, and its visitors were likely to stop by a nearby Western-themed attraction featuring gunfights, can-can dancers and the wholesomeness of Middle America.
“It had a good, clean identity that’s hard to find anymore,” added Terry Roberts of Roberts Funeral Home — a friend of cast members, frequent visitor and occasional fill-in character.
Construction of the Western town was overseen by Toni’s husband, Jack, now 79. He came to Ocala with Coburn after building Ghost Town in North Carolina — a mountaintop attraction that, Wilson said, “was so good it paid for itself the first year.”
Six Gun Territory featured an Indian village that, for its day, was surprisingly authentic, as well as a Mexican village and carnival rides.
Six Gun also featured the rarest of Florida commodities at the time: a mountain. The 60-foot-high structure was built of two-by-fours, chicken wire and building mud.
Sonny Foster, who retired a few years ago as principal of Emerald Shores Elementary, worked at Six Gun as a teen. He recalls helping repair the mountain after a storm ripped away some of its surface. “It was amazing how they made it,” he said.
The 40 buildings in the town — a good-sized city for the Old West — included a courthouse, saloons, the Frontier Hotel (where visiting stars stayed), a jail, a Morrison’s cafeteria, a schoolhouse and the non-denominational Frontier Community Church, which was packed every Sunday morning for services.
The train ride from the entrance, where Bealls department store is today, was routinely ambushed. Bank robberies happened daily, followed by shootouts between good guys and bad guys. Digger, the town’s comical undertaker, was kept busy.
In the early years, admission was $2 for adults, and just half that for children. Eventually, the price rose to $5.95 — a bargain considering theme park admission costs today.
It was all designed for fun. Coburn wanted it that way. He once wrote that “Mrs. (Jeanette) Coburn and I like people. We decided years ago that we wanted to find a business which would give us the chance to spend our time with people who are having fun.”
Many folks who have lived here since the 1960s either worked at Six Gun themselves or know someone who did.
Foster said he was only 13 when he started to work there in the 1960s.
“I tried out for cowboy once,” he said. “I rolled off the roof and hurt my ankle. That was it.”
Earl DeBary didn’t actually work for Six Gun, though he would fill in as a gunfighter as needed. As a supervisor for United Telephone, the attraction was in his area, and he could get in through the service entrance in the back.
“When I heard someone was coming I wanted to meet,” DeBary said, “I’d develop some phone troubles out there.”
Marilyn Clark also didn’t actually work for Six Gun. But her family’s Sky Ranch on Northeast Jacksonville Road provided horses used at the park.
“We brought the horses back and forth from Six Gun to Sky Ranch,” she recalled. The six-mile trail was along Joy Avenue — today it’s Northeast 35th Street.
One day, she said, her supervisor said flu had wracked the cast and there was need for a girl in a saloon. “He said I could go if I promised to come back,” Morgan recalled. “Well, I crossed my fingers behind my back and said sure.”
Not long after, she became a can-can dancer for another 18 months. She still owns a yellow chair from the Red Dog Saloon.
“My daughter says I should get rid of it,” she said. “But there’s no way.”
At least two albums of music from the Red Dog and Palace saloons were produced over the years. Royal Guardsman Billy Taylor said in an interview for crazedfanboy.com that he played the honky tonk piano at Six Gun for two and a half years beginning in 1970 — after he quit the band of “Snoopy” fame.
The cover photo for Molly Hatchet’s “No Guts. No Glory” album, released in 1983, reportedly was shot at Six Gun.
And though the music played, it was getting old. The end was near.
Walt Disney himself was in Ocala 10 months after Six Gun opened. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, he was aboard an airplane that took off from Ocala, scoping sites for Project Future, an idea that would become Walt Disney World.
The decision to go with Central Florida was made on that flight, according to Faulkner (Ala.) University professor Chad Denver Emerson in his book “Project Future: The Inside Story Behind the Creation of Disney World.”
After a stop in New Orleans, where Disney and other passengers would learn of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination that day, Disney announced “that Central Florida appeared to be their location,” Emerson wrote in a 2009 report on the Reedy Creek Improvement District for the Florida State University Law Review.
Ocala was an early frontrunner.
A Disney-commissioned study noted, according to Emerson’s Reedy Creek paper, that “the Ocala area was the optimum geographic location for such a project because of the large number of out-of-state visitors … that passed through or near the city annually.”
Yet because of the turnpike/interstate proximity to Orlando, the same report concluded that Orlando “offered greater potentials for development … than the Ocala area.”
That Disney could pick up some 27,000 acres of Orlando-area land for about $200 an acre may have factored in.
“They operated out of the Holiday Inn at Silver Springs,” said David Cook, retired Star-Banner editor and an avid Marion County historian.
“And as a nearly lifetime resident of Ocala,” he added, “thank goodness it (Disney) went to Orlando!”
On Oct. 1, 1971, the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World opened to the public. It wouldn’t be long before Disney became THE tourist destination in Florida.
Says Cook: “Anybody who came to Florida was headed for Disney” — passing on Six Gun Territory, Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Marineland in St. Augustine, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg and a host of other once-premium Florida attractions.
Millions, on the other hand, visit Disney — and other Orlando attractions — every year, dropping hundreds of millions of dollars into the Central Florida economy.
At the same time, Western-themed shows were vanishing from the culture. In their heyday, “Bonanza,” “Wagon Train,” the venerable “Gunsmoke” and others ruled TV. In 1958-59, there were 28 prime-time Westerns on every week, seven of them in the Top 10 most-watched shows, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications’ website.
But by the early 1980s, the cowboy had ridden into the sunset — replaced on the airwaves by the likes of “Laugh-In,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “All in the Family” and the Fonz — even “Welcome Back, Kotter,” starring a young John Travolta.
On Jan. 1, 1984, Six Gun closed its doors for good. It closed briefly in late 1978, but reopened under new ownership a few months later.
But by April 1984, there would be no second reprieve. Most of Six Gun’s assets were sold at a three-day auction. The buildings were bulldozed and burned two years later.
The tower clock, installed in Six Gun’s frontier courthouse after the old Marion County Courthouse was demolished in 1965, was returned to Ocala. Today, what’s billed as the “original clockworks of the old Marion County Courthouse” sit in a glass-and-wood display case on the ground floor of the new Marion County Judicial Complex.
Whether these works spent time at Six Gun is not clear.
The Southern and Six Gun Railway train that ferried guests from the parking area out to the town — and was routinely ambushed along the way — still lives as the Jefferson and Cypress Bayou Railway in northeast Texas.
The back railroad depot was spared destruction, said Neal Frisbie with the Ocala Model Railroaders Club. He has photos of the building being moved from the grounds and transplanted to private property near Sharpes Ferry bridge.
A couple of the gondola cars from the imported Italian sky ride added a couple of years after Six Gun opened — it towered 164 feet above the grounds — remain tucked away out of sight on private property behind Six Gun Plaza.
Frisbie built a 1/87-scale model of Six Gun Territory that for a while was displayed in a hobby shop at Six Gun Plaza. That shop is closed now, so the layout is stored by the hobbyist club. It is on display for a few more days at the Trains at the Holiday exhibit in the Webber Center at the College of Central Florida.
Finally, when Disney’s Space Mountain opened on Jan. 15, 1975, its 185-foot height dwarfed Six Gun’s. The local mountain was dismantled, remembered now only in photos and memories.
Elaine Hamaker, a former Star-Banner assistant editorial page editor, covered the downing of Six Gun’s frontier town for the newspaper. There was one discovery made when the wooden sidewalks were ripped up: a lot of spare change.
“There was a pretty good sum of money found there,” she recalled — quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies fallen from pockets of the thousands of visitors.
“There was a kind of sadness about it all,” she added. “Six Gun had been a landmark and there were a lot of fond memories here. It was all crumbling around me, bulldozers pushing buildings into the fire. It went out in a blaze of glory.”
Cook, while considering Six Gun “a great place,” recalled its end as something of “an anticlimax. Interest declined, crowds diminished, people were sick and tired of Westerns.”
“Disney was the attraction,” he added.
Yet the requiem is real. Rodney Boynton, 55, never worked there, and doesn’t know anyone who did. But as a boy, dragged from Orlando to a cabin in Salt Springs by his parents once a month during the 1960s, he would visit the attraction on every trip here.
“Good times, man,” he added wistfully. “They just faded away.”
By Rick Allen / Staff writer, Ocala Star Banner
Posted Dec 29, 2010 at 12:01 AM