July 13, 2007

Old West lives again

A Fullerton man's ambitions swell as he rebuilds his mock Western village that a wildfire destroyed.

FIRE DAMAGE: Joe Uddo of Fullerton surveys the damage to his Big Horn Ranch in Pioneertown.

The Orange County Register

PIONEERTOWN – It's been a year since Joe Uddo stood looking at the blackened, smoldering remnants of the mock Old West town he'd built to entertain his disabled son, Jason.

Last year, the Sawtooth fire raced through his 20-acre ranch near the Pioneertown movie set, consuming many hours and dollars he'd spent building replicas and collecting vintage Western memorabilia.

The longtime Fullerton resident lost many prized possessions that day at his weekend retreat, which he calls the Big Horn Ranch. So did his neighbors in the close-knit desert community near Joshua Tree National Park.

Twelve months later, a bit of greenery is creeping up from the roots of some of the creosote bushes, twisted black by the fire, which burned more than 61,000 acres, destroyed 58 homes and caused one death.

And Joe Uddo's dream of creating a Western town didn't die. In fact, it went into overdrive.
"It's become a full-time job," said Uddo, 64, a retired food distributor. "When I'm not here, I'm out looking for antiques with my son."

Uddo's 37-year-old son, Jason, has cerebral palsy and attends classes every week at Hope University in Anaheim. When he's not in school or in therapy, the father-and-son pair are expanding their collection.

"He loves it," Uddo said. "He's out here every weekend with me, having a ball."

Uddo, a fan of the Old West, bought the property 15 years ago because of its picturesque location beneath the boulder-strewn Sawtooth Mountains and its proximity to the Pioneertown movie set built in the 1940s and 1950s by film cowboys such as Roy Rogers.

Just down the road, dirt streets still run past mock saloons, a bank, jail and other staples of frontier life. Investors who contracted with movie and TV companies built these to use for Old West shooting locations.

The TV shows "Annie Oakley" and "The Cisco Kid" as well as movies such as "Judge Roy Bean" were filmed here.

Today the hamlet houses a half-dozen businesses, including the Likker Barn, owned by Uddo. He operates it as a souvenir shop occasionally, more to meet people and amuse himself than make money.

When Uddo bought his property, the land included a house and corral. Over the years, he began to add his own structures, including a small saloon, jail and barbershop.

A Santa Fe Railroad caboose joined the collection a dozen years ago. On July 13, 2006, the fire wiped out Uddo's mock town, destroyed his vintage cars, gutted the caboose and burned the front of his house.

"Only the church was left standing," he said

Many neighbors lost their homes that day

Carpenter and artisan Ed Grim, who built many of Uddo's replicas for him, also saw his property destroyed

Since then, the fire has united townspeople, who have held bake sales, garage sales and rummage sales to raise money for financially strapped neighbors. The blackened landscape shows the raw lumber of new homes being built on burned-out sites.

Like the landscape, Uddo's hobby is reborn, but this time his vision has grown.

His new, larger saloon boasts a player piano, talking deer head and tables eerily staffed by lifelike dummies bought from Knott's Berry Farm. The caboose sports four coats of new red paint. He is most excited about the original Knott's Berry Farm fruit stand he bought from the same collector.

Uddo estimates he's spent "hundreds of thousands" of dollars on his hobby.

Pointing to a ramshackle teepee he picked up somewhere, he vowed to build a miniature Indian village where youth groups such as Boy Scouts could come to camp and learn about the Old West.
How long does he plan to go on?

"I started it right after the fire, and I'll probably be doing it for the rest of my life," Uddo said.

NARRATED SLIDE SHOW: Take a tour of Pioneertown with Joe Uddo