March 05, 2009
I lived in the old west
Have you heard about SASS (Single Action Shooting Society) and Re-enactors who dress and play the part of old west people, others who do civil war and other period re-enactments? These are really a lot of fun to watch. Back in the late 60’s we had a little group that used to do that when I was the chamber of commerce manager in the thriving town of Pecos Texas, home of the Worlds First Rodeo. We had a group of people who would come over like volunteer fire fighters every time there were a lot of tourists at the museum or if a tour bus came through.
We had a number of skits we’d do that involved a lot of shooting and a lot of really bad dialogue. It usually involved my five year old daughter getting kidnapped and us having to rescue her. Believe it or not I got pretty fast pulling a pistol. We’d pick some tourist, often a kid, and let them help us effect the rescue. I don’t know who had more fun, the tourists or us. I had some tin badges made that said “Law West of the Pecos” on them and I’d deputize kids with them. I understand they still get letters from people who have lost these cherished keepsakes wanting to get another but they no longer have them.
We didn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions so we just made our own. The museum was the old Orient Hotel, a brick hotel complete with the Johnson-Heard Number 11 Saloon that was very popular in those days. It had a replica of Judge Roy Bean’s “Jersey Lilly Saloon” that we moved into a park we created by tearing some old buildings down adjacent to the museum. The real Jersey Lilly is in a state visitor center down in the big bend area where the old Judge actually was the Law West of the Pecos. I conned the owners of the rest of the businesses in that end of town into putting old west board fronts on their buildings with boardwalks.
But get this, the most notorious person in the region was the Gentleman Gunfighter, Clay Allison who was buried on the bald prairie outside of town. People kept desecrating his grave and stealing the marker, so we found and contacted his relatives and got him moved down into the park by the museum. Had to get the city council to dedicate ten square foot of that park as a cemetery and he had to be moved by a licensed mortician. Gave him a very nice resting place with a brick fence around it. Had a very respectful service when we moved him. My guess is it was a much better service than when they planted him out on that prairie at the time.
We had a friendly rivalry going with the nearby town of Fort Stockton and had a bunch of friendly western competitions. Somebody complained about the mail service one day so we lined up a bunch of riders, spaced them out every mile or so and we handed a letter to the postmaster and a second letter to a pony express rider. The post office had a pony express anniversary stamp out at the time and it cost five dollars (what it cost back then) to have your hand stamped letter actually carried by the express riders to general delivery in Fort Stockton. It went great until the bag was handed to a kid on a little pinto pony. Running low to the ground in the bar ditch he was so fast that the bigger horses, even the high dollar Appaloosa’s and quarter horses couldn’t catch him to take the handoff. We thought we were going to have to rope the kid off his horse to get the saddlebags until finally a grizzled old man on a prairie wise mustang ran him down.
I could tell stories like this for days. It was fun times, and a lot of it we felt almost like we were living back in the old days. It was interesting to see the results from people who had spent a ton of money at big tourist attractions telling us how much more fun they had just from a group of guys shooting a couple of bucks worth of blanks. Imagine that.
Imagine that indeed, it does make it easier to write a western when you've actually faced a man with a pistol or have walked into the Jersey Lilly saloon to find it full of guys that looked like they had a breakfast of horsehoe nails. Or how about if you have actually stood with your hat off at a funeral for one of the most notorious gunfighters of the day. I wouldn't take anything for those memories.