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

On his birth certificate, Dwight Martinek uses his legal name, the one that reflects his grandparents' Czech roots.

But on the streets of the East Texas town of Canton, Martinek--a large, ponytailed, sculptor-turned-theme-park promoter--introduces himself as "Wild Willie."

Sure, the handle's hokey. Martinek borrowed it from a now-defunct Western-style department store in Topeka, Kansas.

But it seems just about right for this 50-year-old wheeler-dealer, who has set Canton on its ear since he roared into town just 15 months ago.

Martinek has managed to stir even more debate in this community of 3,000, 60 miles east of Dallas, than a city animal-shelter worker did in 1987 when he shot 17 stray dogs--and buried some alive.

Martinek started doing it by developing "Wild Willie's Mountain," a 36-acre shopping village with a Western-pioneer theme. The complex somehow competes with Canton's supreme civic tradition, the mammoth "First Monday Trade Days." Open the weekend before the first Monday of each month, the flea market draws so many visitors a year--about two million--and generates so much revenue from leases of public land that Canton residents no longer have to pay city property taxes.

Yet on a hill just two blocks east of Canton's courthouse square, outside the city limits on Highway 64, Martinek has tossed up a rival complex that includes some 500 craft shops, seven restaurants and food booths, donkey rides, artisan demonstrations, strolling entertainers (some of whom perform shootouts), and even a "Teepee village," offering overnight accommodations for a mere $150 a night.

And Martinek isn't stopping there.
He already has broken ground on a new 1,000-seat indoor theater for touring national country-music acts. At the end of this month, he is scheduled to close a deal to buy another 150 acres for $1.75 million from former Canton city manager Gerald Turner; he's planning a Bonnie-and-Clyde theme park there.

Martinek has talked about creating a new restaurant in Canton out of the hull of a grounded Boeing 747. And he's started to pitch the notion of a movie house, hotel, restaurant, theater, museum, and shop--all tied to the image of Hopalong Cassidy, the all-American television and cinema character wildly popular in...the 1950s.

But the biggest, wildest buzz yet is about a project based on so-far unfounded rumors: that Martinek, in collaboration with some major star--local talk mentions "everyone from Charley Pride to Dolly Parton," says Van Zandt county appraisal district director Brenda Barnett--is planning a massive country-music entertainment that will turn Canton into another Branson, Missouri.

Ever the shrewd promoter, Wild Willie isn't saying much. "I will be real up front with you: There are rumors," he declares unhelpfully. "No one has bought anything yet. But I've met with some of them. Can't say who they are. They'd always hold that against me, you know."

The recent arrival's penchant for flamboyant schemes has generated both wonder and skepticism. "It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen in my life," says Ben Monning, an attorney in nearby Wills Point and a major area landowner.

Recalls former city manager Turner: "Most of the coffee-shop talk when he started building was, 'He'll never make it.'"

Naysayers notwithstanding, Martinek is clearly a phenomenon. The success of his theme park won him the Canton Chamber of Commerce's Business of the Year award. And with his fast and furious talk of wacky new projects, Martinek has single-handedly generated a local land boom. The appraisal district's Barnett says she has had to hire two part-time employees just to record the rising property values that Martinek's building boom has helped spur. In the Trading Days area, land is now worth $174,000 an acre, Barnett says--compared to $61,000 just three years ago.

"Some question the validity of what he's doing," says Claudette Anderson, a local real-estate agent. "But it's just that he's doing more innovative things than people are used to."

"I was like everyone in town at first--kind of leery," concedes Linda Brown, managing editor of The Canton Herald, the local paper. "But so far he's done everything he said he was going to do."

It's about noon on a blissfully sunny Saturday in late February-- a First Monday weekend in Canton. All over town, cars are crawling by, as their drivers crane their necks, looking for that one lucky empty space.

At the foot of his tree-covered hillside, Dwight Martinek, set for a busy day of dealmaking and promoting, squeezes his lanky frame into the driver's seat of a white motorized golf cart. That's the only vehicle he allows to climb up and down the hill of his theme park.

Before turning the key, Martinek barks out a few orders for his business partner, Dustin Martinek--the boss' 24-year-old son, known around town as "Wild Willie II." (In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, Martinek employs his wife, his brother, five nephews and nieces, and his mother.) "Keep an eye out for the Hopalong Cassidy guys," the elder Martinek yells.

That afternoon, Martinek is expecting a visit from Holger Wede, a New York lawyer who owns the rights to Hopalong Cassidy's 66 full-length feature films and 52 half-hour television shows--not to mention his image and likeness. And what an image (at least for those old enough to remember it). In his heyday, Hopalong never spat or kissed on screen, only pulled his gun as a last resort, inspired a fan club with membership larger than the Boy Scouts of America, and closed the streets of Manhattan with a ticker-tape parade in his honor.

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.

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.)

For those tending to harbor excessive euphoria, there are cautionary tales--recent ones--nearby. A developer who built several trading pavilions a few miles north of Canton last year hasn't reopened so far this spring. "I don't know what the reason was," says Martinek dismissively.

While located in the heart of the First Monday district, Wild Willie's development lies outside the city's boundaries--and its zoning restrictions. "That's the beauty of this thing," Martinek says, with a twinkle in his eye. That means Martinek, not the city, makes the rules on Wild Willie's Mountain. He puts in specific deed and lease restrictions requiring shop owners to maintain a certain level of tastefulness. But at the same time, no one can dictate what kind of costly public facilities--such as bathrooms--he must provide. For now, the mountain only has temporary outdoor bathrooms--the mobile closets spotted on construction sites. The 1,000-seat theater--within the city zoning limits--will have a full sewage system and full restroom facilities. Since it's next door to the mountain, it will make its accommodations available to the shoppers as well, Martinek says.

Wild Willie's critics are quick to point to his lack of proper toilet facilities and his freedom from city fire codes. "I don't know what would happen if you struck a match at the top of that mountain," says attorney Monning. Martinek insists that his projects meet the somewhat laxer county codes, but concedes that fire issues are a concern. "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," he says. He adds, "These buildings are all insured."

The naysayers also wonder out loud--but not for attribution--whether Martinek's development will prove profitable for the store owners. They know he is making money from his leases. But they question whether he is providing the amenities that keep shoppers coming back.

Martinek says he has that covered, too. By adding the theaters, lodging, and dining facilities, he says, the Wild Willie team will be creating fresh reasons for visiting Canton. "There's little to do in Canton besides shop," lamented Austin writer Paul Burka in an October 1993 article in Travel Holiday. Burka warned readers that he himself had opted to stay overnight in nearby Tyler.

If all of Wild Willie's schemes become realities, a livelier Canton clearly lies ahead. But another Branson? Since its theaters bearing the names of Roy Clark and Charley Pride went up, the Missouri town has grown--hosting some six million visitors a year, who occupy 22,500 hotel rooms and fill 31,500 restaurant seats.

"Canton will never become a Branson," Martinek declares. "But it can be its own thing in its own right. And it can have some of that. The people who go to Branson are Texans."

If Martinek gets his way, the next travel correspondent who comes to Canton--and a few, including one from Southern Living Magazine and one from ABC television, are supposedly scheduled to arrive soon--will have a vastly different story to tell.

With his mountaintop empire growing, Martinek--perhaps heady with success--is focusing partly on personal imperatives in seeking to launch a theater for country music: His wife has sought, with little success, to launch a country singing career of her own.

Says Wild Willie, in the finest tradition of legendary kingmakers: "I finally will build the stage for my wife to sing on that I promised her years ago.

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