Berlin cowboys heed call of Wild West


BERLIN -- Dusk has come to Old Texas Town, and Mayor Ben Destry strides down Main Street in his buckskin coat. He passes the saloon, the bank and the courthouse before checking the jailhouse bunks -- empty, but the night is young. He stops briefly by the Alamo memorial and the John Wayne rock. Somewhere a Johnny Cash tune plays. He breezes through the town museum, where an authentic pile of buffalo flop is exhibited in a glass case, not far from the rattlesnake head that floats in a jar of brine. Then he heads back into the cool evening air, asking a guest:

"Moechten Sie ein Tequila?"

Them's German words, stranger. Mayor Destry is asking if you'd like a drink.

Ben Destry's workaday identity is Fritz Walter, a stout 72-year-old retired metalworker. But on just about any weekend he answers to his American pseudonym while presiding over this costume-wearing club of German Wild West fanciers.

Never mind that the town's few acres of trees and wooden buildings are surrounded by an urbanized plain of heavy industry, office buildings and roaring autobahn, nor that the only lofty mesa on the horizon is a power plant's cooling tower. Nor even that the Texas-style saloon peddles Berliner beer, Schultheiss, instead of Lone Star. The town is still as apt an illustration as you'll find of Germany's enduring fascination with the American West.

For decades, the German love of the West has been apparent in everything from the brisk sales of the novels of Karl May (a German who wrote Westerns without once setting foot in North America), to the popularity of cowboy riding clubs in the beer-and-bratwurst heart of Bavaria. And it still puts a nationwide kick into the sales appeal of the Marlboro Man and American Country-Western stars.

Even Adolf Hitler got caught up in the mystique. As a boy he heartily played cowboys and Indians, although in 1939 the Nazis shut down the original Old Texas Town club, deeming it dangerously pro-American.

The club didn't return to life until late 1950, with the enthusiastic approval of American occupying forces (what better buffer against communism?), and within a few months Mr. Walter had joined up. Within a few months after that he was the mayor, and he has aged perfectly with the role, now sporting a silver beard that looks just like Robert E. Lee's.

The few dozen earliest members rounded up enough timber to begin homesteading their dreams in a small patch of woods and garden huts on the outskirts of West Berlin, and nowadays 20 of the 80 current members make their home on the range every weekend. One family even sleeps in a Conestoga covered wagon, rain or shine, down at the end of Main Street. Members who fall in love occasionally get married in the town's rustic chapel.

'Longing for freedom'

"There is this longing for the freedom of the frontier and these big, big lands," Mr. Walter explains. "Even though the Berlin Wall was not here in 1950, we already felt restricted. And of all the American people on the frontier, it was the cowboys who were the most interesting."

Juergen Hasenjager would agree. Sitting in the saloon with his wife on a Friday night, he says: "We cannot afford to travel to the United States, but when we sit here it is like being in the West. It is even better than watching a movie about the West."

Mr. Walter could tell him that he might not want to travel to the real American West anyway. Mr. Walter first traveled to North America in 1972, going to Niagara Falls, and he's enjoyed the trips enough to go back almost every two years, fanning out through Texas, Montana, Arizona, Nevada and Canada.

But he has been disillusioned at times, right from the beginning.

"At Niagara Falls there were houses, hotels and a city nearby," he says. "It was not this wild, huge place like I'd thought."

Then there was Texas.

"Too many fences," Mr. Walter says. "And we would want to go to a lake and stay somewhere all by ourselves, and then the police would come and say we had to move to the campground."

Nein to dress codes

But it was the restaurant dress codes that really got him riled.

"I was wearing shorts and tennis shoes, and it seemed like every place I went for dinner had a sign up saying, 'No shorts and tennis shoes.' I was so disappointed I almost renamed the town."

His romanticism has endured, however, and perhaps nothing demonstrates his continuing commitment to the club better than the museum piece of buffalo flop. It is a roughly circular piece, about 8 inches across, looking as dry and tough as an overgrilled sirloin. For the uninitiated, there is a small plastic label next to it, with the German word, "Bueffelfladen," written in block letters.

Mr. Walter found it on the Canadian prairie in 1986.

"It was dry already when I found it," he hastens to explain. He popped it into a plastic bag, packed it into his luggage and brought it home across the Atlantic and through customs.

Mr. Walter admits that such obsessiveness "made it very hard to find a wife."

Yet, his wife, Mary, got caught up long ago in the Western spirit. You can see them in a photo from 1962 at a German-American Volksfest in Berlin, standing before a tepee. He's wearing Indian buckskins, with a grand feather headdress. She's in red buckskins with a feather poking from braided black hair.

On Friday nights the members are joined by hundreds of visitors, who pay about $2 apiece to soak up the atmosphere along with the beer and tequila and the saloon and Mexican cantina. Every Saturday night the saloon holds a square dance, reservations only, for $3 a head. It's booked solid.

Those who drink too much sometimes end up in the town jail, in a six-bunk cell next to a cell housing a human skeleton riddled by Indian arrows. While the miscreants sleep it off, the members are up by 8 a.m., sharing a hearty breakfast together.

The various motifs of Old Texas Town can get a bit confusing. When thinking of the American West, Germans tend to lump everything together that happened before the 20th century.

Historically displaced

So, wandering from building to building one finds a tribute to Abe Lincoln inside the Bank of Texas, a display of a Betsy Ross mannequin stitching the first American flag, a pair of boots coated with the real dust of Gettysburg, a Texas state flag that actually flew over the Dallas City Hall for a week, and a few chunks of authentic mesquite, protected eternally from the barbecue pit.

For all his painstaking work, Mr. Walter realizes that this can all seem a bit humorous. That's the way he prefers it.

"One always needs a bit of a sense of humor to do this," he says, "or else it wouldn't be a hobby anymore. It would just be fanaticism."

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