Old West still alive in Germany
Date posted: January 17, 2014
SHERIDAN — As she walked down main street, she saw a stockade of old forts and a wooden bank, jail, courthouse and saloon.
Inside the saloon there was a dance floor. And on the dance floor, people danced. Some wore a flannel shirt or maybe a cowboy hat and boots. Some wore fur pelts. One guy wore a full black patent leather suit and looked part biker, part cowboy. He was the Sheriff of the town.
If Sheridan High School graduate Grace Cannon had been in Montana, Wyoming or South Dakota, the scene wouldn’t seem so unusual. But she was in Berlin, Germany’s largest city known for its medical and biotechnology industries and its hip, urban culture.
The cowboy town was flanked by high-rise office buildings and German autobahns, or federal motorways with no speed limit.
In 2013, Cannon went to Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship to study just these kinds of “towns,” called “Cowboy Clubs,” where Europe meets the Old American West in a country that, to this day, has a keen interest in all things cowboy and Indian.
“My impression was, ‘I can’t wait to see it because it will be so wrong and off,’” Cannon said. “It was very kitschy, but not so wrong.”
Cannon said cowboy club members had so enthusiastically embraced their love of the Old West, bringing it to life with inspiration from movies, TV shows, books and music, that it was genuine even if a bit overdone.
Cannon has written a documentary play based on her year-long studies into German enthusiasm for the American West that will make its debut as a staged reading by eight community members at 1:30 p.m. Sunday in the Inner Circle at Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library.
The play integrates Cannon’s own experiences with cowboy club history, interviews with club members and autobiographical writings from controversial German writer Karl May, who wrote glamorized tales of Western lore during the time of Buffalo Bill Cody.
At Cowboy Club Old Texas Berlin — and dozens more like it across Germany — members refer to their obsession as “hobbyism.” Cannon said they say the word in English like they think it’s a commonly used word in America, like America is dotted with cowboy clubs, too. Cannon said social clubs like the Elks or Lions may come close but not to the extent that fake towns are built, costumes are worn and the public is invited for a theme-park experience at least once a month.
In Munich, Cannon visited Cowboy Club Munich Ranch, which was set up like an old western ranch rather than a town. Munich also offered an Indian camp with teepees where club members had powwows, lived in the forest and made Indian-style clothing.
When Cannon began to examine how cowboy clubs started and why they’ve remained popular to this day, creating their own historical subsection in German culture, she discovered myriad reasons. Reason number one, however, was May. Cowboy clubs popped up in the early 1900s due greatly to the influence of his works.
“Karl May captures the imagination. He tells adventures that make him so popular, probably because he’s not very academic. He’s kind of pulpy,” Cannon said. “Einstein loved him; Franz Kafka loved him; Adolf Hitler loved him.”
That last point made May controversial even though he had died before Hitler took power. After World War II, Germans were looking for ways to explain how someone so evil had risen to power. Since Hitler liked May’s work, they blamed May for contributing to what Hitler became, Cannon said.
May was controversial during his life, too, when it was discovered that even though his books were autobiographical — about a German who traveled to the Old West — he had never actually been to America but had sat in jail, instead.
Even though May became clouded in controversy, the lifestyle he depicted still appealed to Germans and many cowboy clubs opened (or re-opened) after the war.
“When they had survived two world wars, it was something people turned to as an escape from the really dark stuff going on around them,” Cannon said. “And then after something exists for a few decades, it exists because it exists.”
As far as the title of Cannon’s work?
“It comes from this point and counterpoint of the character of Grace and Karl May,” Cannon said. “What is my home now is his frontier where he imagined all these great adventures. His home is where I’ve had all these great adventures.”
If you go…
What: Staged reading of, “My Home is a Borderland,” written by SHS graduate Grace Cannon, followed by a discussion of the script
When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Inner Circle at Sheridan Fulmer Public Library