It's not where you go - it's how you get there.
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FORT DODGE
a lost Florida roadside attraction

I’m a “roadside archaeologist.” My fascination with mid-century Americana began with an article in 1985 in the Washington Post about the decommissioning of Route 66. I’ve been “looking back” ever since.

In 2002 my wife and I moved just a few miles south of Weeki Wachee Spring, a Florida roadside attraction beckoning tourists since 1947.

After living in the area for a dozen years, I learned that there was another Florida tourist spot just up the road from Weeki Wachee - the “lost” roadside attraction of Fort Dodge.
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Just over half a century ago, an entrepreneur named Paul Bolstein opened FORT DODGE - a wild west town located on US 19 just north of Weeki Wachee Springs.

Unfortunately, Fort Dodge was only open a couple years until a little thing called Interstate 75 took all his customers away.

I had dreams of locating the ruins of Old Fort Dodge - shells of old buildings being reclaimed by nature. The information I had was sketchy at best - various sources reported that it was 4, 6 or 8 miles north of Weeki Wachee Spring. To get the exact location, I headed for the land office in Hernando County. There I located deeds to property purchased by the Bolstein Family that soon became fort Fort Dodge.

Paul Bolstein and his wife purchased roughly 37 acres on US 19 approximately 8 miles north of Weeki Wachee. I was initially worried that would put the park on the grounds of the current Winding Waters / Weeki Wachee High School.

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Documents indicated the Bolstein Family purchased three lots in an area known as HI-WAY FARMS, FIRST ADDITION. The dimension of each lot was indicated on the plat. I added up the total number of feet from the reference road (Atlanta Avenue), and converted that feet into mileage. The portion of old Fort Dodge that fronted US 19 was between .87 and .99 miles north of Atlanta Avenue.

I left the land office, jumped in my car and headed to US 19. I hit the GPS at Atlanta Avenue. As I drove by Winding Waters Middle and Weeki Wachee High, the GPS began to climb - .25 miles - .50 miles - .87 miles….I cleared the school!
But - right next door sat Weeki Wachee North, a 55+ manufactured home community….exactly .87 to .99 miles north of Atlanta Avenue, where property records indicated was once the home of old Fort Dodge.

So, as far as my hopes of locating remnants of Fort Dodge appear to be dashed, but my hunt for information and memorabilia on this lost piece of Florida roadside continues.

If you can add anything to the story of Fort Dodge, please
get in touch.

View my collection of Old Fort Dodge photos
here.

OLD FORT DODGE IN PICTURES


  • FORT DODGE GRAND OPENING - St. Petersburg Times, April 15, 1965
    From the April 15, 1965 St. Petersburg Times -

    WEEKI WACHEE - Fort Dodge, a few and different Florida adventure, swings open it’s stockage gate to the public at 9am today.

    Located north of here in US 19, the attraction is owned and operated by the Paul Bolstein family of St. Petersburg.

    Visitors can pan for gold in a cool mountain stream, ride a pony through Mystery Mountain, or watch a daring band of raiders bite the dust - all in one afternoon.

    Bostein said, “There’s picnic grounds here and lots of room to roam around.”
  • FT. DODGE - FLORIDA’S NEWEST TOURIST LURE - Variety, May 18, 1965
    FT. DODGE - FLA.’S NEWEST TOURIST LURE
    Do-It-Yourself Project Lets Visitor Mine Nuggets at Sutter’s Mill, Picnic, Etc. All for $1.65
    by Odie Anderson

    Brooksville Fla., May 18

    A new Fort Dodge, authentically barricaded behind a solid wall of halved pine and cypress, is rising in Sandland and an impatient public is already trekking down Front Street.

    This newest Florida tourist attraction, strategically located six miles north of ABC - Paramount’s Weeki Wachee Springs - home of live mermaids - and a few miles south of the Norris Co. Homosassa Springs on US 19, is the rapidly developing brainchild of Paul Bolstein and family. Significantly, it is a mere one-hour run from St. Petersburg and Tampa.

    The do-it-yourself project, with its one-mile highway stretch, was started three years ago by the Bolsteins - wife, two daughters and one son. And this particular bit of west is being won by traditional sweat, guts and imagination.

    New Yorker Bolstein, past owner of some 10 weekly newspapers, served a stint as operator of a riding school in St. Pete. This, coupled with a bit of ranching in Texas, prompted the present venture.

    The family affair is striving for authenticity. Considerable research has gone into establishing a historically accurate old west and education of small fry is high on the agenda. Emerging is a cowtown where a visiting family can find amusement for an entire day.

    CAN CAN DANCERS, TOO

    A preliminary opening found ready spectators for the Long Branch Saloon - stocked with well-stacked can can dancers - the Globe Press, Dodge House, a land office and general merchandise store.

    But the most popular magnet is Sutter’s Mill, with its mountain stream tumbling down some 300 feet into a small pond. Brook is also salted with genuine gold and silver nuggets and semi-precious stones. When panned by visitors, valuables are redeemed at the assayer’s office. Pans are provided and lucky prospectors have gleaned as much as $68 for a single gold nugget. Management purchases back the poke to re-seed Florida’s only gold and silver mine.

    Phosphorus painting highlight the history of the day of the Pony Express and it’s brief history in the cavernous Mystery Mountain. Black light plays on colorful scenes of the early west as spectators wind through a darkened area of manmade peaks. A taped recording narrates the saga of the sagebrush

    Starring as marshal of the historical replica is Johnny Dodge, film and TV character, who, with his trusty deputies, daily - and inevitably - subdues the forces of frontier crime in well done gunfights.

    Christine, the oldest Bolstein daughter, portrays an Indian princess. fitting well into the scene, while a Seminole family village adds color to the compound. Weathered wagon wheels, hitching posts and bovine skulls are used to resurrect picturesque days of the pioneer.

    A full-time artist is retained at Fort Dodge, responsible for the art work of the complex as well as roadside signs, more of which are needed to adequately air the attraction.

    LEASED SEVERAL CONCESSIONS

    The family has leased a number of concessions - the press, the steam engine, which shrilly conveys passengers around the 37 acre area, a stagecoach which catapults from the Wells Fargo office, the barbecued popcorn stand and others.

    Foreseeing the venture as more than a mere tourist attraction, the Bolsteins are planning a miniature western golf course, archery and shooting galleries and possibly square dancing to the music of The Thunderbirds, a “Grand Ole Opry” group.

    Plans have been laid for an adjacent Mexican village, which will require a tour through customs to an adobe studded compound and following an exchange of American money for South of the Border coin.

    Also plotted is an arena type area for presentation of theater-in-the-roux for the straw hat circuit and/or possibly bullfights or native talent.

    Envisioned is a constantly changing line up of entertainment, well spiced with book learning’ and catering to repeat family trade. Hopefully, Ford Dodge will soon be granted a charter designating it an incorporated town complete with US Post Office and with personnel of the establishment supplying the required population.

    Meanwhile, adults are paying a reasonable $1.65 entry fee, children under 12 traipse through the massive gate with its yet-to-be completed block house without charge. Picnic ares are provided in well shaded areas.

    Bolstein has clung doggedly to his controlling interest - resisting capitalistic offers which foresee for Fort Dodge a goldmine similar to that of Six-Gun Territory, some 50 miles northwest in the heart of Florida’s horse racing country. This compound, too, has an ABC-Par neighbor, the Silver Springs spread.

    Pay dirt is a mere trickle at Fort Dodge to date. However, the compound which was only a sign by the side of the highway for many months is beginning to make noises indicating that its owner has struck it rich. Proper pushing can put it on the map.
  • HIS WILD WEST IS IN FLORIDA - Staten Island Advance, August 27, 1965
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    by Judith Ayers

    Fort Dodge, given a rebirth in Florida by former Staten Islander, employing professional cowboys and complete with an authentic Seminole Indian village, is a hot-wild, bronco-busting, gold-digging replica of the famous old western town.

    “To recapture and authenticate the heritage of the frontier,” is what Herman Paul Bolstein, his wife, son and tow daughters have been trying to do for the past three years at their wild west fort in Weeki Wachee, near St. Petersburg, Florida.

    The fort itself aims at genuine duplication of the fact and flavor that went into the Arkansas cow town. The Long Branch Saloon is there, the Globe Press, Dodge House a land office and the general store.

    The biggest attraction is Sutter’s Mill. This has a mountain stream, salted with gold nuggets and other precious stones, that rumbles down 300 feet of mountain into a small pond. Visitors may pan the stream and redeem their valuables at the fort’s assay office. Some lucky prospectors have received as much as $68 for their finds.

    An educational emphasis is stressed throughout the fort’s amusements. Phosphorus paints relate the history of the days of the pony express and the tales of Mystery Mountain. “Black light” highlights colorful scenes of the early west as spectators wind their way through a darkened area of peaks. The tape-recording narrates the western saga.

    Gunfights between Johnny Dodge, marshal, and the outlaws, like one Mexican desperado, (Bolstein’s son Paul) are well played in suitably concluded with a good guy victorious.

    Christine, one of the Bolstein daughters, plays an Indian princess and blends in well with the other real Seminoles in their “Chickees,” or thatched shacks.

    Scattered throughout the fort are cow skulls, wagon wheels, dirty, evil looking cowpunchers, a working stagecoach, a steam engine, a Wells Fargo office, and plenty of picnic areas.

    The Bolsteins have been making plans for a Mexican village, "across the border,” which will require passing through customs, and a currency exchange.

    They also envision having the fort legally incorporated into a town with it’s own post office and a required population.

    Fort Dodge is just one of the many fascinating adventures Herman Paul Bolstein has undertaken. Brought to the Island as a child, he attended Port Richmond and McKee high schools. He has several relatives here and many friends.

    At the age of 29 he left the Island, and in his words, "rough-necked in the oil fields, rodeoed, was a bronco buster and had my own Wild West shows. He also owned a rodeo corporation, did some ranching and was the owner and operator of 10 weekly newspapers.

    He started out his varied career as a cartoonist for the National Youth Administration in 1939. He had studied art on the Island and at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn before doing cartoon work.

    In 1944 he left the Island and began the widely diverse series of activities that eventually led him to Fort Dodge Florida.

    He's been away for a long time but visits the Island occasionally. Whenever he returns however, "I always have a nostalgic feeling of coming home."

    Perhaps this accounts for the "Royal welcome "he and his family bestow on the Island visitors to Fort Dodge.
  • PAUL BOLSTEIN…ONE MAN’S WILD WEST - St. Petersburg Times
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    Paul Bolstein’s a pioneer with a dream – he's going to rebuild old Dodge City.

    Paul Bolstein is a sometime cowboy with a way-out image win his heart. It’s a rough hewn version of the "queen of the cow towns "– Dodge City.

    Literally by hand and sweat of the brow, the Bolstein family – wife Grace, Paul Junior, 19, Christine, 18, and Carol, 16, have built it's framework on 37 acres alongside US 19, between Weeki Wachee Spring and Homosassa Springs. They have their Old Fort Dodge will be as good, and successful an attraction as its neighbors.

    Bolstein started two years ago. He bought the land from Lloyd Hedges of Tarpon Springs (“If he wasn't so patient with the payments, we’d have lost the whole thing along time ago,” says Bolstein) As the months were on, he sank all his cash into the project: “I even borrowed on my land – to the hilt.”

    The family hacked cypress logs from the swamps to build the stockade. They bought lumber is they could raise the money, and they sawed and hammered it themselves.

    Now they're western town is nearly complete. All it lacks common sense Bolestein, is the last lump of cash, several thousand dollars. He thinks he has the money lined up. If it comes through, he plans to open any couple of months.

    When he does, visitors to Old Ft. Dodge will find a realistic western settlement full of real cowboys and Indians (a Seminole family who will live on the grounds); a soft drink saloon, complete with dancing girls; a Pony Express in frontier news paper; Florida's only Gold and silver mine salted naturally and a pony ride through what boasting calls “Mystery Mountain.”

    Citizens of old Fort Dodge, many of them Bolstein kin, will live at the attraction and work as dancing girls, saloon keepers and cowboys. Bolstein didn't plan on his attraction to be this large when he started. He has had to sell some of his horses to survive financially. Now, six different parties have offered to buy Old Fort Dodge but he has turned them all down. He wants to make the attraction is educational as possible and his proposed prices are below those of most large for attractions. Bolster, a former newspaper man who owned and operated 10 weekly papers across the country, came to St. Petersburg 14 years ago and started a riding school and horse farm and held several rodeos here.

    Like the pioneers of the Old West, who built their cities on borrowed money and sherer guts, Paul Bolstein is the constant optimist. He’s continually resisted financing that would take control of his image from his family. He's worked until his strength was as thin as his financing. As he's hung on, he told himself, and anyone else who’ll listen: "I won't give up.”
  • FT. DODGE LIES IN RUINS OF FINANCIAL PROBLEMS - St. Petersburg Times, December 24, 1967
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    The sandy streets and crumbling buildings no longer echo with the sounds of the once prosperous tourist attraction which was abandoned about a year ago by those who dreamed of establishing another major attraction on Florida's West Coast.

    The old Long Branch saloon, Dodge House and Delmonico’s lie empty and ravaged by vandals along with the remainder of the buildings shich formed the sprawling complex called Fort Dodge on US 19 about 5 miles north of Weeki Wachee.

    The problem encountered by it’s builders was financial, according to Pinellas County banker-manufacturer George Ruppel.

    Ruppel, who incidentally is chairman of the Pinellas County Commission, holds the mortgage on the Fort Dodge property jointly with his four brothers.

    “It was one of the few bad investments we've made,” said Ruppel as he spoke of the crumbling city. “It would've taken another $40,000 to save it and make it successful.”

    The originator of the idea was Paul Bolstein, a promoter who now lives in Pensacola. One former associate.B. Richards, describes Bolstein is the man with the ideas, and said others furnished the money for the attraction.

    Richards operated the O.K. Corral, a western-type second hand an antique store which is now situated just south of Fort Dodge. The Richards dismantled their business and moved away when the attraction folded.

    Ruppel foreclosed on the $20,000 mortgage, and has taken title to one portion of the 37 acre tract. L.F. Hodges, Tarpon Springs retiree, owns the 7 acres which front on US 19.

    Hodges has been trying to lease the property, and now plans to split it up and sell it in small pieces.

    Ruppel feels the property has good potential. He would like to see someone take it over but most of the buildings and fixtures have been badly damaged or stolen by vandals.

    Few panes of glass remain unbroken, doors have been ripped from their hinges, pipes pulled up from the ground, and electrical fixtures torn out.

    The breastworks of the fort are falling, and the Fort Dodge Jail will never again hold prisoners.

    Two small signs remain on the walls of what must have been a gift shop. The close out bargains advertised Indian head dresses for "only 10 cents” and coconut heads for 89 cents.

    Ruppel estimates the complex, built about four years ago, would have been valued at around $100,000. But now he considers it's worth reduced to the land value alone.

    Many think it could've been made into an attraction which would complement Homosassa Springs and Weeki Wachee, thus adding to the ability of US 19 to attract tourists to the upper Suncoast.

    But the complexities brought about a joint ownership of the land and the decaying condition of the attraction would make a revival of Fort Dodge and the splendor of the Old West seem most unlikely.
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