Inside Laredo, the Secret, Members-Only Wild West Town in England
Its founders have spent weekends re-enacting American frontier life for over 30 years.
By Linda Rodriguez McRobbie
All photos by Linda Rodriguez
April 15, 2016
It started with a cabin. A small, wood cabin with a pot-bellied stove and enough room for a few friends to have a drink after a day’s riding. Then another wood building, grafted it on to it like a tree branch. One by one, other buildings, weather-beaten clapboard painted sober colors, joined it—the bank, the apothecary, the Lonesome Dove Mining Co., the blacksmith’s, a printer’s shop called Epitaph, the dry goods store, the jail, the two-storey saloon and hotel.
Now, 40 years later, Laredo, a border town in the American West from back when it was wild, rises improbably out of a wet, green field in the English countryside.
“The original building was what we are standing in front of now, but it wasn’t a photographers’, it was just a shack,” explains Colin “Cole” Winter. Winter, 71, has been a member of the Laredo Western Club, the group responsible for the replica American Wild West town we’re standing in, for more than 30 years. In that time, the town has grown “like a town would grow,” says Winter. The single “shack” is now a sturdy photographer’s studio with a plate glass window, sharing a wall with the Wells Fargo and Co.; every one of the 24 buildings in the town, flanking a muddy central boulevard, was raised and built by members of the club, signs painted by hand.
Laredo, rising out of a field on a farm in Kent.
There is no running water or electricity, but there are gaslights and woodstoves (practically, bright red, hand-painted “Fire” buckets are everywhere). We are still in England, just a 35-minute train ride through unlovely suburbs and lovely countryside from London to a Kentish village, and there are some giveaways; the weather, for example, is damp and chilly in a way England excels at. But members have worked hard to create the illusion that we’re standing on the main drag of a hardscrabble town in the barely settled American West, sometime between the 1860s and the 1890s. And weirdly, wonderfully, it succeeds.
People everywhere love the mythos of the American Wild West—the rugged individualism, glorification of freedom and honor and true grit, when the good guys carried rifles and themselves with integrity and the bad guys were easy to spot—and Laredo is not the only replica Western town in the world. Predictably, a number of fake Wild West towns are scattered across the actual American West, places where tumbleweeds, dust, and endless blue skies are naturally occurring. In 2015, a one-acre fake Wild West town in Valley Centre, California went on sale for $950,000, the price of a one-bed flat in London; the town, complete with a train station and jailhouse, had previously been used for filming. In 2012, billionaire Bill Koch—the younger brother of conservative string-pullers David and Charles Koch—made headlines with his plans to build his own Western town of some 50 buildings in Colorado. Koch, known to his friends as “Wild Bill”, told planning officials that the 420-acre plot, in the middle of his massive 6,400-acre Bear Ranch, would be a living repository for all his Western memorabilia, open only to select guests, family and friends.
The Bathhouse—also the ladies' and gents' toilets, with cold running water and drinking water. Sanitation might not be period correct, but it's definitely necessary.
Even outside of America, the draw of the Wild West is strong. Pullman City in Eging Am See in the Bavarian Forest is the life’s work of a group of Wild West enthusiasts who transformed a former fairytale theme park into a Western town. Germans seem to have a particular thing for the Wild West: In a suburb of Berlin sits the Cowboy Club Old Texas, a collection of 21 Western-themed buildings built up by the club members since the 1970s; once a month, the club throws western-themed parties there. There are three wild West theme parks in Almeria, Spain, whose geography more readily evokes the American west and where several 1960s and ‘70s Hollywood Westerns were filmed. (Not that people always stay interested: Western Village, a Wild West theme park north of Japan, was built for $27 million in 1975 that featured animatronic gunslingers and dentists, a model Mount Rushmore, and mechanical panda cars but closed in 2007 after years of foundering public interest. The site has been left to creepily, quietly molder away.)
But Laredo is the only Western town in the UK. It was not, like the towns in California or Almeria, built for filming; it’s not a theme park, and it’s not the private playground of a billionaire. For the people who built for themselves and who love it, Laredo is a living, breathing Western town. Even if it only really comes to life every other weekend.
View of the blacksmith’s from the balcony of the Silver Palace Hotel and Saloon.
Jolene Truder inherited Laredo from her father, John “JT” Truder, when he died three years ago at the age of 84; she lives in a house on the property. She met us on the front porch of the hotel, wearing practical mud boots and a warm rain jacket. In her life outside of Laredo, she works at a nearby grocery store, and has two children, an 11-year-old about to leave primary school and 18-year-old university student.
John Truder, she says, was a pig farmer who fell in love with the mythos of the American West watching westerns at Saturday matinees. “He, as a child, was into the Saturday morning, go to the pictures with his shilling or whatever it was” – “It was a shilling,” Winter interjected – “go and watch a western,” Jolene Truder explains. John Truder certainly wasn’t the only kid in the 1960s and ‘70s who fell in love with Hollywood’s version of the West, and he wasn’t only one to stay in love into adulthood. A number of western clubs, dedicated to a mythical Wild West lifestyle, sprang up across the UK through the ‘80s, right around the apex of the western’s popularity in film. John Truder taught himself to ride Western style, grew his hair long and sported a big handlebar mustache, named his daughter after a country song, and, with the help of likeminded friends, built Laredo. “My dad always looked like a cowboy, there was nothing you could do about it,” Truder remembers with a smile.
Inside Laredo’s general store, with replica canned goods.
Jolene Truder grew up with Laredo. The first building went up in 1970, before she was born, and the latest, the saddlers at the end of the street promising “good rates and value”, in the last five years. From a child, she spent virtually every weekend in 19th century clothing: When the Western re-enactment club scene was bigger, she said, there were shows, usually gunfights and bank robberies, nearly all the time, either at Laredo or elsewhere, on another club’s patch. As a teenager, it was embarrassing. “I just didn’t tell people,” she says, laughing. “I didn’t tell people at school. But it was really hard for people not to know… When we did French and Saunders and Red Dwarf and things like that, I was still at school, so all of this is on the telly. People are seeing it and I couldn’t get away with it for too long.
“I did get loads and loads of grief. Yeah, loads,” she continued. “I got loads of grief until I’d go, ‘Why don’t you come over?’ and they’d come up and they’d be like, their jaws would drop and that was it. Once a few people had been and seen, their opinions changed dramatically.”
The Livery, a saddlers and the last building built in Laredo, and the Lonesome Dove Mining Co., responsible for the mining camp just beyond the livery.
It makes sense when you see Laredo. The buildings, even if they were built with the help of power tools, are persuasively period correct. They even have a particular smell: “It’s the lamps and the wood burning and the coal burning, it gives it a sort of smell, if you know what I mean,” said Truder. “It’s an old smell.” Old, not in the sense of something that’s been left to founder, but more in the sense of something transplanted from the past.
One of the things that makes Laredo convincing is that it feels lived in. That’s because at least some of the time, it is. The town is open to club members every other weekend; when they arrive, usually on a Saturday, they have about an hour to get themselves into their period correct clothing, holster their weapons (no live ammunition allowed), and to stash their modern gadgets and gear. Those who have specific roles in the town—Marshal, shopkeeper, bartender—stay in the town Saturday nights, in their part-time homes at the backs of or above their storefronts (these areas are off-limits to visitors without express invitation by their residents). Guests without residences can pay to stay in the hotel, in rooms decorated with antique bedsteads, washbasins, and floral wallpaper, or in the mining camp’s cabins. The hotel, which also houses the bar, is the physical and emotional center of the town, functioning in the same way a real saloon might in a real western town. Some nights, they can pack more than 50 people in there: “We clear the tables and we can have dancing. It’s really nice, you have all the men stood at the bar, it’s lovely,” said Truder.
Inside Laredo’s jail – wanted posters and a gas lamp.
All of this was too magical—and too useful—for location scouts not to eventually notice. On the day I visit, a film crew is clearing up after having spent several days shooting an advertisement (“After me saying how authentic we are, when you walk in here, it’s full of camera gear,” said Winter, opening the door to the hotel). Episodes from popular British televisions shows such as Midsomer Murders and Red Dwarf and more recently, low-budget films like Blood Moon were filmed here, as well as advertisements and photo spreads, and a clutch of pop videos. “Our most famous guest was Johnny Depp. Remember a film called Finding Neverland?” says Winter. The crew spent three days at Laredo, one full day of filming. “We got about 20 seconds in the film. But we also did make a little bit of money, which is why we built the hotel.” Charging production companies to use the place—£1,400 for an eight-hour day—also goes towards the roughly £7,000 in annual building maintenance. “The wooden buildings are lovely, but this climate and wooden buildings? They take constant, constant upkeep,” says Truder.
The general store, stocked with provisions, many of them fake or replica, but some of them not.
That work is done by the 50 or so members, who also pay dues; that money also goes towards things like liability insurance. Of those members, the majority are in their 50s and 60s, and there are fewer families than there used to be—the kids have grown up and are too busy with their own children to come out.
But Laredo isn’t actively seeking new membership. If anything, it’s becoming more closed; allowing filming is a necessary financial compromise, but one that both Winter and Truder agree feels invasive. “These are our homes,” she says. Visiting the town is by appointment only, its location given out at members’ discretion. It no longer does the bank robbery or gunfight shows there and stopped holding open days for the public, when, three days after the last open day in August 2014, the town was burglarized. (The thieves stole lamps, stoves, knickknacks; Truder and Winter suspect that someone was trying to outfit their own Laredo knockoff.) They’ve also avoided the press since the last few articles, she said, made them “look like a load of nutcases, eccentric nutcases living in sheds.”
Bar at the Silver Palace, hand built by the members of Laredo and stocked with beer and spirits.
However, the primary reason Truder says that she doesn’t encourage new members is because this lifestyle is a commitment that she’s not sure many people are prepared for. “I don’t want people to join and then they have to be here and it’s a chore," she says, "You want people who really want to be here.” Members do, of course, have lives outside of re-enacting—Winter, for example, sells items he collects through house clearances on eBay; he also takes care of his grandkids, rides motorbikes, is into ceroc dancing and rock music.
Last year, he saw Iron Maiden at Brixton Academy in London. But Laredo, just as it is for other Laredo members, is a significant part of his identity: “It’s 40 years of my life. I’m 71 and more than half my life, I’ve been playing cowboys,” he said, adding quickly, “Oh, I get told off for saying ‘playing cowboys’—re-enacting.”
Inside Room #6 of the Silver Palace Hotel.
While the initial draw was perhaps the version of the Wild West offered up by black-and-white TV shows and spaghetti westerns—flashier gunplay, big personalities, bank robberies—current members are much more invested in the quiet details of life in the American west. Club members do extensive research into diaries and photograph archives to figure out what kind of collars men would have actually worn in the 1870s, for example. And they feel an obligation to get it right: Says Truder, “You’re representing a generation that are dead. So do it respectfully.”
Meanwhile, the internet’s growth has made getting it right all the easier; where, as Winter said, Laredo was once informed by Time Life books, re-enactors can now get real answers to questions like whether miners would have used white enamel plates or plain tin. “I think everyone now puts all their energy into getting the buildings correct, getting their selves correct. That’s where the energy is now going. So that we can be the best we can be,” Truder said. “And it’s for ourselves. It’s not about anything else, it’s for us.”
Main (and only) drag of Laredo Town.
It takes a lot of effort to fully immerse yourself in the past every other weekend, to maintain the buildings and the look of the place and find the right clothing. What people get out of it, therefore, needs to be significant. One thing they get is a community of people interested in the same thing, necessarily engaging with one another in real time—the use of mobile phones is punishable by a £10 fine. “You have to actually have a conversation with people!” Truder said with mock shock. There’s also the pride and satisfaction in what they’ve built; said Winter, “When someone comes in and says, ‘That’s absolutely great’ and you think, ‘I was a part of that,’ you know?”
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