Coast Feature

Wild, Wild West

Ride the Iron Horse Express, play a round of mini-golf, or dine at the Smokehouse Grill — there’s plenty of family fun to be had at Deadwood in Williamston.

The weekend has finally arrived. You’d love a change of scenery. The kids are hoping for a new adventure. Where can you go that everyone would be happy? Try Deadwood. It’s a family-owned park with a western theme (hence, the unusual name) located about 25 miles northeast of
Greenville in the Martin County community of Bear Grass. Situated on the six-acre homesite of Ira and Gale Price, Deadwood isn’t a Carowinds or Six Flags imitator; it’s a smaller, more intimate park offering families a nice alternative to the frantic pace, huge crowds, and high prices that typify the larger parks.

“This was literally a backyard project,” says Ira Price, explaining how Deadwood came to be. “There was no grand master plan. It just evolved.”

Ira, a retired United States Navy man, grew up in Martin County , as did his wife, Gale. In 1978, they moved back home to the Bear Grass area with their five children, and Ira began working in the construction field. In 1989, their oldest son, who also worked in construction, proposed a father/son project. “We were standing in the backyard one Sunday afternoon and Derek said, ‘Let’s build a miniature golf course,’” Ira recalls. “I said, ‘OK.’” As casually as some fathers and sons might plan a daylong fishing trip, Ira and Derek pledged to transform their backyard into an obstacle-filled, multihole putting green.

They began building their golf course on the weekends while continuing to work their regular construction jobs during the week. “As soon as we completed a hole, we played it to death,” Ira says, emphasizing that the course was originally intended solely for his family’s entertainment. That changed as the project neared completion, and residents of the rural community talked the Prices into opening the course to the public in April 1992. From that point on, the project slowly has grown to include several family friendly attractions, along with a full-service restaurant, The Smokehouse Grill.

Swinging and sliding

If you chose to visit Deadwood from an hour or more away, you’ll be pleased to know that as soon as you arrive, kids can immediately work off pent-up energy from the car ride at a well-equipped playground. Tried-and-true favorites, like swings and slides, as well as a few new-fangled contraptions, like a miniature climbing wall, can also accommodate adults, and Ira admits that his granddaughter talks him into going down the slide about once a week. Just outside the playground area, a small, three-horse carousel is guaranteed to catch the attention of many children.

After swinging, sliding, and climbing to their hearts’ content, most kids will be eager to refuel at the nearby ice cream parlor, which also serves hot chocolate, cappuccino, and soft drinks. Although seating is available inside the shop, somehow a cone of cookies-and-cream just seems to taste better outdoors while seated on a wooden bench or at a picnic table. This gives you the perfect opportunity to look around and really begin to appreciate the “Old West” ambience created by the Prices — all of the buildings look like they were taken straight from the set of a Western movie. In fact, Derek designed all of the structures, and he and Ira did most of the construction, with Derek’s siblings pitching in on the weekends. Because of the Prices’ experience in construction, Ira says there were a lot of things they knew how to do. “If we didn’t, we’d go buy a book or a video.”

Connected to the ice cream parlor is a building bearing a large “General Store” sign. The exterior of this building remains true to the “Old West” theme, with a wooden sidewalk running in front and two old trunks on either side of the door, but inside it’s purely 21st century, with half a dozen video games packed inside the small space. Children who are too old to enjoy the playground may find the arcade more to their liking.

Next, it’s on to the Gold Mine Mini-Golf course, the place where Deadwood got its start. Because there is no admittance fee to the park, there is a cost of $2 per person per game. “We try to make it affordable for everyone,” Ira says.

Iron Horse Express

No matter where you are in Deadwood — whether on the ninth hole of the Gold Mine course or inside the ice cream shop wrestling with the decision of strawberry versus peach — if you have a toddler in tow, there is one sound that will likely bring your activities to an abrupt (albeit temporary) halt: the train whistle.

The Iron Horse Express, powered by a Ford commercial industrial engine, takes visitors on a half-mile ride through wooded portions of Deadwood that have been peppered with props, including a variety of animal statuary. From the open-air cars, passengers are sure to spot a wolf, a fox, a bear or two, and even an armadillo. The train doesn’t run on a set schedule, but fires up upon customer demand. It costs $1 per person to ride, and children aren’t the only ones who enjoy it: You’re never too old to claim a seat on the Iron Horse Express.

In the coming months, several new attractions are scheduled to open at Deadwood, including a kiddie roller coaster. Plus, a spot has been staked out for a carnival-like tubs-of-fun ride, a shelter has been built to house a gem-mining operation, and the infrastructure is in place for canoe rides.

The Smokehouse Grill

While the additional rides and amusements promise to be popular with kids, Deadwood already has the attraction that’s most important to adults: The Smokehouse Grill. There’s no better way to end the day than with a good meal, and at The Smokehouse Grill, the quesadillas are cheesy, the ribs are smothered in a tangy barbecue sauce, and the rib eye steaks are marinated before being grilled to customers’ specifications.

The restaurant opened in 1997 (the same year Ira and Derek gave up their construction jobs and made Deadwood a full-time pursuit), at a time when one of the main attractions at the park was a nightclub, hosting big-name acts like David Allan Coe and Delbert McClinton. When Ira and Derek realized folks were leaving the concerts and heading to Greenville to eat, they saw an opportunity to expand their business. Undaunted by the fact that neither had any restaurant experience — “We invented the wheel probably 10 times,” Ira says, with a laugh — they started out by serving hot dogs, pizza, and hamburgers. The menu has since expanded to include heartier fare, and the cooking is now done under the supervision of head chef Mike Moore.

Although the nightclub was quite successful for several years, the scheduling of music acts was gradually phased out, as the park became more family-oriented. The facility that once served as a concert hall is now used for numerous other purposes, like birthday and holiday parties and dinner theater shows. Halloween is a major event at Deadwood, and for several days every October, the former concert hall is transformed into a haunted house, and the territory through which the Iron Horse Express runs becomes decidedly more spooky.

When Derek and Ira Price built a backyard mini-golf course nearly 20 years ago, they never envisioned that it would blossom into a business enterprise. Today, they devote the bulk of their time to running, expanding, and constantly trying to improve Deadwood. The Price family promises to take care of all of the work — so all your family has to do is play.

By Kathy Grant Westbrook
Courtesy of Our State Magazine

December 2007