Searching for the “Old West” in the Theme Towns of the New American West


  • Eric C. Ewert Weber State University Ogden, Utah 84403



Theme Towns, Tourism, Economic Development, American West, Old West


The Western Anachronism: thanks to western novels and Hollywood, the general public and a great many foreign visitors believe that the “Real West” is, or should be, the mythic West of cowboys and Indians, pickax miners, mountain trappers, and Oregon Trail pioneers.  And for a great many busted resource towns, Real West tourism seems to be the boom waiting to replace moribund mining, logging, ranching, and agriculture.  So, in many places, towns have rushed to re-create the past in order to attract visitors and new residents.  Tourists want to see 19th century saloons and bordellos, old-style signs, Main Street gunfights, blacksmith shops, and hitching posts, not irrigated agriculture, sprawling suburbs, interstate highways, franchise America, and retirement communities.  To meet these expectations, towns have reinvented themselves as “museums” of the Old West.  For some, historic preservation and resurrection of past landscapes have sufficed, but for others, the “old” look is completely contrived.  In both cases, this “Old West” iconography has become emblematic of the rapidly growing modern “New West.”  It appears as Victorian, Bavarian, Mining, Wild West, Alpine, Old West, Southwest, Frontier, and other themes.  Indeed, one can hardly visit a rural western town without seeing half-timbers or false fronts or board sidewalks or adobe bricks or tile roofs or some other representative adornment or period bric-a-brac.  Furthermore, the activities of tourism and outdoor recreation seem most at home when rooted in these “themed” landscapes.  The only problem is this: while many theme towns have enjoyed sustained economic success, the costs and tradeoffs have often rendered them no more real or stable than a western movie-set façade.

Author Biography

  • Eric C. Ewert, Weber State University Ogden, Utah 84403
    Professor of Geography
    Department of Geography


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