There was a time when a man dressed like Jeff Capps was not an unusual sight in Mesa. A tall man with a bushy mustache, tall black boots, canvas duck cloth trousers, a gun on each hip and a dusty hat, Capps is a picture of the Old West — at least after work and on weekends, when he steps into the role of “Windy Bill,” a gunslinger in the Mohave Muleskinners Western reenactment troupe.
The group will perform gunfights and interact with crowds Saturday and Sunday at Mesa Old West Days in downtown.
“It’s quickly becoming one of the biggest Western festivals in the state,” says George Notarpole, co-founder of the event with fellow downtown merchant Mike Pierson.
Now in its fourth year, the festival has doubled in size since last fall. Among its top attractions are the Muleskinners and the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, who will appear in full military garb. An Arizona Cowboy Fast-Draw Competition and a gunslinging booth, where the public can test their quick-draw abilities, are also popular.
“You do that, and you start seeing how difficult it is to handle a firearm. It gives you a whole new respect for the skills people developed back then,” says Wylie Boehs, a Mesa plumber who serves as the festival’s emcee and as the Muleskinners’ “W. Fordyce Johnson,” a fancy-clothed gunfighter with a tiny pistol in his front vest pocket.
The group, which is made up of about 170 Old West enthusiasts from Arizona and neighboring states, formulate most of their performances as they go, says Capps, of Apache Junction.
“We bring the Old West to life for people, and we love to interact with them and keep it fresh. We’re not portraying real characters, but we are representing the Old West, performing gunfights and scenes that would have been typical of that time,” Capps says.
Other attractions include expert trick roper Steve Cassat, appearances by Western actors Michael Dante and Peter Brown and stuntman Ron Nix, an authentic period performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (and other music) by the Territorial Brass Band, and costume contests for men, women and youngsters.
Kid-specific activities include pony rides, a petting zoo, a train ride and rides in a real stagecoach. The event also includes merchants and artisans specializing in Western merchandise and live Western music by The Cross Town Cowboys, The Katy Creek Band and The Jam Pak Blues ‘N’ Grass Neighborhood Band.
Notarpole says about 10,000 people showed up at last year’s Old West Days. He expects a bigger turnout this year.
“The phone is still ringing with people who want to participate.”
The East Valley Tribune is a sponsor of Mesa Old West Days.