Phoenicia resident Holly George-Warren was driving down Glasco Turnpike in Woodstock when she saw a man leading a chestnut horse along the side of the road. “I slammed on the brakes,” she recalled, “jumped out, and asked him if he’d like to dress like a cowboy and ride his horse down Main Street for Phoenicia’s Wild West Weekend. He said he’d love to!”
George-Warren hopes that numerous buckaroos and buckarettes will join the horseback parade as Phoenicia celebrates its first annual Wild West Weekend on October 12 and 13. The hamlet-wide festival will feature a square dance with Earl Pardini, Gene Autry films at STS Playhouse, a harmonizing trio with Uncle Rock, a cowboy poetry slam, a chili cook-off, and more. Attendees are welcome to stroll the streets in their own Western wear.
The event was seeded three years ago in a conversation between Michael Koegel, owner of Mama’s Boy Market, and George-Warren, who has written books on the American West, including Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry (Oxford University Press, 2007), Cowboy! How Hollywood Invented the Wild West (Readers Digest Books, 2002), The Cowgirl Way (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), and How the West Was Worn (Abrams, 2001).
Koegel had heard George-Warren interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, speaking about the meticulously research Autry bio. “Michael’s a fan of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers,” noted George-Warren, “and he said we should celebrate Gene’s birthday.” Autry would have been 106 this September 29.
There are a couple of precedents for holding a Wild West event in Phoenicia. “As long as I’ve lived here, I’ve heard this crazy slogan, ‘There’s no law west of Shokan,’” said George-Warren. “And in the early 1900s, some of the first Wild West films were shot here. After The Great Train Robbery, copy-cat films were made on railroad lines that passed through Phoenicia.”
George-Warren and Koegel have pulled together activities for the whole family, all of them free or at a nominal charge. Any profits will go to the STS Playhouse and the Phoenicia Library.
The festivities begin Saturday morning at the library with a cowboy/cowgirl poetry slam. “Cowboy poetry festivals are popular out West,” said George-Warren. “They have big ones in Arizona, Nevada, California. Cowboy songs and poetry are an important oral tradition that started in the late 1800s. Alan Lomax compiled them in his books, and they’re part of the American treasury of folklore.”
Participants may sing or recite their own compositions or historic pieces on the cowpoke life, referring to nature, the outdoors, and/or “the independent spirit that is one of the reasons people live here in Phoenicia.” George-Warren will be the mistress of ceremonies and will read from her book The Cowgirl Way, about female riders, wranglers, and outlaws of the 1800s. The library will also hold a yard sale.
Saturday afternoon, STS Playhouse will show a remastered version of the first sci-fi cowboy film, the 1934 serial The Phantom Empire, starring Gene Autry. Another Autry classic, Back in the Saddle, will also be presented on Saturday, and there will be a Sunday showing of the singing cowboy’s own personal favorite, South of the Border. The Catskill Ukulele Group, led by Barbara Mansfield, will accompany some songs.
Earl Pardini and his string band will play at the Parish Hall on Saturday, with Pardini calling the square dances as he has done annually for years at the Phoenicia Elementary School’s Western Night. Food and drink will be available for purchase at the hall. A marshmallow roast will follow, around the bonfire at Mama’s Boy Cafe.
Cooks wishing to compete in the Chili Cook-off should sign up at Mama’s Boy by 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. At noon, the public will taste samples and vote for their favorite dish. Prizes will be awarded to the winning chefs.
On Sunday evening, the Sons of the Pioneers, the most famous cowboy harmonizing trio, will be echoed by the Sons of Phoenicia, starring Robert Burke Warren (George-Warren’s husband, a.k.a. children’s musician Uncle Rock), Josh Roy Brown, and Connie Mack (a.k.a. Cornelius McGillicuddy). The trio will perform classic cowboy and cowgirl numbers at STS Playhouse, with a showing of South of the Border to follow.
During the weekend, Western clothing and accessories will be on sale at local shops, including Threads of Time, the Formerly Yours Thrift Shop, 60 Main, the Mystery Spot, and Mama’s Boy Market. On Sunday, people decked out in their Western-themed outfits — which might include cowboy, Native American, and Spanish styles — can have their photos taken at Mama’s Boy.