And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 18 October 2012


A myth that took some dying

“Get off your horse and drink your milk.”
John Wayne

 The six photos here have all got to do with the American West and attempts to keep the legend alive, so let’s start in London, at the Fancy Dress Studio at 37 Oxford St, sometime between 1910 and 1920. One can forgive the English for getting a few details wrong; they weren’t there after all, and no real cowboy ever posed with a gothic manor in the background, but the woollen chaps? Somehow around the turn of the century the idea got about and then became fixated that woollen chaps were a standard part of the cowboy’s outfit. As we have come to understand things, chaps were worn by Native Americans and then by Mexicans as a way to protect the legs when riding through thick scrub. Wool, you’d think, would only attract thorns and burrs and make things worse. Another point you can forgive the English for because it was Americans who spread the idea, was that cowboys were bred musical. By the time this photo was taken you couldn’t dress as a cowboy without strapping on a gun and holding a ukulele. You get the impression real riders of the purple sage did nothing else except sit in the saddle and yodel at the cows. No wonder they complained theirs was a lonely life.

This image has it all, the cattle scattered across the wide open plain, the solitary cowpokes, the mesas in the distance. Welcome to Wyoming, battleground of the Johnson County War and close to the Hole in the Wall, legendary hideout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch gang. We’re in the heart of the Old West, a time and a place that has passed, though you wouldn’t know it from the photo. Maybe you have to live in a certain part of the US, map-wise on the left side of Nebraska and Kansas, to believe that America was born in the west, but you’d have a lot of arguments on your side. From the moment its death was announced people have kept the Old West alive, a cottage industry of small town photographers as much as anyone. This scene probably wasn’t staged but it’s a fair bet the photographer knew that on a certain day the ranch hands would be moving a small herd of cattle a short distance, maybe to an auction, and drove out, knowing exactly what image he or she wanted and was guaranteed to get.

There are ghost towns all over the world but they have a special association with the American West, especially with gold and silver mines and dozens still litter the lower edges of the Sierra Nevada where the 1849 gold rush took place. The wind moans through the broken shutters, the tumbleweed bounces erratically through the dust. In the 1930s Buena Park berry farmer Walter Knott thought a way to expand business at the roadside stand where his wife Cordelia sold her fried chicken dinners and raspberry pies was to keep the customers hanging about, so he built a few attractions including a twelve foot high volcano and a mine shaft where diners could pretend to pan for gold. In 1940 he began buying up buildings and salvaging furniture, wagon wheels and implements from actual ghost towns around California and Arizona and trucking them in. Knott took pride in his research, making sure that every feature of his ghost town came from the period and it took two decades to complete. In the meantime it was a serious rival for Disneyland, just down the road.

 More singing cowboys … Out west, the early pioneers were told, was the land of opportunity, meaning that if you had an idea, the nerve to risk it and a little luck you could go far. In 1931 pharmacist Ted Hustead bought a small drugstore in Wall, population about 200 and just outside of South Dakota’s Badlands. The one thing the town had going for it was Mount Rushmore, 100 kms away and pulling in the tourists while it was still under construction. Hustead had a similar idea to Knott but on a grander scale, figuring that a department store was just what the middle of nowhere needed and a few life size models of dinosaurs would help draw the customers. He was right. Today the Wall Drug Store has an estimated turnover of $10 million a year. The animatronic cowboy orchestra was one of Hustead’s early strokes of genius and today it has a revered place behind glass.

 In 1937 Edward Weston came across a man’s corpse out in the Colorado Desert in southern California and photographed it. We’re not really sure what happened after that, whether Weston set off immediately to tell the police or if he wanted to whether he’d even know how to find it again. Such is life and if you believe the stories the deserts of the southwest were littered with the desiccated, vulture picked bodies of men who’d gone out to find something and only got lost. The grizzled old prospector wandering through the desert with only his mules for company is one of the classic images of the Southwest, so much that if you actually encountered one on the trail you’d know pretty much exactly where you were.

As the word suggests, rodeo was a Mexican invention and it didn’t become emblematic of the Old West until that was gone to dust. In the late 19th century rodeos were found all over the US but cities like Chicago and New York began to doubt their relevancy and soon they were mostly found in places where the myth of the cowboy needed to be kept alive, like Pendleton in Oregon, home to the Roundup established in 1910. At that time Walter Bowman ran one of the town’s photo studios and was little known outside its perimeters but in the early days of the Roundup he made his name with action shots like this, taken in 1912, at a time other photographers were struggling to photograph a Model T on the move. Talking of speed, Bowman was the first person in Pendleton to own a car and was once arrested for speeding at 12 mph down the main street. He was killed in a car accident in 1938.


1 comment:

  1. Great photos. For some reason I found the first one adorable. Some maternal instinct, no doubt. But they really did wear sheepskin chaps in the West! I think you're right that they would pick up burrs, but I also think they helped keep the wearer warm in bitter winters and maybe the lanolin also repelled moisture. Now you've made me curious to find out more about this.

    In my youth, we used to go to Knott's Berry Farm when we visited my grandmother who lived nearby. I remember very little about it. Mostly, I remember that we weren't allowed to go to (also nearby) Disneyland because my parents thought it was a bad cultural influence.

    The Pendleton Roundup is still a very big deal 'round these parts.

    Thanks for this terrific post. I'm off to yodel at the sheep/cattle.


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