Every day is a Wild West costume party in this town

A woman in a bustling Victorian dress pauses on Allen Street, the historic main thoroughfare of Tombstone, Arizona, site of the notorious shooting at the OK Corral. Seconds later, a man in an old-fashioned marshal’s outfit walks down the wooden-planked sidewalk, spurs clanking. Tourists raise their smartphones and film the action.

Tombstone sits amidst the prairies and foothills of the Dragoon Mountains about 70 miles southeast of Tucson. False-fronted western buildings line its six-block historic area where travelers can hop on scarlet-colored horse-drawn stagecoaches to reach sights such as the paillard Birdcage Theater and Wyatt Earp’s Oriental Living Roomwith its costumed cowboy show.

The scene attracts Wild West fans, many of whom are dressed as if it’s 1882, not 2022. On some days, up to 20% of the residents of the historic area of ​​Tombstone wear 19th-century-style clothing. Most frock coats and crinolines are worn by saloon bartenders or professional actors. But a significant number of locals and visitors also indulge just for fun, inspired by Old West traditions and livery.

It’s not quite cosplay, which is impersonating a specific character. Instead, it’s a sort of free-form pageant—and everyone’s invited.

Here’s how to experience the brutal charm of Tombstone and why it’s such a costume party.

Shootings at tourist sites

The freewheeling spirit of today’s Tombstone harkens back to its booming days, after an 1877 Money Strike made it the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. It had the usual saloons and brothels, but it also had the wealth and sophistication that favored theaters, a debating club and roller rinks where young Victorian couples strutted around on skates.

Where money, power, and border justice collide, trouble often ensues. The OK Corral conflict occurred during the bloodiest firefight in Western history. Tombstone was made infamous by the 1881 shootout between cattle rustling cowboys and profiteering lawmen, including the Earp brothers and John “Doc” Holliday. In less than a minute, three men are dead and one of the most powerful legends of the Old West is born.

The fortunes of the area changed in the early 20th century after the silver mines closed, when Tombstone seemed destined to become a ghost town. But during the post-World War II tourism boom, Tombstone began to embrace its cowboy mythology, reopening saloons, museums and creating other attractions. Many companies were staffed with fake gamblers and saloon dancers dressed in colorful (if not always authentic) costumes. Since then, tourism has been the city’s largest industry and employer.

Enterprise and exuberance can create tension. The National Park Service
designated downtown Tombstone a National Historic Landmark in 1961, when it ranked among the nation’s best-preserved frontier communities. Just two years later, a parks inspector reported a “creeping peddler” who was “rapidly ruining the integrity of this beautiful site”.

(Find out why the Wild West lives in this Spanish town.)

In the early 2000s, Tombstone almost lost its landmark status when the U.S. Department of the Interior called him out for historical inaccuracies. Business owners had distressed buildings to make them look older, contemporary structures labeled with 19th century dates, and structures painted in inauthentic colors.

These days tourists travel to Tombstone to see attractions including the circa 1878 Goodenough silver mine and the Boothill Cemetery (re-created after a stint as a city dump). History buffs gravitate to the Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Parka Victorian red-brick building turned into a city museum.

A reconstruction of the OK Corral hosts three mock shootouts per day. Actors playing lawmen sport pointed mustaches and sleek black dusters; cowboy outlaws wear leggings and wide-brimmed hats.

Dress up the Wild West

Tombstone two steps between accurate historical interpretation (the replica of the courthouse gallows) and campy spins on the Wild West, like a Zipline where modern gunslingers shoot targets with laser guns.

For many residents and tourists, appreciating the city’s past means donning costumes inspired by the Wild West. On weekends, the unpaved pedestrian stretch of Allen Street can look like a border fashion show.

“Playing West has been popular for nearly 140 years,” says Betsy Gaines Quammen, historian and author of forthcoming book, True West: Sorting Realities Across America. “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show attracted huge audiences when it launched in 1883. I just think it’s important to understand that the idea of ​​the ‘Wild West’ is based on a myth.”

Most reenactors draw on Western archetypes: cowboys, lawyers, prospectors, pioneer women. Retired Cole Clayton, who moved to Tombstone to join his re-enactment scene, often spends an entire day wandering around town posing as a robber baron (tie, ruffled shirt) or grizzled gunslinger (leather vest , big hat). “It’s a fantasy land – people dress up every day,” he says. “I meet all the tourists, say hi, then do it again the next day.”

Others, including Charles Hancock, reveal lesser-known parts of United States history. In his bure, cavalry boots and field hat, he plays a Buffalo Soldier, a member of one of the black military regiments organized in 1866, shortly after the Civil War. “We collect as much information as possible to tell the story of their accomplishments,” says Hancock.

Like Civil War enthusiasts on the US East Coast, many of these re-enactors go to great lengths to factually portray the past. Some make their own costumes from period banners or patterns taken from deconstructed old clothing. As Linda Penn, an accomplished re-enactor and seamstress, says, “We try to go back in time and portray it as accurately as possible. We seek authenticity. Others dress in replica Old West clothing from stores, including Western Wear Spur, Tombstone Antiques Mall and Tombstone Vintage Cowgirls.

Often, what enthusiasts wear looks nothing like a scene from dead wood Where Once upon a Time in the West. “Dresses were never uncut until after 5 p.m.,” explains the re-enactor and milliner sunny quatchon (who herself prefers lively dresses and feathered hats). “During the day, even the ladies of the night were buttoned up.”

Those lace-up corsets worn by some saloon workers or the people posing in the city’s many old-fashioned photo studios? They have never been seen outside the boudoir. Quatchon explains that they went under women’s clothing, not over it, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood westerns.

Where to spot the time travelers

Some costumed time travelers walk around Tombstone every day. But you’ll increase your chances of a meet-and-greet or photo op by visiting on the second or fourth Sunday of the month, when members of the Vigilets and vigilantes groups of re-enactors gather along Allen Street. People in historical costume also go to annual events, including Wyatt Earp Days in May and Helldorado Days in October.

(Learn how historical interpreters are changing the conversation about race.)

Visitors can go to St. Paul’s Episcopal every Sunday, when many parishioners attend the Gothic Revival-style adobe church in Wild West accoutrements. Wyatt Earp helped fund the 1882 structure with money he got from shaking card dealers in his own living room. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it still has its original Belgian stained glass windows and thick roof beams brought down from the Chiricahua Mountains by ox cart. Behind, a historic cottage houses a small exhibition of 19th century women’s clothing.

On his regular weekend visits from nearby Tucson, Penn makes it a point to attend services at St. Paul’s. On a recent Sunday, she found herself among 40 other worshipers in Victorian or Edwardian style attire. “It was a glorious experience,” she says. “We obviously claim to be within that timeframe. But when we were all together, it felt real to me.

Amanda Castleman is a Seattle-based writer. Follow her on Twitter.

About Jefferey G. Cannon

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