You don’t see many Stetsons in New England. But there once was a time when the region’s back roads were peppered with honky-tonks featuring live country music. Stars such as Dick Curless and Sleepy LaBeef barnstormed from Maine and New Hampshire to the small towns of Massachusetts. There was the Lone Star Ranch in Reeds Ferry, New Hampshire, and Trader Alan’s Truck Stop in Amesbury. In the 1960s and ‘70s, there was even a country bar in Boston’s Park Square – Frank Segalini’s Hillbilly Ranch.
Today, one real throwback remains: an outdoor venue called the Indian Ranch in Webster, Massachusetts, a half-hour or so south of Worcester. In the summer of 2021, the 3,000-seat lakeside amphitheater celebrated its 75th anniversary, having hosted many of Nashville’s biggest stars, including Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, and Charley Pride. In fact, the place is sometimes called a contender for the title “Nashville of the North.”
For years, however, some of the biggest names to headline the stage were Major Mudd, Rex Trailer, and Bozo the Clown. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the stars of Boston’s network-affiliate kids’ shows were big attractions at the Ranch. Longtime owner Jake Sadowsky and his Boston-based booking agent, Abe Ford, often presented a full afternoon of old-fashioned variety acts: jugglers, magicians, dancing bears. Audience members sat on telephone pole seats covered with wood planks. In the early years, admission was 75 cents, 50 cents for kids. Later, after the fee went up to $5, he kept the kids’ tickets priced at two quarters.
The vaudeville-in-the-pines format dates back to the Ranch’s original owner. In 1946, an eccentric local named Ernest Wallis began presenting shows on the deck of his dry-docked paddlewheeler. For a few summers he’d run cruises on the lake, but that proved unsuccessful. Seeking another way to turn his property into a business, Wallis hired George Mahoney as a concert promoter.
Mahoney was one-half of George and Dixie, a showbiz country and western act who had a popular program on WNAC out of Waltham. (Mahoney, one newspaper noted, hailed from “the rolling plains of Cambridge.”)“I think [Indian Ranch] was the largest country music venue in the north,” said Sadowsky. “We outlived them all.” Some say Wallis had Native American blood, which would explain the Indian Ranch name. Sadowsky called his predecessor “an old swamp Yankee.” “His daughter lived on the other side of the dirt road in a log cabin,” he recalled. Wallis “built a one-room tarpaper shack behind her house, with a potbelly stove.” Sadowsky’s father, Izzy, owned a jewelry store in Webster. He bought Wallis’s lakeside parcel in 1955 for $32,000, Sadowsky says – $200 down. Jake, an apprentice watchmaker, gave up his career plans to run the venue.
Sadowsky and Ford met through Ford’s brother, a salesman for Narragansett Brewing. Over the years they built a devoted clientele with their astute bookings. Abe Ford brought acts to the Ranch until his death at age 89 in 2002, always declining the agent’s typical 10 percent commission in favor of a $500 flat fee.
Ford, who promoted wrestling “spectaculars” at the Boston Garden in the 1970s, lived next door to Killer Kowalski. When the wrestler retired, he started a limousine company that brought the headliners to the Ranch.
In the late 1970s Sadowsky hired a singer named Boxcar Willie as part of a package of performers playing a Memorial Day fundraiser. Willie, who played the part of a singing hobo onstage, was a hit with the crowd, so Sadowsky asked him to come back and headline the following summer. They agreed on a $750 fee.
Within months, Boxcar Willie was a very big, if highly unlikely, star. He appeared on “The Gong Show” and sold his albums by mail order, with a ubiquitous TV commercial. A record crowd showed up to greet him in Webster – about 6000 fans, standing room only.
A few years later, Boxcar Willie became one of the first country musicians to set up a long-running residency in Branson, Missouri, which would soon become a tourist destination.
Another Indian Ranch favorite was Charlie Daniels, who played the place 29 summers in a row. About a decade ago, they named the access road after him. Visitors to the new restaurant on the property, Samuel Slater’s (named for the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution”), are greeted by a life-sized carving of the fiddler.
The Ranch, the restaurant, and an adjacent campground sit on the shoreline of a bucolic lake, which is said to have the longest place name in the United States. The official Algonquian name for the lake runs to 45 letters, of which the abbreviated nickname Chaubunagungamaug are just the last 18. Locals call it Webster Lake.
In the early 2000s, Sadowsky retired after running Indian Ranch for nearly 50 years. He sold it to Chris Robert, a Westborough computer executive looking for a retirement project of his own. For the past 15 years or so, Robert’s daughter, Suzette Raun Coppola, has managed the property.
In recent years Coppola, working with Cambridge-based Kendall Booking, has broadened the scope of the Ranch’s concert calendar. In addition to perennial favorites such as Jamey Johnson and the Mavericks, Indian Ranch has booked shows with Ziggy Marley, Tower of Power, and several classic rock tribute bands.
These days, Indian Ranch hosts its shows as it always has – on weekend afternoons, beginning at 1 p.m. First-time performers often want to double-check: “Are you sure you have the time right?”
“It works so well,” according to Coppola, “there hasn’t been any reason to change.”
(by James Sullivan)
Published on September 16, 2021