The Legend of Wild Willie
It was 20 years ago this month when a tall, pony-tailed, white-bearded man and his band of dreamers began inviting the public to come experience the East Texas hillside they turned in to a mountain town.
Just a few months earlier, the bearded one, Dwight “Wild Willie” Martinek, and his son Dustin were driving in from Wimberley, Texas, to sell their welded artwork every month at First Monday Trade Days in Canton.
One day he spotted the brush and tree-covered elevated property next to Old Mill Marketplace on Highway 64. Where others saw a nightmare of tangled briars, Martinek saw a town — an 1800s pioneer and western-themed mountain town.
He leased the property from Old Mill and began to build and recruit shopkeepers and entertainers. It wasn’t long before others joined in his enthusiasm and began fulfilling their own dreams and soon Wild Willie’s Mountain popped up on the edge of the “world’s largest flea market.”
Vendors brought unique products from as far away as Louisiana and Arkansas and others started planning entertainment and many found their place in the “land rush” of Willie’s mountain.
A man called Teton Ken became the resident “mountain man” with his friendly mule and mule-riding dog, Tuffy. He built a replication of an underground mine to take visitors through and pan for gold.
Susan Matassa opened a merchandise store, Buffalo Girls Pony Express, and dressed up and acted the part of Calamity Jane.
Others opened an ice cream parlor, antique shops, and there were demonstrating artists with stone carvings, hand-dipped candles, and more. There was a sheriff’s posse patrolling on horseback, chuck wagon cook-offs, and eventually concerts with the likes of Jerry Jeff Walker and Charlie Daniels. It wasn’t long before people needed a place to stay over night and bed and breakfasts opened up on Wild Willie’s Mountain as well.
The mountain town included places like Blacksmith Junction, an Indian camp, Dodge City, the Old Grist Mill, and Chicken Bob’s to name a few. They named the streets things like Lazy Daze Lane, Ridge Road, and Yukon Valley Trail and at various times of the day gunfighters and Western re-enactors would put on a show in the streets.
At the end of one successful weekend Willie spoke to his mountain people in a newsletter note:
“Where else in Canton could you see a ‘hanging,’ knife and hatchet throwing, chain-saw sculpting, singing, painting, building, and fellowship like we had? Nowhere except The Mountain.”
Always the promoter, he took every opportunity to encourage the flock:
“Keep the hammers and saws chiming through the mountain. It looks better and better every day and the folks visiting are totally impressed and enthused. We thank you for all your hard work and efforts to making the mountain a success. It’s working. Happy trails till next time, WW.”
Wild Willie and the mountain people offered visitors a great shopping and entertainment experience and many came month after month to enjoy the festive atmosphere.
By early 1997 there were hundreds of vendors on the mountain and thousands coming to visit every month. “Calamity Jane” Matassa remembers the early days well and said they were a community of people having a lot of fun.
Along the way there were a few problems here and there but everyone worked hard to keep their dreams afloat, she said.
Then an “avalanche” of events almost took down Wild Willie’s Mountain.
“The port-a-potties went down the hill,” Matassa said.
As Martinek recruited vendors, he promised to keep things running smoothly and be their primary marketing guy in exchange for their rent money.
“He was a great promoter,” Matassa said. “He brought in tour buses and went to resort shows. He was a wheeler dealer and crossed some people but he always did me right.”
As Martinek raked in the money he got from vendors and others, he began to live beyond his means.
“He bought cadillacs, went to the boats, he thought it would never end. He overextended business to the max,” Matassa said.
During this time the vendors grew increasingly angry over problems with bad roads and at one point they had no water. After a while of complaining to no avail, they placed their rent checks in escrow until improvements on the mountain were done.
That occurred about the same time Martinek had just put down a wad of cash towards the purchase of adjacent land to continue his vision of adding more phases to the theme park.
Financial struggles and regrets that he’d let so many people down, ultimately led Martinek to take is own life at the end of 1997 in ultimate Old West fashion — he hung himself.
Matassa still remembers the incident well.
“He told his wife, ‘I’m going to go get a pack of cigarettes and he just killed himself,” she said.
One of the vendors, Indian Ken, found him in the barn.
It took a long while after Martinek’s death for the vendors to get their foot-hold, but they regrouped and continued the dream, renaming it The Mountain.
In 1998 Matassa added bathrooms and turned her place into the Buffalo Girls Hotel that’s still going strong today.
“Every First Monday I still dress up,” Matassa said. “I still act like I did when Willie was here. We’ve gone on and made the best of it.”
The vendors of The Mountain hit another big snag November 9, 2013, when a good portion of the shops burned up in a devastating fire.
“We’re still cleaning it up,” Matassa said.
Their true-grit determination keeps them rebuilding, reinventing, and having fun.
Her 16th Annual CASI-sanctioned Chili Cook-Off takes place April 4 this year, benefiting local pet rescuers and drawing thousands.
There are still gunfights and the David Cline stage provides country music every Friday and Saturday (of First Monday weekend).
Retailers have products like designer hand bags, bling, home furnishings, western quilts, and The Mountain continues to be a favorite place for many.
“I still love it,” Matassa said. “It’s beats a real job. I’ll stay as long as they’ll have me.”
As for Martinek, she remains grateful for what he started.
“I commend Willie for coming to Canton. I wish he would have done it right. Too much, too soon, too fast. I still believe in The Mountain.”
For more information visit buffalogirlshotel.com and cantonmountain.com.