YUMA, ARIZONA - More than a dozen Old West re-enactment groups from as far away as Colorado and Oklahoma will ride into town for a showdown at the Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park Jan. 12 and 13.
But what will fly at the 15th Annual Gathering of the Gunfighters isn't really hot lead - it's fightin' words and old-school acting from folks portraying outlaws, lawmen, saloon gals and a veritable cornucopia of disreputable characters.
For spectators, the fun is seeing Western lore unfold in person with lots of shoutin' and shootin' - and no doubt, some prolonged and dramatic "deaths." And while there weren't regular gun battles at the fearsome Territorial Prison, the setting adds to the atmosphere.
"What better place to have a 'Gathering of the Gunfighters' than at the notorious lockup that struck fear in their hearts?" said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which now operates the park. "There's a reason Ben Wade didn't want to get on board the '3:10 to Yuma'."
The special admission price - $7 for those 14 and older, $3 for kids age 7-13, free for ages 6 and younger - includes the re-enactment competition and full access to the prison, along with vendors of vittles, libations and Western wares and wear. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, with groups taking turns presenting 20-minute skits both days.
For the competitors, skits may be light-hearted, but the judging - which includes an assessment of whether get-ups, gear and firearms match the 1876-1909 time period - is dead serious. Forgetting to remove a modern wristwatch or a receiving a mistimed ringtone on a 21st century smart phone is no joke when it comes to besting the rest of the West for historical accuracy.
"The Gathering of the Gunfighters is a lot of fun, but it's also based in real history, which is why we're so glad the prison can host this event," Flynn said. "This is a great Yuma tradition that needs to be supported and sustained, just like the prison itself.
"I would particularly like to thank the local Deguello Gunslingers group, because their dedication has been invaluable in making the Gathering of the Gunfighters an ongoing success."
It was just three years ago that Arizona State Parks announced that the prison would close because of cuts in the state budget. The Yuma community mobilized into "Chain Gangs," raising more than $70,000 in just 60 days and making it possible for the Heritage Area to take over and keep the park open to the public.
Since then, the Heritage Area renovated the museum exhibits and restored the prison's original adobe sally port with historically accurate materials and techniques. New this year is a digital exhibit about Mormon polygamists who were held in Yuma along with robbers and desperados, and a new timeline of its history on granite panels.
"Even if you've visited the prison in the past, you'll be impressed with all the new exhibits," Flynn added. "Events like this are important to bring new visitors to this historic site, and are a key part of making the park operationally self-sustaining."
Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area is an independent nonprofit corporation governed by a local board of directors. It was among the first national heritage areas in the West officially designated by the U.S. Congress. The Heritage Area's master plan projects earned the Governor's Arizona Preservation Award in 2009. For more information, call 928-373-5198 or visit www.yumaheritage.com.
Yuma Visitors Bureau markets the Yuma area within the travel and tourism industry and to the general public. Yuma's population nearly doubles in the winter months, thanks to more than 23,000 spots in RV parks and resorts. The community also offers nearly 4,300 hotel rooms, conference and meeting facilities, and three casinos. For more details about Yuma's year-round attractions, special events - and the rarely "cloudy with a chance of tacos" forecast* - visitwww.visityuma.com or call 800-293-0071.* Recognized by Guinness World Records as world's sunniest spot, Yuma offered free meals to hotel guests "every day the sun doesn't shine" from Aug. 1, 2011 until July 31, 2012 as part of Arizona's Centennial celebration. Yuma's final score? Sunshine 365, Gloom 0.