Did your family gather around the TV to watch westerns when you were a child? Before we even owned a television, I was exposed to the likes of The Big Valley, The Rifleman, Wagon Train, The Virginian, and Bonanza: oh stop my beating heart Little Joe; I suspect my mother had the hots for Ben, and my sister would surely have gravitated toward highbrowed Adam.
The Virginian was based on Owen Wister’s novel of the same name, which was printed in 1902 before Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour turned western genre fiction into cash cows. The book was about a young cowboy of impeccably good character, who was the foreman of a cattle ranch outside of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Four films predated the television series:
- 1914 – Directed by Cecil B. Demille
- 1923 – Screenplay written by Owen Wister
- 1929 – Gary Cooper as The Virginian
- 1946 – Joel McCrea as the Virginian
The television series ran from 1962 – 1971. It starred James Drury as the wise, laconic Virginian and his foil Trampas played by Doug McClure—who also set my young heart afire. Two things set this series apart from its television siblings: It was filmed in color and ran for 90 minutes. Although set in Wyoming, none of the films or the series were filmed there.
The real town of Medicine Bow dates back to 1869. It takes its name from Medicine Bow Peak and Medicine Bow River. Lore says that the Hotel Virginian was the inspiration for Wister’s book. Apparently he lived, for a time, in the Jackson Hole area and may have traveled through Medicine Bow on the train or the Lincoln Highway, which was the first transcontinental highway across America, predating the Interstate system.
I have driven through Medicine Bow and past The Hotel Virginian countless times. But recently, curiosity drew me off the main road to explore the residential area. I discovered that deer perhaps outnumber the 300 people who call Medicine Bow home.
Were you exposed to American westerns as a child? If so, which ones were your favorites?