Frontier Town was a huge success when it opened at the remote north end of the Cedar Point property for the 1967 season. So popular, in fact, that the Frontier Lift Von Roll gondola was added to increase access to the area the following year, and in 1969 the land was enlarged and the Cedar Creek Mine Ride and Antique Cars attractions were added.
The next logical step was carving out a path which guests could walk (at a leisurely pace) to the rear of the park—and this was Frontier Trail, which opened for the 1971 season.
Unlike today’s park guide maps for Cedar Point, this kind of artful rendering pictured above—somewhat abstracted in a cartoonish way—was very popular at the time (every park from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to Six Flags Over Texas had maps drawn with this same particular look). I suspect the style was influenced by the design and illustration of Push Pin Studios in New York City, co-founded by the famed Milton Glaser. That shop’s approach to drawing and lettering reached an apex as the 1960s turned to the 70s, and was found everywhere from advertising to animation on Sesame Street.
The highlights of Frontier Trail weren’t flashy midway rides or the roller coasters which Cedar Fair is (still) famous for. Actually, taking a cue from places like Silver Dollar City (Branson, Missouri; opened 1960) and Goldrush Junction (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; originally opened in 1961 as Rebel Railroad, now Dollywood) the focus was on something with an even a stronger pull than the Old West—Simpler Times, Pioneer Living, and the Arts & Crafts of America’s forefathers.
What’s so strong about this approach is that it spans multiple regions of the country; basically, anywhere Americans once lived in log cabins. From the forests of Upstate New York to the woods of the Midwest all the way down into Appalachia and the Southeast, the setting is not so much geography as it is simply past times; a former way of life.
The headline “Authentic Log Cabins become Theatres of Pioneer Crafts” from this opening season brochure is incredibly, impossibly precinct. Become theatre. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore’s The Experience Economy (1999, updated in 2011) is a groundbreaking text in which the authors describe the evolution of late capitalism from extracting resources, to manufacturing goods, to offering services, and finally to—in this, our present state—staging experiences. In their own words, “Theatre is not a metaphor. Theatre is real.” Here on the Frontier Trail, the various experiences staged—making candles, blowing glass, weaving, whatever—are signifiers of pre-industrial society, but they also represent the staging of the production of the goods to be consumed. It’s very much like the current trend in open kitchens at restaurants.
Here’s something I did not expect to see—steampunk theming. The typography again appears to be from the Letterhead Font Foundry. As usual with such geek subcultures, by the time they’ve made their way beyond the Comic-Cons and WonderCons to mainstream recreation venues like a Cedar Fair or Six Flags park, they’re well past their street-cred expiration date.
The same goes for Voyage to the Iron Reef at Knott’s Berry Farm (2014) or the new mini-land around Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain (2015) . But at least those designs are appropriately set off in their own areas. Here on the Frontier Trail—amid actual historic, relocated pioneer cabins that wildly predate the Victorian Era—it’s totally out of place.
“Authentic Log Cabins” is a bit misleading, because just like at Greenfield Village at the Henry Ford, there is a mixture of the historic / relocated / restored, newly built to look old, and everything in between. Not to mention the props, artifacts, and graphics and signage. Here on the Frontier Trail we have the REAL fake, the FAKE real, the REAL REAL, and the FAKE FAKE.
What on earth do I mean by that? Well, REAL REAL means the design is not trying to fool anyone; it is what it is. And FAKE FAKE means the very same—no one is being fooled, it’s fake and it looks and feels fake too. Things get more slippery with the REAL fake and the FAKE real. Which is this building, The Candle Shop, pictured above? It doesn’t appear to be fake / newly built; it does look to be actually old. In fact, it’s the only structure on the Frontier Trail with a historic marker:
The Hessenauer Cabin
Originally Near Galion, Ohio
Built about 1835 by Early Settler Adam Remsch
So here we have the REAL REAL (though the cabin has been retrofitted inside, there is electric power, there is an ADA access ramp to one side of the front porch, etc).
Another REAL REAL log cabin was originally the Trading Post when the Trail opened, but is now the Candy Shoppe. But there is a catch. If you look carefully at the front porch, it was built around the rather large tree in front of the cabin, and the tree goes through a hole in both the flooring and the roof. So was the roof original to the cabin, and altered in situ to accommodate the tree, or was it built new (to look old) meaning REAL fake? I don’t know, and that’s the conundrum with this stuff.
Across from the Candy Shoppe is the Addington Mill. This is REAL REAL, a water-powered grist mill which was relocated from Macon County in North Carolina. Adding some fakery though is the “Established 1835” when the mill was actually built in 1861. Just like other places I’ve visited like Deadwood, South Dakota, there is a layer cake effect going on—real and fake intermingle to the point where it’s impossible to peel back the onion skin layers to tell which is which.
The Log Cabin Settlement is a grouping of four historic structures, all unique in scale and design. No specific historical markers on any of the four are present (unlike the Hessenauer Cabin) but there is a general notice about the group of cabins as a whole:
Early Ohio settlers often built their log cabins close together for protection, company and cooperative clearing and farming. The first such settlement in Sandusky began in 1790 with the Western migration of “burned out” Connecticut families occupying the new “Western Reserve” and “Firelands” later surveyed by Moses Cleaveland in 1796 and named the Ohio Territory. The cabins here are original dating back to about 1850 and were moved to this site from nearby townships.
Here in this panorama, from left to right, are Paul's Woodcarver Shop, the Fort Sandusky Mining Company, the Frontier Merchant, and Erie County Custom Jewelers.
This shop in particular reminded me of Ghost Town at Knott’s Berry Farm, and in fact Ghost Town is pretty much the same kind of thematic environment—a mixture of historic / restored / relocated and new, built-to-look-old structures with a mix of graphics and signage. Indeed I would be very surprised if the designers of Cedar Point’s Frontier Trail did not do research at Knott’s.
This sign is an example of the FAKE real. I can look at it and tell that this is not a vintage, historial piece. But, unlike the REAL fake, it’s not making any pretense of being authentic, either.
It’s a shame that Cedar Point only hocks mostly generic “Old West” souvenirs in these shops. When Frontier Trail opened, a major selling point of the area was the authentic craft demonstrations and unique wares offered. But in this current era of corporatization, uniformity is more cost-effective. The same thing has happened to DIsney’s parks over the years (and even to Knott’s Berry Farm).
Fort Sandusky is not a historic structure, rather it’s the REAL fake, a recreation of a British fort built in 1761 using period-appropriate materials. The original fort burned down some two years after its construction during the “Pontiac Conspiracy” (we love calling Native American uprisings “massacres” or “conspiracies”—how dare the original inhabitants of this land plot against their invaders!) so this ‘recreation’ can’t possibly be accurate in any real sense; at best it’s probably ‘representative’ of British forts of the era. In an appropriate twist, this fort is comprised of numerous souvenir shops.
The sign is clearly FAKE real, because although it’s designed and painted to look authentic, this recreation represents 1761, and the painted wood type lettering style is from the 1800s. Slab serif typefaces hadn’t been invented yet, but because they telegraph “Old West” to the public at large so effectively, they are employed here.
I actually took this photo from the opposite direction, facing north (back towards the way I was walking from) because I was curious how Fort Sandusky would present from that vantage; it’s a bit more stately.
This is the E.J. Hammer Blacksmith Shop, another historic building (REAL REAL). Unlike some of the other structures on the Trail which no longer feature live craft demonstrations, an actual blacksmith is often here working the bellows and hammering out metal objects (which are of course available in the adjoining shop). The PONY RIDES sign is a silly addition (FAKE FAKE), particularly with the cartoon horse head, but the painted and route-cut wood type behind it on the building is pretty nifty (REAL fake).
Just across the way, this historic log barn is really a wine and beer tasting venue called the Trail Tavern (I guess Ohio actually is a wine producing region, I had no idea). This building used to stage woodworking demonstrations back when the Trail opened, and later as the Toy Barn offered wooden toys and other trinkets for sale. In 2014 the barn was refurbished and reopened as this tavern.
Ok. Coke machines. They’ve got to go somewhere, I suppose. Although on the whole it’s a rather tacky standout given the historical recreation vibe of the rest of the Frontier Trail area, I still think the design choices here are considered (if I’m being generous). The Coca-Cola Company hails from Atlanta, and there’s an appropriate Southern plantation vibe to this small farm-esque shack.
The Frontier Town / Frontier Trail areas are essentially bookended at both the north and south ends with a entertainment venue. Here at the south end, the more higher class Red Garter Saloon has more of a Great Plains / Midwestern style than the strictly Far West / Southwest feeling of Frontier Town’s version; a sort of “Steamboat Baroque.” By that I mean, it rings more of Branson, Missouri than Tombstone, Arizona.
Small hand-painted signage details still abound though, refreshingly free of corporate logos.
On the left of the Red Garter Saloon in this step panoramic is The China Shop, which was originally a print shop years ago. To the right is one of those “Old Timey” photography studios where Western costumes and props are provided for guests to stage historical daguerreotypes in classic sepia tones. When Frontier Trail opened, this was listed as an apothecary shop on maps.
Since I only walked the trail from north to south, beginning with the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad station in Frontier Town and ending here at the Red Garter, I encountered all the designs in these environments from primarily single vistas; I only saw the Town and Trail unravel in one way.
In retrospect, I wish I had taken the extra time to explore in both directions. However, in taking the railroad to Frontier Town rather than walking, I was recreating the original way guests experienced the area (1967) before the trail was added (1971), so I suppose there is some value in that.
Upon exiting Frontier Trail back out to the Millennium Midway, the last structure to the right (west) was truly jarring—a pioneer-style barn / ranch house which is home to a Panda Express Chinese fast food outlet (the building has been home to a variety of fried chicken and BBQ outfits over the years; Panda set up shop in 2007). It’s the kind of poor design thinking you see at Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks, like the Subway sandwiches outlet on the Main Midway in my first post on Cedar Point. I suppose it’s just more bizarre to see Chinese food and the Old West in the blender (sandwiches in a Victorian-inspired Midwestern setting seems like a smaller reach).
But that’s the thing with parks like Cedar Point—you take the design contractions with a grain of salt, knowing, after all, this isn’t Disney and they’re not truly in the theming business to begin with.