The Cowboys (and Cowgirls) of Cedar Rapids

Posted in: Iowa City Owl
This past weekend, my girlfriend and I drove up Highway 1 through pastoral Iowan landscapes to the Ushers Ferry Historic Village to attend their annual Wild West Weekend, to watch 'reenactors' in full cowboy and period regalia shoot it out among themselves, eat cake and soup made on cast iron stoves, and to enjoy an idyllic summer day in the past.


Tucked away just north of Cedar Rapids, Ushers Ferry is an unique experience for all those who are historically-inclined: around twenty period buildings (those which were originally built in the 19th Century and then moved to the site) are set in the form of a town one might have found if born 150 years ago. There's a one-room schoolhouse complete with chalk slates at each desk, a two-story hotel with desperadoes lounging on the front porch, a saloon serving up root beer, cream soda, and (my favorite) sarsaparilla, where staged-bar fights break out. Rough'n'tumble characters in dusters and spurs greet you with friendly howdys and a tilt of their wide-brimmed hats.

I was first introduced to this authentic facsimile of days long ago by my mother, shortly after my family moved to Iowa in 1997, who joined up with the reenactment troupe who regularly represented wild west worlds but also civil war battle scenes and 'buck-skinners' & trappers. Such incredible detail goes into each of their outfits, whether they are Union soldiers, gun-fighting lawmen, or fashionable ladies of their era. The fabric that is used, the hats they wear, their jewelry they adorn, and the guns they tote must all be 'period-correct' in order to portray their characters accurately. 

The intensity of their dedication to detail is coupled with a genuine comfortableness the actors exude with what they are wearing and how they interact with each other and the general audience. Each are more than happy to explain their attire while also free and willing to whoop and holler and fire their blanks excitedly into the sky. Having been to a few comics and fandom conventions now, it's hard for me not to see this as cosplay but with the weight of history on their side, with real stories to tell, and factual characters they can imbue. In short, it's interactive, living storytelling at its best.

Sadly, the flood of 2008 caused irreparable damage to almost half its buildings. And while some have been restored and opened, there are many left which must be demolished. Each year since has been a bid to keep it in operation, barely making it by (yet with more numbers returning each year), so there's little leftover to complete this task. This burden is coupled with a more sad fact that the building destroyed were artifacts unto themselves, that even if new buildings were erected, a piece of history is inevitably lost.

Hopefully, this article and others like it can bring awareness to this state treasure and more can become involved in preserving and restoring Ushers Ferry. Without it, the heroes of the West, the lessons of the past, our heritage, would return to the history books, once again separating the fact of 'this is now' from the fantasy of 'if only it could be then'. 
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