Probably few other regions of our country have been as richly vested by various cultures and ethnic groups as the American West. “The Frontier” was a rich tapestry woven of the great Native American tribes, the Spanish-speaking padres who swept up from the south building missions which survive to this day, the Chinese and other Oriental groups who flocked in from the Pacific and of course, the Mormon settlers and other pioneers who arrived from the East. The Great American West would not have been quite the same without any one of them and today there is a testimonial to them all at the Autry National Center of the American West.
Gene Autry – gifted performer, popular celebrity and astute investor – apparently ended up with veritable saddle bags of cash which he put to use for many worthy causes, including a pivotal role in the development of this place which bears his name and includes the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, Museum of the American West, and also the Institute for the Study of the American West. On my last trip to the Los Angeles area, my cousins and I visited what is known as the Museum of the American West Griffith Park Campus.
It would probably require moving in for a whole week to see all the fascinating things gathered together in this place. Not just cash but the generous donations of family heirlooms and personal treasures (coupled with a lot of hard hands-on work and devotion) have created a priceless store of stuff bespeaking the rich heritage of California. The people of Los Angeles can be justifiably proud of this place.
Here you will find gorgeous hand-tooled leather saddles, all beautifully crafted and some even bearing silver-plated ornamentation. Here also are leather “cowboy” boots, fancy shirts, guns and other weapons, even ten-gallon hats. Families have donated christening gowns, wedding dresses and other clothes from another era. There is a special children’s museum here, built to look like an old Western farmhouse and a Chinese restaurant where the kiddies can look at things like old dishes, artificial foods and even antique toys and children’s books, often without peering through glass, and can even pick some items up to play with.
An authentic Wells Fargo wagon is here, likewise a real stagecoach and a chuckwagon set up for cooking a meal on the trail. (Information about these things is posted everywhere for those who prefer to read and audio-guide tours are available for $3 (free for members). Especially enjoyable to me was the chance to walk right up to a stuffed buffalo and also a Longhorn steer. My personal standards are very high when it comes to taxidermy but someone had done a beautiful job here and the animals seemed uncannily realistic.
Someone has used life-sized figures to recreate in still life the Battle of the O-K Corral, complete with an audio tape describing who each opponent was and exactly what happened.
I especially loved the beautifully made and massively proportioned bar which was complete with a back mirror which reached to the ceiling, carved life-sized statues and a shining brass rail that a thirsty patron could have rested a foot on as he partook of the pause that refreshed. The bar is even stocked with a gleaming cash register and (empty) antique liquor bottles. Today the area set aside for this seems quiet, almost sacramentally so, with subdued lighting. It seemed strange to walk in and not find a fastidiously groomed bartender polishing a glass and waiting for me to order my potion of choice. A hundred years ago, a place like this would have been alive with the clink of glasses, sparking (or not-so-sparkling) repartee, laughter, poker games, a piano player belting out a little background music and maybe even an occasional angry exchange of words or fists and flying furniture.
This museum has been designed to be enjoyable for the whole family and there are plenty of comfortable, strategically-placed benches for the occasional furtive but grateful use of us older buckaroos. Bathrooms abound. Visitors leaving the Museum can finish up with an enjoyable browse through the well-stocked Gift Shop. There is also a Golden Spur Café which is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The only complaint I had about the Museum could perhaps be considered more of a suggestion. I noticed that there was an almost constant barrage of Western music comprised of a man (Gene Autry?) singing and playing what sounded like a guitar. There was nothing wrong with this — it was quite enjoyable, in fact — but my suggestion is that the Museum either interject occasional periods of silence or work in a little more variety of music. As it was, I never did get to hear one of my personal favorites – The Streets of Laredo – but I think my cousins and I may have reached our legal lifetime dosage of listening to “The Old Chisholm Trail” (“Now come along boys and listen to my tale, I’ll tell you ’bout my troubles on the Old Chisholm Trail…”)
To complain about such trifles though clearly is to nitpick. I cannot convey enough how much I enjoyed my visit to the Museum of the American West and I heartily recommend it to everyone who likes history at all (and perhaps even to those who may think they aren’t interested). The impression I got from what I saw here was that life on the old Frontier was probably difficult and even at best far from perfect but that the Great American West truly was great and probably without parallel either before or since. I had suspected it all along but it took the legacy of a singing cowboy to really drive the truth of that home.
For visitors’ hours, admission, and directions on how to get there, please mosey on over to www.autrynationalcenter.org/visit.php for further information.