How the West was Lost

          THE SIGN IN front of the old Stagecoach Museum reads "now open," and it's not entirely inaccurate. Long ago, vandals put out the eyes of the rotting buildings and tumble-down facades that make up the abandoned theme park in Shakopee, and now the empty sockets are open to the rain, wind, and snow. At the neighboring gun shop, a midget plays welcome wagon to the occasional curiosity seeker. "You can go on back there," he says with the confident shrug of a man who handles bolt-action rifles and shiny hand-guns for a living. "Just watch out for the floors. All rotted out. You'll go right through."

          The floors are rotten, joists showing through, and strewn with random rubbish; three hundred bowling pins, some of them painted in solid green or red, an old rusting stove. But here and there lie reminders of what this place used to be: a plaster horse's tail and a couple of steer horns lie scattered in one shack. In another, the strikers from a player piano tumble across the floor like pick-up sticks. In the old blacksmith's shop lies the gutted corpse of a nickelodeon cowboy--one footless, plaster leg connects to a torso bursting with metal springs and hinges. The cowboy's head, its face a mere gash, is topped by a fluff of white hair that floats gently in the breeze. In another shack, a headless aluminum torso wearing a dirty brassiere still sits atop the wreck of an old bone-shaker bicycle.

          Before Valleyfair, before the Renaissance Festival, before Spooky World, there was the Stagecoach Museum. For three decades that old nickelodeon cowboy provided amusement for throngs of thrill-seekers who wandered through the Stagecoach's old west town, refreshed themselves at the Stagecoach Restaurant, and took in a melodrama based on the Northfield Jesse James shoot-out at the Stagecoach Opera House. From 1951 to 1981, the paint was kept fresh on the facades, fast-draw shoot-outs beguiled tourists, acting students from the University staged musical olios, and Ozzie and Marie Klavestad, proprietors, dressed in period garb, greeted the visitors one by one. "It was their dream, and they lived it while they were there," says Marjory Rines, Ozzie and Marie's daughter. "Their whole life was built around the Stagecoach."

          The Klavestads founded their museum and restaurant, according to legend, because Ozzie's gun collection had outgrown their home. At one point, the extraordinary collection included a Winchester 66 and a 22 caliber lever-action rifle both formerly owned by Buffalo Bill Cody; Annie Oakley's Stevens; Chief Shakopee's 41 caliber four-barreled revolving rifle; a 31 caliber Colt that belonged to Minnesota's first governor, Alexander Ramsey; a Colt Patterson Percussion revolver owned by Czar Nicholas II; and a 45 caliber Schofield Smith and Wesson revolver dropped by Frank James on his way out of Northfield after he and Jesse robbed the bank. (Charlie Pitts, another member of the James gang, never made it out of Northfield. Ozzie bought his skeleton and put it in the museum.) And that's just the celebrity guns. Thousands upon thousands of firearms, rare and unusual, filled out the collection, and jammed the Klavestad household beyond tolerance.

          Guns were Ozzie's specialty; he bought his first cap gun at the age of 5 and owned over a hundred before he turned 18. But anything to do with the western frontier fascinated him; he even sported a Bill Cody beard. "Everybody liked him," Rines says. "He was easy going, good natured, loved to talk guns and old west. He was really quite a historian. He read all the time: history of the West and Civil War history." The Stagecoach became a public display case for his obsessions.

          Ozzie and Marie discovered the Stagecoach site by accident, according to a 1964 book on gun collecting. "I guess I'm not much of a weather prophet," Ozzie told author Hank Wieland Bowman, "because I took Marie out one evening for a drive about 10 years ago. There'd been no sign of bad weather when suddenly we found ourselves lost in a howling rainstorm. Our port in a storm turned out to be a lonely, almost deserted, down-at-the-heels roadhouse. On an impulse we decided that since our home had already turned into a semi-museum we might as well have the name and the game and combine business with pleasure, so we made a deal to buy the place." As it turns out, the place, Four Mile House, had been a stagecoach stop between Shakopee and Savage in the horse and wagon days. The name became The Stagecoach Museum; the game began with Ozzie's guns, and expanded over the years to include the opera house and the Sand Burr Gulch, a recreated old west street complete with blacksmith, barber shop, saloon, and animated cowboy puppets that acted out jerky wild west scenes for the general public.

          For 30 years, Ozzie and Marie ran their enterprise with the help of a bevy of hired hands who lubricated the cowboys and ran the restaurant and theater. But as the 1970s waned, Ozzie, who turned 70 with the decade, began to long for rest. In 1981, he and Marie sold out; the museum and the land it stood on went to a local who had big plans to carry on the tradition. "Oh, he was going to make it even bigger and all this," says Rines. "None of that happened." Instead, the Stagecoach Museum began the slow descent of time into rubble. "I think they were sorry they sold it," she says. "I think they were lonely. I think they would have liked to have been there to the end." By the time Ozzie died in a nursing home in 1986, his abandoned dream museum was already in broken fragments.

          Today the opera house is barely a shell. Through a hole in the roof, a shaft of sunlight probes the soot-blackened seats that Marie Klavestad upholstered by hand. Gone is the life-sized nude that adorned one wall. Gone is the carved bar. Gone is the miniature plastic figurine of Ozzie that used to pop out over the door before showtime shooting a miniature gun. Neighbors in a row of tumble-down houses behind the Gulch have taken over a few of the old shacks for out buildings to house lawnmowers and broken chairs. A handful of horses and cows penned just past the blacksmith's shop spend their days peering with slow, dreamy eyes down the avenue of rotting boardwalks and crab grass, while the cars whiz by high overhead on a widened 101. The new highway and bridge project nicked the edge of the Stagecoach Museum, and the wound has been infected with the dirt of progress: Shakopee boosterism, roadside development, the need for motorists to buy things along the highway. It all adds up to demolition. "I got the city of Shakopee on my ass," shrugs Cal Hotzler, who bought the property from the Klavestads. "I'm in the process of getting demolition in line right now. I hope it's torn down within the next 30 days."

          The bulldozers will arrive just ahead of the snow. And the Stagecoach Museum will at last give up the ghost. The snap of splintering timbers will echo like the sound of gunfire, and in the end, silent winter will settle onto an empty field of gravel.

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