Half a century after his first appearance on the big screen, movie-lovers are still smitten with an irascible one-eyed U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn and the movie “True Grit.”
How else to explain the daily visitors to an unprepossessing homestead visible from Last Dollar Road?
The 1969 Western “True Grit,” shot on Hastings Mesa, above Owl Creek Pass and in downtown Ridgway, starred John Wayne. His indelible impersonation of Cogburn earned the actor his first Oscar.
“It’s crazy,” said Amanda Gabrielson, the property’s caretaker. “John Wayne fans are hardcore.”
There are three buildings on the Hastings Mesa homestead. The owner hasn’t advertised the place as a film site, but movie-lovers have figured out how to find it.
It’s the “Ross Ranch” in “True Grit,” home of 14-year-old protagonist Mattie (Kim Darby), who hires Cogburn, a man of ‘true grit,’ to capture her father’s killer — and it’s been carefully restored over the last year in time for a festival in Ridgway next weekend.
“Every day, people pull over to take pictures,” Gabrielson reported (some even attempt to trespass). “Right now, the gates are closed. Next weekend, we’ll open the gates, so people can come walk around and take a closer look. This was a historic homestead back in the day,” she added. “It was the original home of the Lewis family, who first settled it. Today it’s known as the ‘True Grit’ homestead, because of the movie.”
In downtown Ridgway, Tammee Tuttle, owner of the True Grit Cafe (established in 1985) has reportedly noticed the same thing that Gabrielson has: Movie fans arriving from all over the world, attracted to Ridgway at least in part because of the film that helped put this town on the map. A few years ago, Eve Becker-Doyle, president of the Ridgway Heritage Society — which is staging next week’s festival — coordinated a year-round, “True Grit” walking tour at nine spots in town and two more in Ouray where the movie was set. Places like the gallows (the hanging scene was in Hartwell Park), the firehouse (with a cupola added for the film that remains to this day) and Chen Lee’s Place (next door to today’s chic, farm-fresh-ingredient restaurant Provisions). The past and present coexist comfortably here — the building that houses Provisions was originally the Pioneer Grocer & Barber Shop, when it was built in 1894 — and Hollywood’s enduring presence has burnished Ridgway’s appeal.
“Whether you’re a fan of ‘True Grit’ or not, it’s part of who we are,” Becker-Doyle said simply. She cited a 1994 Harris Poll that asked, who is your favorite actor?
“The poll’s been going on for 25 years, and the only actor who’s been in it every year is John Wayne. And he died in 1979. How does he keep showing up when he’s dead? It’s amazing,” she said. “He’s become an icon for the American West, and that’s what captures people’s imagination. I think he needs a bigger presence in this town.”
Next weekend, Wayne, the film, and the town’s ranching and railroad heritage all get their due at the first annual Ridgway Old West Fest, an event that’s been in the works for over a year-and-a-half.
“We’ve made this festival bigger than just John Wayne,” Becker-Doyle said.
Much bigger, it turns out. “It’s humongous. It really is something,” said Joan Chismire of the Ouray County Ranch History Museum.
And the dozens of events that take place over three days — this reporter counted 52 — from Oct. 11-Oct. 13 is the pared down version of what was originally planned. As Chismire put it, “We had too many sprinkles on the cake.”
In addition to guided walking tours and showings of both versions of “True Grit” (the original and the critically acclaimed 2010 version by the Coen brothers) there’ll be a chuck wagon dinner at a ranch outside town sponsored by the ranch museum.
The Ridgway Railroad Museum is offering several events, including guided hikes along Otto Mears’ historic Silverton railroad, a tour of an extensive model railroad at a local aficionado’s house, nightly lectures and (perhaps most thrilling of all, to rail fans) rides on additional “Galloping Goose” railcars that have been brought in specially for the occasion from Telluride and Dolores what museum brass have dubbed “A Gathering of the Flock.”
There’ll be live music: a concert by Debby Campbell, whose dad, country singer Glen Campbell, co-starred in “True Grit” along with Wayne and Darby; cowboy poetry performances; a “Western heroes and villains lookalike contest;” horse and pony rides for kids; a natural horsemanship demonstration; and even a mule-packing tutorial at the ranch museum timed to coincide with the advent of hunting season. (“We’ll have retired Forest Service employee Tom Heffernan here to demonstrate packing light,” Chismire said. “You don’t need to bring your cast iron with you on a hunting trip. We thought that would be helpful,” for both mules and campers.)
The packing lesson is one way the fest skews radically from the Old West, where treating animals humanely wasn’t much of a consideration (although in the book that inspired the film, Cogburn stopped a pair of teenage boys from tormenting a mule). And there’s another sign of the New West in the festival next week: a chance to raise funds for a good cause, by running a marathon in a scenic spot. The John Wayne Cancer Foundation will sponsor a “Run with Grit” 10K near the homestead on Last Dollar Road. It’s one of four athletic forays the foundation has planned over the next year in outrageously scenic spots (the first is this weekend at the base of Mt. Whitney in Lone Pine, California, to be followed by the run in Ridgway, in Joshua Tree and in Jackson Hole). Ethan Wayne, John Wayne’s son and the foundation’s director, said the Ridgway marathon will be memorable not only because it raises money for the charity — Wayne passed away from cancer — and is set where his father’s film was, “but because you get to run in the spectacular location that you guys have here.” Ridgway runners, he added, “will be killin’ all the California people” (the foundation is based in Newport Beach).
Also next week: opportunities to bid on photos from the original movie and a chat with Montrose local Bob DeJulio, who painted the sets for “True Grit.” You can see his work above the façade of the stores that line Hartwell Park, where the words “Fort Smith Saloon” are still apparent half a century after DeJulio applied them. The film, like the book by Charles Portis, is set in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and indeed was nearly filmed there — but its director, Henry Hathaway, “had sent scouts to Arkansas, and got back less-than-stellar reports” when it came to visuals, said Edward Bovy, who’s written a recently published, comprehensive guide entitled “True Grit: A 50-Year Tribute.” “Hathaway had filmed a segment of ‘How the West Was Won’ here in the early 1960s, so he knew the area,” Bovy said. “He liked Ridgway a lot. He knew what it took to sell Westerns, and the scenery was a big part of it.”
Bovy’s book is on sale at various venues next weekend and on the fest’s website (the Colorado Film Commission has already purchased 100 copies, as has the John Wayne museum).
Over the course of his extensive research about the movie, Bovy said he was surprised to learn that Wayne was not only an accomplished actor, “but a really decent guy in the way that he interacted with the public.”
At lunch in Ridgway one day during the shoot, a couple of kids wandered in and asked Wayne if he’d pose for a photograph.
“An uppity assistant tries to chase them out,” Bovy said. “But Wayne gets up from the table and takes the camera away from the kids and hands it to the assistant director. He stands between the kids, puts his arm around them and says to the director, ‘Now you take the picture.’”
Driving up Owl Creek Pass for a shoot, Wayne passed a local man whose car had broken down. The actor reached into his pocket, and handed the stranded driver “a bunch of bills to help pay for a new car,” Bovy said. “He worked hard trying to make ends meet when he was younger. He knew what it was like to be poor.”
The human touch came through on film, and Wayne’s persona endures. “He got his Western stardom in the red dust and the monoliths of Monument Valley and Utah,” said Andrew Gulliford, a Southwest studies and history professor at Durango’s Fort Lewis College. By the 1950s and ’60s, Wayne had become, in effect, the iconic American cowboy, “based on his walk, his slow talk, and his quick action on behalf of people who’ve been wronged.”
But it was more than that that contributed to his appeal — it was Wayne’s acting and persona coupled with the “sheer beauty of the landscape,” as Gulliford put it, “that compels people’s enduring interest in the Rockies, and the Western. It’s such an interesting combination” of rugged individualism paired with equally rugged scenery.
Indeed, according to Gulliford, the actor’s popularity ultimately has to do with how we perceive ourselves.
“There’s that great scene on Owl Creek Pass, where he turns and rides into violence and mayhem. That’s the reason ‘True Grit’ is so popular,” Gulliford said. “John Wayne is symbolic of the hardworking American who will always fight against the odds, because America is on the good side.”
The Ridgway Old West Fest is Oct. 11-13; many events are free. Discounted tickets for the Debby Campbell concert and a festival combo ticket are available at Alpine Bank, Citizens State Bank, the True Grit Café and Murdoch’s. For a schedule and tickets to individual events, visit ridgwayoldwestfest.org.