Williams column: Visit to Tweetsie a vacation staple for North Carolinians

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 6, 2012

By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
My favorite childhood summer vacation spot (and I think the grown-ups enjoyed it too) was Tweetsie. I have talked with many young adults who have recently taken their small children there, so Tweetsie’s popularity is still thriving. In the earlier grades at Granite Quarry School, we would begin the school year with individually rising from our seats and telling the class about our summer vacation. Many of those early experiences at public speaking concerned that little theme park just off of US Highway No. 421 between Blowing Rock and Boone.
Tweetsie, of course, first opened for business during the heyday of TV westerns and fed off their popularity. Tweetsie had a western-styled jail (and probably still does) equipped for souvenir photography, but its “backdrop” was in front, with the vacationing child, as a bad man, peering out through the jailhouse bars in front of him. In addition to playing the role of a desperado, the child could also be cast as Tweetsie Town’s sheriff in the tabloid known as the Tweetsie Gazette. His parents could purchase a copy, with his name proudly emblazoned as front page news in the role of the town’s brave sheriff, who had just survived a horrendous shootout, sending several outlaws to their final rest at Boot Hill. Upon that faux newspaper memento was, of course, printed the very same date of its printing, which matched the date of the family’s visit and the paper’s purchase, becoming a keepsake to be taken home and treasured.
There was a dance hall and “saloon” which served soft drinks and beer (the “root” variety). The gift shops were styled like old western buildings, selling items stamped with the “Tweetsie” logo. My parents purchased a giant “Tweetsie” cigar for me. It was meant only as a novelty, for it was about a foot-and-a-half long, but I later lit it up at home, tried to smoke it, and got sick.
The steam engine “Tweetsie” was really what everyone had made the trip up the mountain to see, as well as experiencing the ride in one of its pulled coaches along the 3-mile route around “Roundhouse Mountain.” The ride was scripted with the inclusion of the marshall, his deputies, train robbers, attacking Indians, cavalrymen and, of course, Fred Kirby. The script remained unchanged still, even when my late wife, both children and I experienced it in the late 1980s. The original script had evidently worked so well for so long that “fixing” was not needed.
Every child back then within a certain radius of Charlotte was, of course, familiar with Fred Kirby from his popular children’s television show on WBTV. Fred was our “regional cowboy” and would board the train in his western regalia and holstered six-guns. He seemed truly pleased that so many little boys had brought their cap-shooting sidearms to aid him in protecting Tweetsie from train robbers and “hostiles.” The train would slowly begin to pull out, but then a gunshot meaning “halt” would be heard as the marshall and his deputies would appear, carrying a strongbox of “gold.” This was to be loaded aboard Tweetsie, whose departure they had come so close to missing. The firing of a gun was accurate for that portrayed time period, as walkie talkies were many years away. The sound of gunfire could possibly also have been perceived as a threat, until the engineer caught sight of the men lugging the heavy strongbox in the train’s direction (robbers tend to be more into the business of lugging away, instead of lugging toward).
The “chugging” would begin again, and soon we passed by an “Indian Village” made up of mannequins, both human and horse (equinikins?). We also passed a “hobo encampment” consisting of mannequins, but these figures had evidently fallen on hard times, as they were not dressed as nicely as their store-window cousins.
After viewing these scenes of “still life”, we were surprised when something alive came out of the woods with pistols blazing: “train robbers.” Fred Kirby, the marshall and his deputies, aided by the host of little boys with their cap pistols, successfully fought off the train robbers and protected the shipment of gold.
Later on, the train would stop at Fort Boone, where the U.S. Cavalry was under an attack by Indians (both sides consisting of college students from Appalachian working at Tweetsie for the summer). One Indian would usually come running through the passenger coach whooping it up for the pint-size cowboys to practice their cap gun aim. Again, Fred Kirby, the marshall and his deputies, along with that multitude of “armed” little boys became embroiled in the gun battle, eventually making the difference in the conflict, thus saving the cavalry (which seemed to be a complete reversal of the norm in these sorts of situations).
Fred Kirby gave me one of his spent blank cartridges as a memento. For some months, the lingering smell of powder from that shell brought back my memories of those six-gun battles. In retrospect, all of Tweetsie’s depictions of cowboys, Native-Americans, lawmen, robbers, hobos and cavalrymen were all pretty much one-dimensional stereotypes, but at least all were equally offended.
One time, when my late wife Diane and I took our daughter Rachel there in the early 1980s, Fred Kirby was still there, in his 70s. We took a picture of him hugging Rachel. He handed out little cards containing his picture and autograph (the number of spent blank cartridges as mementos can only go so far). During that early ’80s trip, we stayed at the old Boone Holiday Inn. One morning, while eating breakfast in the motel’s dining room, we also saw Fred Kirby eating breakfast there, dressed in his western outfit, complete with pistols. After breakfast, we were going to go to Tweetsie. We realized that Fred had spent the night in the motel after driving up from his home in Love Valley, and upon the completion of his breakfast, he would be heading to Tweetsie just like us. It seemed strange for me to see him in such a setting. The little boy of 1958, still inside me somewhere, was disappointed that years ago, Fred Kirby had probably not slept out on the range, cooked grub over his campfire, and then ridden his horse into Tweetsie Town, but had instead slept in a bed at the Boone Holiday Inn, partaken of its breakfast buffet, and then driven to Blowing Rock to assume his Tweetsie persona. (His mode of transportation that morning was a wagon, although it was the sort crafted by Detroit and particularly meant for families instead of individuals.)
I realize that during this recollection, I have sometimes spoken in a rather tongue-in-cheek fashion of my old favorite childhood vacation place in the North Carolina mountains, but I would go there tomorrow (on very short notice) and ride that quaint little train over that 3-mile circle, looking forward again to the sight of those same scripted scenes along the route. I still have the hard-bound “Tweetsie book” telling the engine’s history, which my parents purchased for me in 1958. My mother wrote an inscription on the title page, but instead of writing it in the third person, she wrote it in the first person, as me, since my handwriting then, was pretty awful.
In a hand so clearly written that I can still read it plainly today, at both the book’s age and mine, my mother included the date and wrote: “On this day, I rode the Tweetsie train.” She then signed, also in my stead: “Mack Williams.”