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Dry Creek: Field of Cowboy Dreams

Alison Miller

In the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner built a ballpark in his Iowa cornfield, not knowing why.  It turned out it was to re-connect him with his father.

That movie strikes a chord with former Tampa Bay traffic reporter and radio personality Les McDowell.

Credit Les McDowell / WUSF News
Les McDowell

McDowell is the creator, producer and one of the stars of the cable TV Western series "Dry Creek". The show is shot on his ranch in Manatee County on a set he built himself out of scrap materials.

Credit Alison Miller / WUSF News
The Dry Creek Saloon. Next door to the gun shop. Coincidence?

To understand what would possess a man to build something so elaborate, with little money and no plan, you have to understand where McDowell comes from.

McDowell grew up in Southern California and was hooked on TV Westerns from early childhood. He recalls the time his father took him to meet Roy Rogers.

"My father was the kind of a guy who would just drive right in. We got to Apple Valley. The sign said 'Home of Roy Rogers'. We drove in and guess who came riding out in a Corvair?  He got up on the back seat to chat.  I looked at him and said 'You're Roy Rogers!'  He smiled and said 'Yes, I am and this is my horse', patting the car."

Another time, his father took him to meet James Arness, who played his hero, Marshall Matt Dillon, on the TV series "Gunsmoke."

"I used to get up and draw against him during the opening of 'Gunsmoke," McDowell said.

Credit Ventura Star Press / WUSF News
Les McDowell and his childhood hero, "Gunsmoke"star James Arness

"He was at the Ventura County fair. There were hundreds of kids there. I couldn't get close enough to him. Well, I noticed there was this boy he kept talking to. It was his son. I'm not a dumb guy. I went over and became best friends with that kid and by the end of the day I was sitting up there in James Arness' lap watching the rodeo with him. We got pictures in the Star-Free Press of that."

As a young adult, McDowell did stand-up comedy in the clubs around Los Angeles and rode in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He met his wife Connie in 1977.

Les's career as a radio traffic reporter was born out of a bargain. He wanted to learn to fly. He approached the general manager of a radio station and offered to trade traffic reports for flying lessons. It was airborne traffic reporting that landed McDowell in Tampa, working for country music stations WQYK and WFUS.

In 2010 when WFUS fired its entire morning show, Les found himself unemployed for the first time in decades; he fell into a depression. He stayed in touch with his audience by making YouTube videos of his cowboy poems. What turned into the town of Dry Creek began as backdrops for those videos.

"Connie would sit out there and console me. I told her 'You know what?  I'm just going to stay busy , and I'm going to stay busy building something.' I built a couple of false fronts and we would sit out there at night. Connie would ask me 'What are you doing, what should I tell my friends you're doing?' and I would answer 'I don't know. I think it's for YouTube.' "

Connie McDowell remembers those days.

"He built this set, little by little, to use in the videos for his cowboy poetry.  Each video got a little longer, a little more elaborate. Then talented people started coming, they volunteered their time and it slowly evolved into a 30 minute show," she says.

Credit Alison Miller / WUSF News
Dry Creek Church and School.

In the early days, Les and Connie paid money to small cable channels to air the program. It costs them $650 a week and every week was a struggle to get the show made, pay for it and get it to the network. The show's big break came when Les McDowell met Stan Hitchcock.

Hitchcock was one of the founders of Country Music Television and is President and CEO of BlueHighwaysTV, a Nashville-based cable channel. After seeing an episode of "Dry Creek" and meeting Les, he agreed to air the show and pay the McDowell's for it. The first two seasons of "Dry Creek" are airing repeatedly on the network.

"Dry Creek" is not the only use the McDowells have found for their 1880's Western town. The set has been used for an upcoming feature film, the video game "Red Dead" and several music videos.

His experience with "Dry Creek" has put McDowell in the new position of mentor to young film makers looking to get their projects made and financed.

Credit Alison Miller / WUSF News
Tack room.

"We're very careful about who we let use the set. We are all about family programming," Les McDowell says. "With that said, I love to see people with passion. I get young film makers knocking at the door saying, 'Can I use the set?  We don't have any money.' I say, 'Yeah, brother. I understand not having any money. Of course you can use the set.' You can see the passion in their eyes, and the fire."

Negotiations to bring a one-hour version of "Dry Creek" to a larger cable network are currently in progress. Two major networks have expressed interest. In the meantime, BlueHighways TV continues to air the first two seasons.

The town of "Dry Creek" is not open to the public. Les McDowell wants to see that happen someday, but there are matters or safety, zoning, insurance and permitting that prevent it. Still, McDowell makes the time to give just about anyone who asks a tour. When there is no one shooting or rehearsing it has the feel of a ghost town. That may not completely be an accident. Like a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, you can sometimes feel the presence of someone who can't be seen

"This place," he says, "is 99% about me and my dad."

In 2010, after spending 28 years in commercial FM radio, I finally got the opportunity to work at the station I listen to.
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