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This gang shoots down tall tales of the Old West

Times Staff Writer

Crime busters they aren’t.

But for more than 60 years, a group of myth busters, led by a literary “sheriff” and his posse of fact-checking historians, has pursued the legends of Western lore as doggedly as real lawmen chase outlaws.

The organization was founded in 1944 by a group of Chicagoans who considered themselves Westerners, not Easterners. They dedicated their group, the Westerners, to “fun and scholarship.” Since then, it’s spun off more than 140 chapters around the world.

The Los Angeles “Corral,” founded in 1946, has perhaps 75 active members, a number that also approximates some of their ages.

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“I’m a living dinosaur,” quipped Glen Dawson, 94, the group’s oldest living charter member and the retired owner of the landmark Dawson’s bookstore in Larchmont Village. The shop was started downtown by his father, Ernest, in 1905.

“The original [Los Angeles] group began with some artists and authors whose purpose was to get together to record some of the Old West cowboy and Indian history,” Dawson said in an interview.

The Westerners group is dedicated to ensuring that storytellers separate the truth from tall tales. Its Los Angeles Corral members -- half of whom are professional historians and half amateurs -- have published more than 1,000 accounts about major episodes in the history of the West, including Gen. George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn and Billy the Kid, a.k.a. William Bonney.

They have sifted fact from fiction about vigilante groups, gunfights and lynchings, the lasting legends of Pony Express riders and the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach. Their findings are compiled in nearly 250 issues of quarterly booklets called the Branding Iron, as well as in 22 Brand Books and 33 commemorative pamphlets.

Many in the group -- doctors, lawyers, merchants and a priest -- also spend an evening a month breaking bread and bending elbows.

Dawson said the group was founded in part because, at the time, the Zamorano Club, an organization of rare book collectors, printers and librarians, “wouldn’t allow booksellers into their group, so we started our own.” Not long afterward, Dawson was invited to join the Zamoranos. He did.

The Los Angeles Corral was started by Homer Britzman, an oil executive who collected paintings by Western artist Charles Russell, and by Robert J. Woods, a book collector whose extensive library included volumes on explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Dawson said.

On Dec. 19, 1946, the group’s 26 charter members met for the first time at a restaurant-bar called the Redwood House, known as the Red Dog, at 1st Street and Broadway next to The Times. Today, it’s about a block away and is known as the Redwood Bar & Grill.

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Iron Eyes Cody, the actor who played many Native American parts but was born to Italian immigrants, “dressed up in Indian garb and gave the opening ‘Great Spirit Prayer,’ ” Dawson said.

On that inaugural evening, J. Gregg Layne, president of the Historical Society of Southern California, spun yarns about outlaws, gamblers and ladies of the evening -- as well as about Los Angeles’ first vigilante committee, The Times reported in 1946.

“More than 100 years ago,” Layne began, in 1836, Domingo Feliz -- a descendant of original rancho owner Jose Vicente Feliz, who gave his name to the area and the boulevard south of Griffith Park -- was stabbed to death by the lover of his young wife. The amorous plotters were jailed, but punishment was not meted out quickly enough to suit some outraged citizens. So a vigilante group snatched them from jail and hanged them.

In 1948, Hollywood set designer Ernie Hickson played host to a “roundup” at his 110-acre Placeritos Ranch in Newhall. Hickson, who collected old Western buildings, created a movie set on his ranch.

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When Hickson died in 1952, singing cowboy Gene Autry bought the site, renamed it Melody Ranch and continued it as a working movie set.

In 1962, a fire ravaged the ranch and movie set, destroying numerous Western items, including stagecoaches, guns and Indian relics, The Times reported. Three decades later, a film production company bought the ranch and began restoring and rebuilding the sets, using them most recently in HBO’s acclaimed western series “Deadwood.”

Dawson, a Pasadena resident, once enthralled Westerners with his story and slide show of how he signed on with three other Sierra Club members to be the first to climb the east face of Mt. Whitney, in 1931. His only gear: heavy rope and sneakers.

Dawson isn’t the oldest Westerner. That distinction belongs to Earl Nation, 97, a retired Pasadena-area urologist who joined in 1964. Nation has written about and given speeches on his fabled ancestor, Carry Nation, the temperance crusader who made her name chopping up saloons with a hatchet in one hand and a Bible in the other.

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Once, when Earl Nation was giving a speech about George Goodfellow, the “gunfighters’ surgeon” who achieved legendary status for tending to Tombstone’s outlaws and lawmen, another member stopped him mid-sentence.

“I had inadvertently referred to the Aztec Indians,” Nation said in an interview. “And Earl Adams, a prominent attorney who worked on the political campaigns of Richard M. Nixon, picked up on it, saying, ‘Don’t you mean the Apaches?’ ”

“I didn’t take umbrage,” Nation said.

A few members took umbrage in 1995, when the club finally admitted women. “We were one of the last groups to allow women,” said Msgr. Francis J. Weber, chief archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. “Especially as we approached the 21st century, it was kind of silly” to bar them.

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The first female member was high school teacher Jeanette Davis of Pomona. She gave a soaring tribute to legendary flier Pancho Barnes, a socialite turned aviatrix.

This year, for the first time, “the Los Angeles Corral has a woman ‘sheriff,’ ” former sheriff Kenneth Pauley said: Dee Dee Ruhlow, a retired insurance adjuster.

Members sometimes donate their personal collections to universities and libraries, or pass them on to fellow members. Former Los Angeles Police Officer Ernie Hovard gave Glendale attorney Eric Nelson a device that in 1912 had held a homemade bomb with which, The Times reported, a disgruntled Pacific Eletric Railway employee had threatened to blow up downtown.

Nelson, a former “sheriff,” is editing the next Brand Book, due out at the end of the year. Its title: “Los Angeles Aviation to 1940.”

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“We’re hoping to sell it to the public,” Nelson said. “It would be the first time.”

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

For more information on the Westerners Los Angeles Corral, contact “sheriff” Dee Dee Ruhlow: libratu@charter.net.

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