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

His pieces were anthropomorphic and playful, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle. "It might not be too big a stretch to call his work sculpture," the half-convinced Chronicle reporter wrote. In Martinek's art, an old white porcelain sink formed the eyes of a giant Texas mosquito. A Santa Claus materialized from spray-painted freon cans. A cowboy had a cheese grater for a belt.

Eager to sell his odd works, Martinek and his wife bypassed traditional galleries. They instead traveled to art shows across the country. They also transformed their residence, a half mile from the Blanco River, into an open, 24-hour-a-day art park, replete with a lock box for prospective buyers to make payments for the sculptures on the honor system.

Martinek also began attending Canton Trade Days as a vendor. It became one of his favorite--and most profitable--markets for his sculptures. As he steers his golf cart past one of his several sculptures that now dot the hillside theme park, Martinek reminisces happily: "I sold a Buffalo [constructed from 400 pieces of old dump rakes] for $9,000 here. You can't do that at any art show." There is another advantage to his marketing approach, he notes: "At art shows, you get art critics."

When Martinek's work started fetching such high prices in Canton--and his son graduated from college without any realistic professional-baseball prospects--Martinek began to consider the business opportunities available there.

He says he dreamed up the concept of "Wild Willie's Mountain" in late 1994, after coming to Canton off and on for a decade. He made the dream a reality in just months.

Where did a minor-league artist get the cash--presumably several hundred thousand dollars--to launch such an ambitious enterprise? Wild Willie's not telling.

"I'm not at liberty to talk about that," he says in an uncharacteristically taciturn tone. "It doesn't have to be highfalutin people to make things work," he adds cryptically.

None of the development is under his direct ownership, he says. Instead, it's in his extended family's name, including that of his son, his brother, and five nephews and nieces. Turner, the former city manager who is selling his land to Martinek for a whopping $1.5 million--he'll tote a three-year note, for $500,000 a year--says he has heard about Topeka investors.

Canton seems an odd draw for so much outside cash. But "trade days" at the Van Zandt county seat date back to the 1850s, when Canton was a natural gathering place on the first Monday of each month because state judges came into town to hold circuit court. Soon Canton started becoming a meeting ground for more than just trials. People began to use city ground to trade and sell--though back then, it was mostly livestock.

Over the years, the market has grown massively, and the merchandise has become infinitely more varied. Today, the Canton market fills 300 acres of East Texas flood plains and rolling fields, and draws more than 7,000 vendors and 300,000 shoppers each trading-days weekend. Because the market takes place largely on land leased from the city, First Monday provides much of Canton's annual city budget. You can find it all in Canton: a mounted timber wolf, bubble-gum dispensers, muscle cream, or old car-hood ornaments.

"I paid my dues to understand Canton," declares Martinek.
The influx of outsiders for Trade Days made Canton more cosmopolitan than its East Texas sister cities. "Canton isn't like other small towns, because of First Mondays," says newspaper editor Brown. It even boasts a nudist camp--51-acre Ponderosa, which sits 15 miles outside the city limits and claims 250 members.

But it was the out-of-towners that drew Martinek. "The demographics are great," he says. Canton is located near five of Texas' biggest lakes, he notes. It's not far from Dallas, Houston, and Shreveport. But most significantly, according to Martinek, "Marketing has never been done in Canton before."

Wild Willie has not missed a beat in marketing his nostalgia-driven theme park. He has a home page on the Internet, a 13-and-a-half-minute video, a membership with the Dallas Convention and Visitors Center--which helps bus buyers to Canton--and a monthly newsletter. Although the largest groups come from Dallas, Martinek believes the biggest spenders come from Houston.

Martinek is far from alone in his enthusiasm for Canton's prospects. The town was seeing a business and real-estate boomlet before Wild Willie's Mountain was anything more than a scrub-covered hill. "In the last three years," says Chamber of Commerce director Joe Collins, "people would come into town with the Dallas look, a suit and a tie, and they'd ask for a look at the demographics and a map. You learned not to ask what they were doing. And then suddenly there would be a new McDonald's or a Taco Bell."

A Louisiana businessman recently launched a 500-seat gospel-music dinner theater called the Cajun Jubilee. Bruce Davis, who leases land to Martinek--who then subleases those sites to shop owners--is expanding his own trading facilities on the other side of the road. Davis says he is investing $3 million to construct 34,000 square feet of vendor buildings: "We're putting them up as fast as we can."

Even Henry Lewis, the Chevrolet dealer who pledges on Dallas radio to meet any customer who wants to buy a car "at 2 in the morning," is erecting a new pavilion on the land he owns and leases to trading-day vendors. But Lewis, quick to counter Martinek's hype, notes about his new building, "It's just a small one." (Lewis, a major local landowner, is reputedly a skeptic about Martinek's plans, but he is reluctant to cast doubt publicly. "I just, uh, better take a wait-and-see attitude," he says for publication.)

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