Breakfast with the Muleskinners
What's in a name...? Turns out, a lot. A lot of history and funny moments.
I first learned of the Mojave Muleskinners after a chance encounter with one of the group's founders, Jeff Capps, at the Mammoth Steakhouse in Goldfield Ghost Town, Arizona. He was lighting up his pipe and talking to his buddies in the last moments of a gorgeous Arizona sunset over the Superstition Mountains. The light was just perfect so I jumped at the occasion to create a moody portrait of the tall bearded guy dressed up like a cowboy.
After a brief introduction, Jeff invited me to join them at one of their more intimate gatherings at their "shack" in Goldfield. And so I did!
Now you might ask, what's a muleskinner? I had to look it up myself. You see, back in the day when mules were the heavy lifters of ground transportation, the mule handlers often had to "skin" the mules into moving. "Skinning" something or someone means outsmarting them at whatever they were doing. Given the typical stubbornness of mules, it took a lot of skill and determination on the drivers' part to get their job done.
Back to present day... Jeff and his brother Jim started the Mojave Muleskinners reenactment group almost by accident in 1995. Back in that winter, visiting from California, they camped out at the picturesque Goldfield Ghost Town on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. They were invited to join in a gunfight by Goldfield's resident gunfighter, Jerry Gargalione, who created a new outlet for the brothers' passion for the Old West. They had no idea it would turn into something much bigger.
Over the next few years they contacted and brought together a number of like-minded folks interested in reenacting gunfights from the old days of the Wild West. As Jeff puts it, the show is just the beginning. On many weekend mornings, even before sunrise, you can find Jeff and his fellow muleskinners gathered at their shack in Goldfield Ghost Town, cooking breakfast, sharing stories and many, many laughs.
Many trips to ghost towns such as Calico, Oatman, Virginia City and Tombstone followed. The group size surpassed 200 souls not just from Arizona, but nine other states and even from outside the US. That became hard to manage, so the group's core decided to slow things down a bit and keep in only those with a real feeling for what they were doing.
The group's organization is a "benevolent dictatorship" says Jeff; it's solely run by the brothers, but the members create the group events and shows. Members are encouraged to be themselves, not historical figures, which makes it easier to always be "in character". They act as a coherent group rather than showing off their individual skills and it's that passion, humility and camaraderie that makes a Mojave Muleskinner. Nowadays it can take up to one year before a new member is accepted into the ranks.
What separates the Muleskinners from other Old West reenactment groups? Their involvement in activities other than the gunfight shows. “We have period encampments were the members camp in canvas wall tents, cook in Dutch Ovens or out of a chuck wagon, and portray the life of a Prospector, Rancher, or Settler”, according to Jeff. “We make period clothing, leather works, and furniture of the late 1800’s. We put on Living History displays for schools and museums. But where I really see the difference is our interaction with the public, bringing the Old West alive for the people around you, immersing the spectator into that time period. It’s a very humbling experience being viewed as an icon of the American Old West by these folks”.
It's also the improvisational skills and their knack for authenticity: "we are not Hollywood actors" says Jeff about their garb and demeanor. It's not perfection that makes them so much more credible. Most of the Muleskinners wear worn-out and dirty pants, just as if they came out of a long horse ride or gunfight battle.
There are no rehearsals, but safety and improvisation are paramount. You have to be able to crack a joke on the spot or come up with a believable line to keep the conversation going during a skit. It's this ability to create a diverse and non-staged impression of the Old West that grabbed the attention of many other groups who started emulating their behavior, but may not have reached the same success as the Muleskinners.
Their signature? Loud gunfights, hundreds of rounds of ammunition spent, smoke and lots of animation. Their staged fights are never static, they move around quite a bit. Over time they've learned the crowd-pleasers and they deliver without exception. Whether the skit lasts 5 or 15 minutes, you'll get the same amazing dialog and smoking barrels that draw everyone in.
The group and some of its members appeared in big and small budget movies and started winning competitions, becoming famous all over the world. They represent the Old American West like few others and have followers in Germany, Australia, UK, United Emirates and even Russia.
Let's get close and personal -- their names are as funny and witty as they come: Windy Bill, Curly Jake, Smilin' Jack, Sarge, Mountain Man, Dirt Face Jake, Capt. Ball, Mis Chif, Big Bacon, Slim Steel, Pepper Flapjack and the list could go on forever. There are even some "imports" such as London Jack and German Pete -- you guess their country of origin.