The Old West is closer than you might think this holiday weekend.
And if the past is any indication, lots of people will pay for the privilege of boarding a train to get robbed by outlaws.
Less than an hour's drive away, people can catch an old-time train from the Florida Gulf Coast Railroad Museum to the re-created town of Periwinkle Junction, complete with a saloon, train depot and graveyard. A $12 ticket buys a ride in an open car behind a diesel locomotive from the museum to the town, where re-enactors will stage two train robberies a day.
Each robbery is different, organizers say, but usually includes an attempt to blow up the train's strongbox, a shoot-'em-up between U.S. marshals and outlaws in 1800s-era cowboy attire and attempts to steal gold or kisses from passengers.
The show, put on by volunteer re-enactors from the Sarasota-based Hole-in-the-Head Gang, is mostly comedy, sort of a Keystone Cops rendition of a scene from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
"Except they don't blow up the train," said Gene Hughey, museum board president. "We can't afford any more cars."
Rick Holgate of Sarasota, also known as "Six-Gun Sam McRill" and "Stinky Periwinkle," heads the gang of re-enactor volunteers, many of whom are active or retired law enforcement officers. Proceeds help fund programs and upkeep of the train museum. "We do it with a light heart," Holgate said. "We don't try to portray the real Old West. … We have everyone from 4-year-olds to 90-year-olds come out to watch."
The re-enactors dress in period garb, however, and brandish replicas of 19th century weapons.
"We're looking to get rich," Holgate said of the show's theme. "Never once have we won. …Crime doesn't pay."
A Florida Fish and Wildlife officer, Holgate usually plays an outlaw, which gives him "a chance to be bad once in awhile."
Holgate said enthusiastic outlaws accidentally blew up a strongbox with dynamite one year, prompting some improvements to strengthen it. The group uses acting techniques and props developed for filmmaking to create a safe event. No live ammunition is allowed.
Mark Roth, a re-enactor from Miami, built the pieces for the portable town of Periwinkle. The gang members set them up in Willow, once a sawmill town.
"We get there, set up camp the night before and sit around the campfire under the stars," Holgate said.
The group started in 1995 with three members. Now the gang counts 42 active members, at least 10 of whom are expected to stage the robberies Saturday and Sunday. Performances are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. both days.
Holgate said the gang stages four weekend events a year at the train museum, plus other gigs at fairs and pioneer day events. Members in their alter egos once escorted actor Tom Selleck for a Sarasota Film Festival promotion of the 2001 television movie Crossfire Trail.
The train robbery is an embellished version of the 13-mile round trip ride available on weekends most of the year, Hughey said. Instead of the usual 90-minute tour, patrons get two hours of entertainment. Passengers are asked to board at least 20 minutes before departure.
The experience is one of several holiday events that typically draw thousands of people to the railroad museum. The popular North Pole Express is sold out, but some seats are still available on the Santa Claus Express, running Dec. 4, 5, 11, 12, 18 and 19.
Susan Green can be reached at [email protected]