The door opened to reveal a tall, slim man looking all the world like the lead in an old Tom Nix western. He grinned and tipped his perfectly creased, Stetson grey beaver cowboy hat. His deep voice resonated, “Welcome, ma’am. Come on in.”
I walked into cowboy history.
Every inch of this 600 square foot small town museum tells a story of the old Wild West. Joe Gish has dedicated half of his 83 years collecting the accouterments of real people who shaped the romance, hardships and wickedness of Texas’ past.
Just moments into our meeting, Joe proudly holds a Marshal’s badge from Cisco, Texas, a shoot ‘em up outpost community a few miles east of Abilene. His eyes sparkle as he runs an old finger across the face of the badge. It was lust at first sight. Joe has many mistresses in his museum; even more love affairs. He gently nestles the badge into a piece of velvet and motions me over to a petite pair of handmade boots.
“These were Marion Davies’ boots,” as he strokes the soft leather and caresses the inlays. He picks up a paperback book, “This is about her life with William Randolph Hearst”. Pointing to a photograph of this diminutive woman, “Look at that. She was a beauty.” And, indeed Joe knows a good-looking woman when he sees one.
For the next thirty minutes Joe and I did the Texas Two-Step around the room admiring Old West memorabilia. He led; I followed. His voice hummed an explanation of each precious piece. Step 1…2. Step 1…2. “This is one of my favorites.” Slide together now. “See how this part of the holster is shaved down?” Step 1… 2. “That’s so the Sheriff could get a faster draw.” Twirl and touch the smooth leather of a coal black saddle. We stopped to catch our breath.
The poor health of Joe’s dad prompted the Gish family to move from Missouri to their Granddad’s farm in Abilene, Kansas. Farm life was good for Joe. He grew watermelons and picked fruit in the family orchards. In his youth, Joe fell in love with the tales of the cowboy. He checked in and out every Will James book (his hero) from the school library and “almost wore them out.” James’ books, like Uncle Bill, A Tale of Two Kids and a Cowboy, inspired Joe to doodle pictures of cowboys, horses and scenes from the Old West on his schoolbook covers. Before long, his drawings were gaining in size and expertise.
When he graduated from high school in 1943, some friends invited him to join them on a trip to the Texas Rio Grande Valley. “The Texas Valley was the most beautiful country I had ever seen. Palm trees lined every road.” When his friends were ready to return home, he decided this was where he would put down roots. With $5.00 in his pocket and not knowing a single soul, Joe began to carve out a place for himself in the Texas-Mexico border community of McAllen. Initially, he got a job at the best men’s wear store on Main Street. A cute, young Betty Jo, who worked across the street at the drug store, caught his eye. A short time later, they married and started a family.
Joe found a career at Sears where he worked for thirty years. The manikin that now watches over Gish’s Old Wild West Museum once wore suits in his men’s department. When he retired, the manikin followed. It didn’t take long for Joe to transform this city dude into a gun toten’ Stetson wearin’ cowboy to greet visitors to the museum.
After thirty years of marriage, Joe and Betty Jo divorced. But, the handsome Joe Gish soon met the good-looking Charlene, his wife and companion for the last thirty years. Thirty seems to be a nice round number for Joe!
Joe and Charlene spent five years searching for the perfect home for their dream museum. Texas and Fredericksburg had all the right ingredients: friendly people, nice sized community and a perfect location near town on the road to Enchanted Rock. In the late 1980’s Joe inaugurated his log timbered museum. Other cowboy enthusiasts drop in to swap stories or share a newfound treasure.
As I prepared to leave Joe and his memorabilia, he gave me a big Texas hug, “Nice to meetcha, ma’am. Come back anytime. There’s always something new to see.” And indeed I plan to pay Joe and Charlene another visit next time I’m in the Texas Hill Country…just to say “howdy” to my new friends!
Information on Gish’s Old West Museum:
502 North Milam
Fredericksburg, Texas 78624
No regular hours, museum is open when here. Come by or call for an appointment.