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UNFORGIVING : Children's Museum Shoots Holes in Stereotypes About the Wild West

September 23, 1993|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Mention "Gunsmoke" and you'll see Carrie Wictor's ire rise faster'n trail dust behind a herd of stampeding longhorns.

Despite what was portrayed in that long-running TV show, "the cowboy life wasn't glamorous at all," insists Wictor, curator and creative force behind "The Real West" exhibit at the Children's Museum at La Habra. "It wasn't Marshall Dillon walking into Miss Kitty's saloon in his white shirt pressed beyond belief; but it wasn't all shoot 'em bad guys either. Really, it was something in between."

With a mix of vintage photographs, artifacts and hands-on activities, Wictor plans to prove that it took more than a hat and a swagger to be a cowboy. "The Real West" is targeted to children in third grade and up, but is accessible to younger viewers as well, said Wictor. The exhibit opens Monday in the museum's changing gallery and runs through Dec. 31.

For the past several weeks, Wictor has scrounged through local antique shops, feed stores and private collections to put together a show that she hopes will paint a more accurate picture of life on the trail than the one portrayed on television, movies and in pulp novels. The exhibit will focus on the "heyday of the cowboy era," which lasted roughly from 1850 to about 1890, when the invention of barbed wire and the expansion of railroad lines effectively ended long-distance cattle drives, she said.

Like most Children's Museum exhibits, "The Real West" will stress experiential learning. Kids can rest a spell in a mock campsite, visit a line house (a rough shack typical of those set up by cowboys along the trail) or sit astride "Comanche," a pony that Wictor fashioned from an old 55-gallon drum and outfitted with a real Western saddle and bridle.

They can also cozy up to a life-size plywood replica of a quarter horse, rope a cloth heifer and rummage through saddlebags stocked with items similar to those a working cowboy might have carried.

"A lot of these guys carried everything they owned with them," noted Wictor, who plans to stuff the bag with such necessities as fake matches, a clean bandanna and extra clothing, dice, playing cards and faux fried chicken. Kids will also have a chance to role play using an assortment of cowboy-style duds.

"The cowboy hat really came up from the part of South America where they had been doing cattle ranching for years," explained Wictor. "The broad brim kept the sun off your face and shed rain, and the low crown didn't collect the heat. When cattle ranching became big in the Southwest, it became practical to adapt this kind of costume and refine it for American culture."

Wictor has some personal experience with the cowboy life. A remote descendant of Jose Antonio Yorba, an early settler of Orange County, she recalls stories of cattle ranching on the family's once-huge land holdings. A few of her family artifacts, including the saddle her mother used as a girl and a hand-braided rawhide rope, will be included in the show.

But there will be at least one item popularly associated with old-time cowboys that you won't see in "The Real West": a gun.

"Most cowboys didn't carry guns; they couldn't afford them," said Wictor.

While she's at it, Wictor plans to blow a few other myths out of the saddle. According to her research, the typical cowboy was not only dirty, poorly paid and unarmed, he generally didn't look a thing like Clint Eastwood.

"You think cowboys and (you imagine) a white guy with a mustache and crow's feet around his eyes," said Wictor, laughing. In fact, she said, vintage photographs show that the average cowboy was often just that: a boy not even out of his teens. And based on one shot that she hopes to procure, the profession drew from several ethnic groups.

"The photo shows a line of cowboys at a rodeo," recalled Wictor. "There's (black rodeo champion) Bill Pickett at one end, and Native Americans, whites and Hispanic guys.

"It shows that, at least on the surface, the cowboy life was pretty egalitarian."


"The Real West."


Monday, Sept. 27, through Dec. 31. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. (As of Oct. 4, hours will change to 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. As of Oct. 10, the museum will also be open 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.)


Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra.


From the Orange (57) Freeway, exit at Lambert Road and drive west. Turn right on Euclid.


Museum admission is $3.50, children under age 2 get in free.

Where to call

(310) 905-9793.

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