Each spring, Y. Elbert (Easy) Cheyno of Sunland and about 50 fellow artists from all across the country slide into their spurs, chaps and Stetsons and head for Pomona, where they hop aboard the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad for a festive ride into neighboring San Dimas.
When the train filled with revelers and curious passengers pulls in, the artists are greeted by a band and cheering townfolk celebrating the kick-off of the town's largest annual event: the San Dimas Festival of Western Arts, a nationally recognized exhibit of American Indian and cowboy art.
However, the mood of this year's festival was somewhat subdued because mounting financial difficulties had led some pessimists to fear that the 1986 round-up might be the last.
"Over the years, we've accumulated a lot of art, but very little money," said Hank Williams, chairman of this year's festival, who is often mistaken for, but not related to, the Hank Williams of country-Western music fame.
According to Gaby Pryor, co-chairman of next year's festival, the event has amassed a lot of debts, and "there was concern over paying them."
In response, the San Dimas City Council, at the prompting of the festival's board of directors, purchased seven original works that had been on loan at City Hall.
San Dimas voted on July 8 to pay $30,000 for the artwork, which recently was appraised at more than $43,000. The funds ensure that the festival will stay alive.
"The thought of the festival not going on is panicky to people," said Alline Kranzer, co-chairman of the 1987 festival.
She added that such fears are unfounded, since plans for the next festival are well under way. It will open on April 23 with a Western dance and will include a gallery display in City Hall, an art show, trading post, auction and awards banquet.
City Manager Bob Poff, a former festival chairman, said the festival fills a special niche in this rural community of about 28,000 people.
"We have all kinds of activities that bring the community together," he said, citing the city's annual birthday party, the "Western Daze" celebration and other events.
"But the show offers national prestige. It has brought to San Dimas thousands of people--artists and art dealers--who would not have otherwise come here, and it also stresses the Western feel of the city."
That "Western feel" is a look that San Dimas, nestled at the easternmost end of the Foothill Freeway, has cultivated since 1970.
The Chamber of Commerce at that time, deciding that the 10-year-old city needed an architectural theme, traded on the city's historical significance as one of the towns founded when the Santa Fe Railroad came west in 1887 and opted for Western decor.
In 1971, the City Council passed the Creative Growth Ordinance, which dictates that buildings erected in the downtown area should look like those in an early California village.
"If someone comes in with a plan that's not in the early California village theme, they won't get approved," said Ray Montgomery, superintendent of building and safety.
Ironically, the building in which Montgomery works--City Hall--was constructed two years before the ordinance was passed and has a decidedly contemporary look.
Thus, San Dimas, with its odd blend of palm trees, concrete and Western get-up, looks sort of like Dodge City gone California.
Down at San Dimas Hardware ("a REAL hardware store," the sign says), Robert Wieman walked past wooden barrels filled with candy and moseyed down an aisle marked "Buckshot Lane" in search of a pipe fitting.
After a quick shuffle down "Coyote Pass" and up
"Tombstone," Wieman paid for his supplies and ambled out the door.
As he planted his sneakers on the boardwalk (the city replaced some of the concrete walks with wooden planks), he was a little out of place among the Western storefronts and wooden Indians. With his blond surfer features, dark sunglasses, earring and muscle-man T-shirt, Wieman, 24, looked like the type Marshal Dillon would have wanted out of Dodge before sundown.
But the Pomona resident says he loves San Dimas, where he works at McHenry Greenhouses.
"It's like Mayberry in 1958," said Wieman.
His comparison might come as a blow to city planners who have been striving for a town more reminiscent of "Gunsmoke" than "Andy Griffith." But residents and visitors alike echo Wieman's sentiments.
'Just for Appearances'
"The Western stuff is just for appearances," said Mike Roberts, 28, who has lived in San Dimas all his life and manages a feed store.
"The real atmosphere of San Dimas is small town. When I walk down the street to work, I wave to everybody and people honk at me. It's kinda nice. If you go to L. A., nobody's gonna talk to you there."
"The town itself is filled with people who've been here forever and ever," Wieman said. "Everybody's just kinda set in their ways--and old."
Pharmacist Jim Burfin, who calls himself the "San Dimas Medicine Man," agrees that his customers tend to look more like Aunt Bea than Dodge City's Miss Kitty.