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Westerners used to wear masks

Because of the coronavirus, we are now asked to wear masks while working and shopping downtown. Westerners used to wear masks a century ago, so the fashion has come back around. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wore bandannas while they robbed banks and trains.

Butch was always the lead bandido, and though Sundance was a pretty good shot, sometimes his timing was off. Before they met up, Sundance tried to rob a Wyoming train on his own, which was a bad idea because Sundance did not have the logistical skills that Butch had perfected.

For starters, Sundance robbed the wrong train. The one he wanted to rob had passed through hours before and that was the Union Pacific, with the express mail car with plenty of cash in the safe. The train that Sundance stopped later that night only had $50 in cash. Do the math. For a $50 payout, Sundance received a $500 reward for his capture and arrest, and to make matters worse, there’s the issue of his mask.

Any up-and-coming train robber in the late 19th century had to have the requisite cowboy boots, cowboy hat, cowhide vest, pistols in hand-tooled leather holsters and the all-important red bandanna worn tightly across the bridge of the nose. How else would the public know they were being robbed? You just had to wear the right uniform.

Sundance had studied all this and assembled his work wardrobe. He practiced with his six-shooters so he could spin a tomato can off the top of a wooden fence post at 100 yards. (He could not practice with beer cans because they weren’t invented yet. Brew pubs with happy hour had yet to come to the West. Cowboys just drank whiskey straight up, sloshing it down the back of their throats.) Sundance had worked hard. He had the right clothes. He read the train schedule. He had not, however, practiced tying his bandanna.

So, his train robbing career got off to a poor start. He tied on his mask, swung into the railroad car, pulled his pistolas and growled, “This is a robbery, nobody move!” He had worked hard on his presentation. His Colt .45s impressed everyone. Then as he gestured with his pistol for a passenger to sit down, why of all things, his mask fell off.

Now that could happen to any of us shopping in Durango, and we’d just put it back on and fix the little straps behind our ears. But for a young train robber just trying to start an illustrious career, how embarrassing! So, then what?

It’s just not in the script to put your pistols back into their holsters, retie your bandanna and go for your guns again. Sundance thought he was prepared, but he wasn’t. He had to proceed with the train robbery with his face in full view and that fine mustache he’d spent years coaxing and trimming. Now, you know why he linked up with Butch Cassidy. Butch knew a lot of things, including how to tie bandannas.


The point of this story is attitude, adaptation and survival. As we contend with the coronavirus, it’s important to study Western history to see how homesteaders, ranchers, cowboys and cowgirls all got along in the changing West. Take Butch, for instance. When he went to rob his first bank in Telluride, having decided that working in the mines was too dirty and dangerous when all the gold went to the banks anyway, he practiced tying his bandanna. He also practiced leaping on his horse.

Butch knew that you could not just rob a bank when it opened in the morning and then come flying out the door to jump on a tied horse, put your foot in the stirrup, grab the saddle horn and swing up. First, he taught his steed to stand at the hitching rail. Then he practiced vaulting on to the horse by placing both his hands on the horse’s rump. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, he fell in the dirt in front of the San Miguel County Bank. By Thursday, he had it down, and by Friday, well, the rest is history. Just like we have billions of dollars being spread around the country to help our economy because of the virus, Butch took money from Telluride and lavishly spent it in Montezuma County and Cortez. It’s the same principle, but the bankers in the 1880s, including Mr. L.L. Nunn, didn’t see it that way.

The Wild Bunch starring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid always wore masks when they robbed trains and banks, but here the boys are relaxing in Fort Worth having spent a month frequenting the town’s red-light district. Sundance is on the bottom row at the far left, and Butch is on the same row at the far right.

As the Wild Bunch perfected their robberies they also practiced income redistribution by taking money from the First National Bank of Elko, Nevada, and sharing dollars with the ladies of the night in Fort Worth’s bordellos. The girls loved The Wild Bunch. Butch and the boys always bought at the bar. Adapting to tough times and changing circumstances is what we excel at as Americans, and we’ve got experience here in the West where jobs have always come and gone with boom and bust cycles.

Think of those young men, boys really, who agreed to ride hard through dangerous territory as Pony Express Riders. Orphans were encouraged to apply. The Pony Express only lasted a few years, quickly replaced by the wires that sung, or the telegraph, but it was good work if you could get it as you rode your horse at high speed always on the lookout for thieves, gopher holes and irate Native Americans.


Same thing with the Santa Fe Trail. You could leave Westport, Missouri, hoping for a safe journey down to New Mexico, but there were always dry water holes, busted axles and yelling, cussing teamsters who could make the air turn blue with their vivid vocabularies. It was so much easier to take the train once the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe finally made it over Raton Pass and into Lamy, New Mexico. (Did you know that the Santa Fe Railway never actually arrived in Santa Fe? No, it kept going to Albuquerque.)

Food was awful at the train depots. Customers just got greasy mystery meat, and as they looked under the moldy bread to find the beef in their sandwich, the whistle blew and it was back on the train. Fred Harvey changed that with his Harvey House Restaurants and his Harvey Girl waitresses. The West continued to evolve. Not only was the food so much better, he recruited young, graceful women as waitresses. Every glass of lemonade was fresh squeezed. Cowboys rode miles just for the coffee. Sort of. They also wanted to see those waitresses.

Comedian Will Rogers wrote, “Wild buffalo fed the early traveler in the West and for doing so they put his picture on a nickel. Well, Fred Harvey took up where the buffalo left off.”

Route 66 has plenty of 1950s iconography. Here Marilyn Monroe poses next to a Route 66 gumball machine, but she really needs to be wearing a mask. This photo is a few years old, perhaps by now she is.

Rogers continued: “For what he has done for the traveler, one of his waitress’s pictures (with an armload of delicious ham and eggs) should be placed on both sides of every dime. He has kept the West in food – and wives.”

Yes, as Westerners, we know how to adapt in trying economic times. Just look at Las Vegas, Nevada, where it is hot enough for lizards to get heat stroke and now after adopting gambling and showgirls, Vegas has an Eiffel Tower, an Egyptian Pyramid and Venetian canals.

Here in Colorado decades ago, we banned pot and burned it along railroad right of ways where Hispanic railroaders had planted it. Now, we sell it for big bucks in half ounces. Across the West, Route 66 was abandoned after interstate highways etched their straight lines across the desert. Now, tourists come just to drive the old two-lane blacktop.

Yes, we’re Westerners. We’ll adapt to these trying times. Just keep wearing your masks. Butch and Sundance would want you to.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.