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Document Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

History

Year Degree Awarded

2017

Month Degree Awarded

September

First Advisor

David Glassberg

Second Advisor

Christian Appy

Third Advisor

Samuel J. Redman

Fourth Advisor

Mark Hamin

Subject Categories

Oral History | Public History | United States History

Abstract

This study examines sites of Old West tourism—specifically the three California theme parks of Knott’s Berry Farm, Calico Ghost Town, and Frontier Village—as avenues through which the myth of “the West” gets propagated, even among the people of the American West, and even if these sites do not reflect the actual history of the region. California’s Old West theme parks act as windows into mid-twentieth-century cultural conflicts of politics and identity within the state. But these sites are artifacts of a particular historical moment and their fantasy of the Old West memorializes mid-century renderings of the past rather than nineteenth-century California. Additionally, this project investigates land-use politics surrounding the Old West tourism industry, weaving together the physical environment with the ways mid-century Californians perceived where they lived and played. Further, the three Old West theme parks in this study demonstrate the monetary value of California’s history, and how its commodification both distorts the state’s past and appeals to visitors interested in this past, thus directly competing with traditional educational venues like local museums and historic sites. Finally, this project analyzes how continued use of California’s Old West theme parks—even those no longer in business—as sites of memory for both the state’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century history speak to the cultural importance of these landscapes, which even today affect the ways Californians remember their past.

The Old West is an American cultural construct not limited to California and Californians, and the themes uncovered in California’s fantasy frontier of Old West theme parks—particularly racial identity, but also gun violence and the role of the individual versus collective (government)—have a significant continuing impact on the nation’s political culture and the formation of public memory.

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