Who the Hell is Wild Willie?

An up-from-nowhere theme-park promoter has set off a land rush in tiny Canton - and he's just gotten started with his crazy schemes

Never mind that it was 40 years ago: Martinek and Wede, whom Martinek invited to Canton, are carving out a plan to erect a dinner theater, a hotel, a museum, a shop, and a movie theater--all in the theme of Hopalong Cassidy--on the developer's soon-to-be-acquired 150 acres.

His projects are successful financially, says Martinek, who is reluctant to offer any specific numbers, because they hark back to the simpler times of yesteryear. "That is where the trends are going," he says. "People feel comfortable with the old, the earth-type common themes."

Martinek is in fine Wild Willie form. His full graying beard falls far below his shirt collar. His matching ponytail ends midway down his back. His spectacles are small and wire-rimmed, the sort John Lennon made popular. He sports an embroidered black vest over a white shirt, and slightly soiled black jeans. A felt black hat covers his thinning hair; cowboy boots cover his toes.

On the way up his mountain, Martinek, who speaks slowly and softly, never loses sight of his primary function at the theme park: public relations. Stopping the golf cart every few feet, he greets and trades small talk with shop owners. Most have either subleased or purchased small plots of land from Martinek to build their stores. All are counting on him to create an atmosphere to bring in buyers by the busload.

"Are you guys still ready?" Willie asks a couple of shop owners who want to wed at a small chapel under construction on the top of the mountain.

"I'm gonna find a way to get up there," Martinek promises a woman pacing about in a pioneer bonnet and pinafore dress who warns him that a gun-fighting show up ahead is blocking all golf-cart traffic.

"How's it going?" he says, after managing to steer clear of the jam-up to visit an elegantly designed antique shop run by the owners of Dr. Delphinium Designs, a high-profile store on Lovers Lane in Dallas. The new shopkeepers opened in Martinek's park less than a month ago. Though the high-priced business is empty, the proprietor seems unworried--thrilled to see Wild Willie and excited about the project's prospects.

Martinek finally parks the cart in a shady patch at the top of the hill. That's where he has carved up 30-by-40-foot plots to sell to shop owners, who will then build their own structures for about $18,000. "We are one big happy family," Martinek declares. "We have reached levels that have never been reached before. We have created a unique atmosphere."

What Martinek has assembled is unusual. Along with the standard crafts-show fare, Wild Willie's Mountain showcases some real prizes built by retirees pursuing lifelong dreams of merchandising in an idyllic atmosphere. A former airline pilot and his wife work a crowd in front of their blacksmith shop. A Dallas architect perches his frame on the corner porch of his business, where he sells simple but beautiful handmade furniture. Another couple has devoted their wooden cottage entirely to the color purple. An Australian has constructed a colorful structure out of objects that look like the flotsam and jetsam from a boat wreck but actually came mostly from the sides of Texas freeways. The Australian sells silver and antiques from his homeland.

Although Martinek, in his subleases and deeds, has spelled out precise limits to keep the shops in line with his theme, he provides enough freedom to allow vendors to add their own personal twist. "You let creative people be creative without a lot of rules," Martinek says. "We've got a guy over here who's planning to construct his store in the shape of a battleship. That's as great as it can be."

Is it true?" Canton Herald editor Brown begs. "The claim that he played baseball in the minor leagues in a former life?"

In Canton, much about Martinek's personal history remains a mystery--a part of the Wild Willie myth.

Born in Rossville, Kansas, a town not far from Topeka, on April 10, 1947, Martinek grew up on a farm, then studied physical education at Kansas State University. His schooling came to a temporary halt in 1968, when--yes--the Detroit Tigers club recruited him to play first base for one of its minor-league teams. In 34 games, Martinek earned a .248 batting average. But it was a leg injury--not the mediocre average--that ended his brief baseball career, says Beverly, his wife of 27 years.

After baseball, Martinek returned to Kansas State and completed his degree. Then he launched a career as a coach, teacher, and sometime principal in his hometown Kansas school district, boasting a population of 1,200 students. During the 1970s, he graduated to the unpaid position of school-board member, while earning his living by selling insurance and managing his family's farm.

When his only son's own baseball ambitions began to grow, culminating with the receipt of a baseball scholarship to Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, Martinek packed up his family and moved to Wimberly, about 185 miles west of Houston.

That's where he began trying to make a living as an artist. Martinek built sculptures out of old metal junk--spare parts from farm equipment and whatever else he could get his hands on.

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