The Story of Frontier Valley

Frontier Valley

Courtesy of the Dennis Historical Society Digital Archives.

The 1950’s were the infancy of television.  In 1950 only nine percent of American homes had a television, by 1960 that number had reached ninety percent.  A common staple of television in those days was the Western.  It was a show set in the Old West, usually starring cowboys.  In the 1950’s Westerns like Gunsmoke, Maverick, The Rifleman, The Lone Ranger, and more dotted the daily schedules.  The Western craze was nationwide, it stretched all the way to Cape Cod.  Did you know that for a time beginning in the 1950’s there was a Western-style village located in Dennis?  This is the story of Frontier Valley.

Frontier Valley would get its start as land belonging John Melanson.  He had established Melpet Stables in 1952 on Rt. 134 in Dennis.  In 1957 the seeds for Frontier Valley were being laid as a tract of land at Melpet was leased to a group of men comprised of Paul Sullivan, his brother Jim, and their friend John Doherty.  The idea for a western-style amusement park in Dennis was spawned from another project being built in Hyannis by Jim Sullivan called Storyland.  This fairy tale themed park operated on the grounds of the future Cape Cod Mall.

Courtesy of the Dennis Historical Society Digital Archives.

The group constructed an authentic-looking western Main Street among the deep pine forest that once made up much of the area.  After arriving at Frontier Valley down a tree-lined dirt road visitors would see buildings with names such as Frontier Hotel, Cattlemen’s Bank, Pony Express, Dusty Gulch Jail, and Uncle Milt’s Trading Post.  The ownership group brought in roughly twenty actors to fill roles for the park which included mock robberies and shootouts.  The group also scoured New England in search of genuine western equipment like stagecoaches to make the experience as authentic as it could be.

Opening in time for the summer in 1957 admission at Frontier Valley cost ninety cents for adults and fifty cents for children (approximately $8 and $4.50 in 2019) while children under age six were free.  Running from sunrise to dusk the park was an immediate hit.  Visitors would come early and stay late enjoying the true to life western town.  The first season was a rousing success.

In late 1957, after the first season of Frontier Valley, the rural area of Dennis nearly had another new attraction.  Warren McDermott, who owned twenty acres of land on Airline Road in Dennis not far from Frontier Valley, petitioned to build a stock car race track on his property.  The land once used to train horses would be home to the track and grandstand which would have seated 4,000 people.  The cost was rumored to be $100,000 ($904,000 in 2019).  Despite their being similar tracks in use in Norwood and Seekonk the track idea was refused by the town.  McDermott would cut his losses and eventually run a trailer park campground on his land instead.

Frontier Valley would continue its success by incorporating horse shows and rodeos into its schedule.  This would include shows featuring the Barnstable Hoofbeats Horse 4-H Club which held a special show at the park on Memorial Day Weekend 1959 complete with an exhibition from John Doherty’s daughter Katherine and her trick horse Ginger.  In October 1960 a horse show run by the Cape Cod Horseman’s Association would draw 400 people.  However the highest point of Frontier Valley was their association with a television western star. 

Texas-born Rex Trailer, who came to Boston in 1956 to star in his own children’s show ‘Boomtown’ would be a frequent guest performer at Frontier Valley and other Cape Cod locales.  His fame, talents, and child friendly show made him a perfect guest.  He would continue his appearances at local fairs and events throughout the 1960’s with his Boomtown show lasting until 1974.  However Frontier Valley would not last nearly that long.

The ownership group of Doherty and the Sullivan brothers ran Frontier Valley for a few years with success, when their other business ventures began to take up much of their time though they knew they had to cut ties with something.  The group would sell their park to Interstate Theaters, owners of several Cape movie houses as well as the Yarmouth, Dennis, and Hyannis Drive-Ins.  The western craze soon died down and Frontier Valley would not survive.  It was closed shortly after being sold and the property became a stable where horses were boarded.

Aside from three suspicious fires in the ensuing years the property would remain relatively unchanged until 2000 when A&P Supermarket petitioned the town to open a 40,000-square foot grocery store on the grounds.  The company promised to donate ten acres of the land for public open space, and 600 plantings to give their store more of a park-like feel, however that did not sway the town.   Though meetings and debates raged on throughout 2000 ultimately the supermarket chain was rejected by the town.

In May 2001 the Town of Dennis purchased the 19-acre Melpet Farm and gave 6.4-acres to the Dennis Housing Authority to maintain affordable housing units which already existed on the premises.  Those would be torn down in 2013 making way for the Melpet Farm Residences built there in late 2015.  The affordable housing shares the property with the Bits & Bridles Farm.

Chris Setterlund Photograph

Today when driving down the still relatively-rural section of Route 134 in Dennis it is hard to imagine what used to exist near the intersection with Old Chatham Road.  For a few years a thriving western-style theme park thrilled numerous children and their families.  Though buried in the past after being closed for more than fifty-five years there are still some who reside on the Cape that look back with fond memories of a brief time when the Old West was only a short drive away.

By Christopher Setterlund
737 West Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
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