Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Quiet Little Town Called Shadowhawk


Photos from Shadowhawk main page

Hidden just a stone’s throw away from I-95 in Smithfield, NC and located in a perfectly modern looking little area sits a tiny little western town that goes by the name of Shadowhawk. It’s a town that was the labor of love for its one time Sheriff, a veteran (and now retired) western character actor named Bill “Wild Bill” Drake.

“Wild Bill” Drake was born and raised in Kenly, NC before heading west to California and Hollywood. Once there, he established himself as reliable character actor with appearances in Bonanza, Big Jake, Gun Smoke, and various television commercials. Years later he would return to North Carolina, but even after getting out of Hollywood you couldn’t quite get Hollywood completely out of Bill.

His response to that back in the bygone days of the late 1990s was building a life sized Old West town in his back yard. The end result was Shadowhawk, a fully functional, picture perfect western movie town where visitors almost feel like they’re walking onto the old ABC Television Center West studio lots.

By fully functional, I mean in every possible way. The town is open for tours for a more than reasonable price of admission, and Shadowhawk has a functional saloon/gift shop area where interested parties can buy souvenirs. The old west town has also been the home to a number of weddings over the years, giving those who want it an entertainingly unique set of wedding memories and photos.

While there for weddings or touring, you can also check out Shadowhawk’s liquid offerings. I don’t drink very often myself, but I will partake while there because they have an absolutely amazing Apple Pie shooter.

Getting a tour of Shadowhawk is not only easy to set up, the information on how to do it being easy to find on the website, but it’s really something else to see in person. I’m by no means a great expert on the historical Old West, and I’m probably less knowledgeable about my Old West history as told in film and television, but even I couldn’t help but to be swept up in the fun, Old West nostalgia vibe when visiting with some friends a while back. As far as sightseeing locations go, Shadowhawk is more than worth the time you set aside to visit it.

But, as I noted above, the town should certainly be of interest to regional filmmakers. Shadowhawk has already been home to a number of independent film shoots; some even done by Wild Bill himself. See, the man knew what he was doing and how to do it right, and the town was built to accommodate filming, both with regards to ease of shooting and the various location settings built along the town’s main street and around its outer edges.

The layout and design that works so well for filmmakers greatly contributes to one of the things about Shadowhawk that will likely surprise you if you see it on film before seeing it in real life. I was familiar with the town visually through the indie horror Fistfulof Brains before having the opportunity to visit it with friends. The layout of the town provides a number of interesting angles to shoot from that all allow the creation of the illusion of a far larger and more diverse film location. What appears on film (at least when handled by a skilled director or photographer) to be a sprawling Old West town with additional homesteads, a town cemetery, large roads leading in and out of town, and a dense forest surrounding the town for miles is in reality a tight, compactly designed film lot with the additional sets just behind the main buildings. The dense forest is actually a small bit of woods just large enough to give you what you need without fear of filming or photographing the modern world.

The snakes and the North Carolina ticks in the woods on the other hand… Yeah, they’re real. Pack some Deep Woods Off and watch your step.
The interiors of the various buildings that actually have interiors (some are primarily just prop fronts) are as equally flexible in their usability as the exteriors. They’re strangely like the western version of the TARDIS with a twist. Depending on how you want to use them and the angles you shoot from, they can be made to appear either smaller or larger on film than they actually are in real life. Just have a good foley artist on hand if you’re filming, because not everything there is what it seems; maybe even less so than you might think. The impressively strong looking jail cell bars and doors are actually lightweight wood frames with doweling rod bars. They just might not make that impressive sounding “clang” you’re looking for. 

For a long while there though, running neck and neck with the town itself as the best attraction in the place was Wild Bill himself.  Friendly, jovial, possessed of a quick wit, and packing in his memory a couple of books’ worth of stories about filming back in the day on some of the most famous sets in Western television and movie history, Bill is an amazingly gracious and wildly entertaining host. If you could get a day in with him, it was a treat and a pleasure that you’d remember for years afterwards.

But, sadly, on that score at least, all good things must come to an end. Wild Bill retired just after his birthday this past May and headed on out to Tombstone to enjoy his much deserved golden years. Still, the town is being taken care of by the capable and caring hands of its new owners, George and Denise Marsh, and they’re carrying on many of the traditions of Shadowhawk that Wild Bill laid down while working to fix and upgrade the town in order to add to its versatility.

If you’re interested in visiting Shadowhawk, whether you just want to see the sights, book an event, or film your movie, check out these links. It really is a sight to see, and you won’t be disappointed.

The official website for Shadowhawk

The official Facebook page for Shadowhawk

EyeOn NorthCarolina’s video blog/tour of ShadowHawk from 2014

You can find Shadowhawk at 
494 Bonnie Ave., Smithfield, NC, 27577

The directions to get there are easy enough as well.
I-95 exit 93 onto Brodgen Rd.
Eight miles east to Brogden School Rd.
0.3 miles to Bonnie Ave.
The Marsh home is at the end, in the cul-de-sac

Hours: Afternoon visits only (Call to verify)

Phone: 919-938-8009

Admission: Donations accepted

Jerry Chandler writes in his spare time, but he’s been too damned busy lately. He would have loved to have gone back to Shadowhawk before Wild Bill left, but, even with Bill gone, he’s planning on making the trip with his family later in the year.

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