Western Steampunk Fun at Calico Ghost Town
Calico Ghost Town
by Robert Seutter, Krypton Radio Columnist “The Voice of Legend”
The genre of Steampunk has many facets. One of the more prevalent ones is the Old West genre, which does pretty well out on the west coast. Europe may have its castles and halls, but we out west have some very interesting sites ourselves.
One of the best is the Calico Ghost Town. This weekend, April 12-13, 2014, saw the return of the Wild West Fest, a two-day Steampunk event at an old silver rush boom-and-bust town out in the high desert of California. If you want the old west atmosphere, you could hardly ask for better. In fact, if you look at the history of old west mining, the madcap technology of that time makes for a very good fit for our modern Steamers.
Calico is just north of Barstow, California, and was founded in 1881. At one time, there was a thriving mining and industry town, complete with a thousand or so miners and their families. During its heyday, they pulled over eighty-six million dollars worth of silver out of the mountains and another forty-five million dollars in borax. But when the silver ran thin, the town went bust and the desert began to reclaim it.
In 1951, the city was restored by Walter Knott (of Knott’s Berry farm fame), and in 1966, it was donated to the County of San Bernardino. It has been an old west tourist attraction ever since. It is the real deal, with many of the buildings restored to something approximating their original conditions from back in their booming silver days.
Noele Wayne, special events coordinator
A few years ago, Noele Wayne, special events coordinator for the County parks, reached out to the Steampunk community. And so far, the event has been a great success. According to the personnel who run the event throughout the year, they love the youth and creativity of the Steampunk crowd, and find them charming and very well behaved.
I was surprised to find out that unlike many conventions where one fan-organization usually spear-heads and acts as an umbrella for themed events, Noele had reached out to many groups and helped to create the event out of whole cloth. She manages seven special events at Calico throughout the year (as well as elsewhere), and as she put it, “has been delighted with the camaraderie and support of the Steampunk community both with groups and merchants.”
With the lovely old-west ambience, the Steampunk crowd delighted many of the regular tourists, some who were visiting from Korea and Germany and who had no idea that the Wild West Fest was ongoing. Ladies in bustles with bright parasols strolled the dusty streets accompanied by dapper gents on a sunny and slightly windy day. Mind you, some of those strolling had sophisticated clockwork sidearms and ether-powered back-packs, and there may have been an automaton or two.
Steampunk aficionados representing a wide variety of classes and cultures had a great time exploring the displays and old shops. Scheduled gun-fights happened next to costuming classes, and old cowboys enjoyed chatting with Steam Powered Giraffe fans, some of them who were silver or gold mechanoids awaiting the concert that evening.
The site itself features tours, mines, and a small railway, as well as reconstructions of an old bath house, saloons, school houses, a jail, and a mystery shack. For the festival, there were some new attractions in town. Among them were the “Gypsy Time-Travelers Storytelling” where Christy Horne told traditional stories as her partner Michel Olson hammered out iron dragons in the background on anvil, all the while standing in Florence, their “incredible Recreational Castle Stage and Blacksmith Shop.”
Farther down the road, there was professional magician Dyno Staats doing “scientific demonstrations” of magical proportions, guaranteed to go horribly wrong, and Dr. Solar’s good time, Sunshine Traveling Medicine Show. Music was everywhere including the BillHilly band, Chap-Hop rapper Pop-Lock Holmes, and even a Steampunk parade band E-Steam De Corps. Gunfire erupted throughout the day as various double-dealing, owl-hoot varmints shot it out with the constabulary, to the great applause of the audience. And a large automaton named DAGON wandered about, shaking pincers in a friendly way.
I had a chance to speak with some folks from the San Diego Steampunk community, and asked them if there were any misconceptions about the Steampunk genre. They happily obliged with the following.
- They really wish there were another term besides Steam “Punk” because their genre is not all that “Punk” in the Sid Vicious-Sex Pistols frame of mind. It’s more about alternative histories and creativity, less about mosh-pits.
- It’s not all about English or Old West alternative histories. New styles like Asian- or Indian-influenced steam alternatives are just a few of the more recent innovations. There is also more to Steampunk events than just conventions. There are hosted picnics and tea-duels, and even just going out for a costumed carousel ride can be interesting.
- The Steampunk community is exceedingly glad to welcome new people who only have to exhibit an interest. People can come and play, even in T-shirts and jeans, and the Steampunk community can help folks find ways to put together costumes and personae, without costing a fortune. Everyone started somewhere, they are glad to help.
I would have to say that, as a community, from the merchants to the players young and old, they all seemed remarkably fun-spirited and had a great sense of humor. I asked one young lady around seven or eight years old what she liked best about the event. She said, without missing a beat, “No ghosts.” In fact, the only complaint I heard about the event was that there was not enough advertising, and the people who said that just wanted more folks to come and join the fun.
As the day turned into evening, people headed to cafés and restaurants for cold sarsaparillas or a cup of decent tea, while others lined up for a concert in the Silver Bowl, featuring the much-loved Steam Powered Giraffe. The western sun was gleaming red gold over metallic automatons and jewel-toned Victorian dresses, and songs and laughter filled the air. Calico may be a bit of a drive but, for a Western Steampunk event like no other, this reporter heartily hopes that this event continues for many years.
Photos by: Robert Seutter and RJ Ryan-Seutter.
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