'Wayback' to Frontier Village

Exhibit focuses on mid-century amusement parks that brought thrills to the South Bay
The new ‘It Takes a Village’ exhibit (entrance pictured here) now at Los
Gatos’ NUMU takes the wayback machine back to the days of the South Bay’s Frontier Village. All photos courtesy Lex Van den Berghe
Frontier Village flashback #1: train ride.
Frontier Village flashback #2: Kitty Hawk ride.
Frontier Village flashback #3: gunslinger showdown.
Frontier Village flashback #4: shackled.

Sure, Sunnyvale had beautiful orchards, and new neighborhoods of Eichler homes. But there wasn’t much excitement—not until Frontier Village opened some 50 years ago, Lex van den Berghe recalls.

He was among the first in line to catch the nostalgic exhibit ‘It Takes a Village: A trip back in time to Frontier Village, Santa’s Village, and Lost World,’ which just opened at the New Museum of Los Gatos.

“It was my happy place for the longest time,” Lex recalls of the western-themed amusement park, which operated from 1961 to 1980. The exhibit also takes in two mid-century contemporaneous parks in the South Bay, Santa’s Village (run by the operators of Frontier Village) and the Lost World.

The exhibit at NUMU Los Gatos runs through April 3. The museum is at 106 East Main Street, Los Gatos, in a repurposed mid-century modern building.

Lex, who’s 52 today and works as a product manager for Adobe, not as a cattle wrangler, still feels the draw of the Old West as strongly as when he was a boy—no more so than when visiting ‘It Takes a Village.’

“I was like a kook,” he says of seeing the exhibit. “I was giggling. I was like an eight- or ten-year-old again.”

The exhibit, curated by the museum’s Amy Long, “really captures so much” of Frontier Village, he says. “Even if you had never been there, you get a sense of what it was and what its specialness was.”

“It wasn’t just a place that had rides. Frontier Village was much more about doing stuff, not just passively taking a ride. You could get in a canoe with people and row a canoe. They had an archery range and a fishpond. You’d put bait on a line, and put it in the pond, and pull out a trout.”

“You could ride in an actual stage coach,” he says, “you could watch a gunfight.”

And for kids who wanted to go even wayer, wayer back, there was Lost World, which operated in Scott’s Valley from the mid-1960s to the mid- 1970s. The park featured immense, some even say life-sized, models of dinosaurs and ‘circus trees’—bizarre sculpted trees that were said to be almost as scary to small kids as the giant reptiles.

But for Lex, nothing beat Frontier Village.

“Like many kids I was obsessed with cowboys and Indians. It was on every kid’s mind back then,” says Lex, who began going there when he was six or so.

“Frontier Village was not dauntingly huge like Disneyland,” recalls Lex. “It felt huge to us kids, but I think parents felt fairly comfortable, because of its size, in letting their kids run loose like animals.

“It was a bunch of kids running wild, doing what they wanted to do. It was our first taste of independence in a place that wasn’t our neighborhood. It was such an immersive experience. It was like walking into a wayback machine and being [in the Old West].”

For more on the ‘It Takes a Village’ exhibit, click here.

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