In Western Canada, the Old West elicits, for some people, feelings of romance for times past when life was harder but also simpler. Bob Wilson is one such person.
Wilson, who is now retired, takes on the persona of a cowboy with the Old West re-enactment group, Guns of the Golden West, which is dedicated to recreating the lifestyle of the 1880s.
“We are re-enactors or bad actors, as some would say. We do improv. We don’t operate on a script; very seldom do we do that.” Wilson says. “It’s more a matter of looking at the venue we are at, and who the folks are that have come and asked us to be a part of their event.”
For Wilson —who was born and raised in Calgary—it all began while volunteering for the ‘88 Olympic Winter Games. He later became involved with the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede as a volunteer in the promotions area, which is where he met the Guns of the Golden West.
Wilson had always had an interest in the Old West and that time period, so when the Guns of the Golden West gave him the opportunity to join their group, it was an easy decision.
“They asked, ‘Would you like to be somebody else, somewhere else for a few hours?’ ” recalls Wilson, who didn’t have any acting or stunt training experience whatsoever.
“And that brought me many, many years of enjoyment and excitement and of course that’s still not ending,” he says. “I’m 66 years old now.”
Wilson, who very much fits the role of a cowboy in his signature Old West apparel, has taken up a variety of characters over the years, including the role of the outlaw known as Black Bart, which he performs with great enthusiasm and charisma.
“I become someone else, somewhere else for a period of time,’ Wilson says. “I feel what that character most likely felt in the day, whether real or imagined.”
Wilson says that part of his interest in Old West re-enactments is rooted in the simplicity of times past. With the hectic nature of today’s life, and technology being a dominant part of that, Wilson believes it would be good for everyone to take a look back into the past and learn something from it.
“I guess that simpler life is something that even though I’m a city boy, I still appreciate,” says Wilson. “I don’t think it would hurt for a lot of younger people to experience some of that today.”
Kevin Pratte, a new recruit with the Guns of the Golden West, also attests to the draw of a historical re-enactment.
“It’s kind of neat to get the feel for what it was like back in the day when people probably did carry the gun with them all the time,” Pratte says, referring to the safety concerns that were likely second nature to those who lived in the Old West. “Things we’re going over for the shows are things that would’ve been taken into account every day back then.”
Learning the history to make the re-enactment accurate is part of the draw for Pratte.
In the 28 years Wilson has spent with the Guns of the Golden West living out the cowboy lifestyle, he’s formed strong relationships with those he re-enacts with.
“It’s a small group and we get to know, much like you would with your neighbour, where they work, their family members, the vacations they go on. It becomes like your aunts and uncles and nephews. You get to know them that well.”
Being one of the few large re-enactment groups in Canada, numbering upwards of 40 members, the Guns of the Golden West re-enactors have travelled across Western North America to perform and are often in high demand. The group performs frequent shows at venues such as Aspen Crossing near Mossleigh, Alta; the Bar U Ranch; Empty Town near Rocky Mountain House; Fort Whoop-Up near Lethbridge; and the Calgary Stampede.
“We’ve ended up with such interesting places that we’ve performed in. There is that draw and comradery between us,” Wilson says.
“If one is having trouble finding that certain pair of pants or shirt that existed back in the day someone else will jump into the fray and say, ‘Well here’s someone who can make that for us,’ or ‘Here’s where you can find it.’”
Of course, re-enactment isn’t all fun and games. Safety is a serious aspect throughout the entire re-enactment process. Although the actors are using blanks while performing, they can still harm someone quite easily, as Wilson points out.
“We often demonstrate at some of our events, where we’ll take a phone book, and we’ll take a firearm up to it with a blank and it’ll actually burn a hole right through the phonebook,” says Wilson. “And people will say ‘My goodness, that’s a blank!’ ”
To be ready for actual events and shows, new recruits of the group need to go through a lengthy training process so they recognize the potential danger of the weapons they are handling.
Re-enactors also need to be aware of the crowd and what somebody might be doing, so that there is no way anyone could get hurt.
Keron Wilson, who has been with the Guns of the Golden West for four years, and was previously married to Bob Wilson, reiterates this dedicated focus to safety.
“For us, safety is paramount. It’s at the top of the totem pole, so we really promote safety,” Keron says.
“Everyone has to go through the safety training in order to participate. If you don’t participate in training you do not shoot; you’re just colour.”
Bob Wilson’s fellow re-enactors aren’t the only ones who share in his experiences. After nearly three decades of re-enacting, Wilson says his family members are well aware of what he does and happily acknowledge it when around friends.
“To some of the younger ones, I’m the cool uncle that’s the gunfighter,” Wilson says. “My dear old mum, she’s 91 years old; ‘Bob still plays cowboys,’ she’ll tell some of her ageing friends.”
“Of course, they have a hard time believing that someone my age would still be doing that.”