No one lives in Raccoon Forks, found in a small clearing off a gravel road not far from Valparaiso, Neb.
Shells of buildings, including a bank and a jail, line the main street. The frame of a covered wagon rests near the saloon.
Raccoon Forks appears to be a too-well-preserved, slightly cartoonish ghost town.
It's not. A decade ago, it didn't even exist.
A group of history and gun enthusiasts called the Blue River Regulators have slowly created the town, a building or two at a time. Once a month, they dress like the cowboys, outlaws, madams and cowgirls who lived in the American West between 1860 and 1899. They have cowboy names — Cactus Jack, Yuma Kid, Broken Nose Scotty.
And they have guns. Original and reproduction Colts, Winchesters and Remingtons, which they use to re-enact Old West shootouts at monthly meetups.
The Blue River Regulators are part of the National Congress of Western Shootists, based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a group dedicated to historic preservation and re-enactment of the Old West. The Regulators are one of about 20 member groups in 13 states, and the only group in Nebraska. Most of the club's 40 or so members, mostly from southeast Nebraska, grew up on the western television shows and movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Nearly all were hunters or gun enthusiasts before they discovered cowboy shooting.
“I've always been a cowboy,” said Jack Bursovsky, known among the Regulators as Quickfire.
Many of the Regulators echo that sentiment.
The group was founded in 1997 and shot at a range along the Blue River near Beatrice — hence the group's name. Ten years ago, the group leased the land that has been converted into Raccoon Forks, said John “Yuma Kid” Irons, the group's marshal and a founding member.
Irons had participated in other shooting sports before the Regulators, but found something lacking.
“That romance of the Old West is what attracts people to this sport,” he said.
That's certainly true for Bursovsky.
When he was younger, Bursovsky really was a bit of a cowboy. He grew up on a large farm in the southeast corner of the state, and he helped his parents, particularly with the animals. He longed to live on a ranch, though, and romanticized open landscapes and the bygone era he fell in love with on television and in the movies.
But he grew up to be an ironworker and outdoorsman, as well as a husband and dad.
He discovered the Regulators a little more than a decade ago.
A longtime hunter, he enjoyed the shooting, but he also liked the costumes, the history, the setting.
“The first time I did it, I was hooked,” he said.
And in the years since, the other Regulators have become his close friends.
“It's not just the shooting,” he said. “We're all kind of like-minded.”
“Horse thief John Sanderson has been arrested for theft, the murder of Thomas Reynolds of Junction City and for the killing of Marshal White. Taken to the Humboldt Creek Jail, he is welcomed by an estimated 100 concerned citizens. When Sanderson refuses to confess, the irate citizens shoot him to death.”
Regulator Rocky Fleming reads this scenario to set up a shootout at the group's October meetup. This particular event is a daylong affair in which each of the two dozen Regulators in attendance participate in six shooting scenarios set around Raccoon Forks. For the most part, each cowboy shoots four guns each round — two pistols, a rifle and a shotgun. The regulators are keen on safety — they all wear protective ear coverings and eyewear, and they load their guns just before they shoot and unload them immediately after. They're scored on speed and accuracy.
In September, the biggest shootout of the year, the action lasts for three days. Some of the Regulators even camp in old-fashioned tents and prepare their meals in Dutch ovens.
This particular one-day shootout is set at the jail.
Each cowboy steps up to a window, where, with varying levels of enthusiasm, he yells, “That's for killing Marshal White!” before firing each of his pistols at the steel cutout of an outlaw, then shooting his rifle and shotgun at four square metal targets further back. The Regulators take turns timing their cohorts, and everyone watches for missed targets. For each miss, they add 10 seconds to the shooter's score.
Fleming writes the scenarios, which are all rooted in Old West history, from Nebraska when possible. But Nebraska doesn't have as many stories of duels, stagecoach robberies and deadly saloon brawls as many states, so Fleming often looks elsewhere for inspiration. He tries to be culturally sensitive, particularly when drawing on historic fights between settlers and Native Americans.
“I'm often wondering when I'm writing the descriptions how politically correct I'm being,” he said. “I try to be a little bit more delicate.”
Most of the Regulators have some kind of job within the group. Fleming, of course, is in charge of scripting the shoots. Bursovsky is the cook. On this day, he serves cornbread, brownies and cookies and chili warmed in a generator-powered roaster. It's not an era-correct meal, he acknowledged, but it would take all day to prepare food over an open fire for two dozen people.
They are a historically-minded group, but they make exceptions.
John Butcher of Fairbury, who goes by Cactus Jack, is the group's architect. He designed most of Raccoon Forks, though most of the Regulators pitched in to build it.
Butcher joined in 2007 after hearing about the Regulators at a gun show. He went home, found the group's website and attended the very next shoot.
Like Bursovsky, he grew up watching westerns, and his fascination with outlaws and cowboys stuck with him into adulthood.
“I thought, 'This is what I've been looking for my whole life.'”
It was Butcher who hunted down materials for the jail after he heard rumors that the village of Jansen, not too far from his home in Fairbury, was going to scrap the iron innards of its jail building, inconveniently situated on top of the town water pump. Butcher set about raising $500 to buy it. Then he brought it to Raccoon Forks, disabled the locks and designed an adjoining sheriff's outpost.
The Regulators may emulate outlaws, but they are hard-working, organized outlaws.
“We've got a lot of people, and everybody kind of does what they're good at,” Butcher said.
Theresa Scott, aka Miss Theresa, one of the few women in the group, is in charge of the outhouses. She outfits them each month with fancy mirrors, nice toilet paper, hand sanitizer and soft towels.
Both she and her husband are Regulators. They've been hunting together for decades, and joined the group about three years ago.
Only three of the two dozen Regulators at the October shootout are women.
“Shooting is just not something that a lot of ladies take up,” Scott said.
In part, the history drew her to the group. But she's also a strong believer in the right to bear arms, so the opportunity to shoot was a draw as well.
“We just do this because we know that there's a lot of places in the world where you can't do this on a Sunday afternoon,” she said.
She also loves the clothes.
At group weekends, she wears dresses that cover her ankles no matter the heat (and usually, she wears old-fashioned pantaloons, too). She owns a corset (she normally saves it for fancier occasions), as well as old-fashioned lace-up boots. Some of the women dress as saloon girls, but Miss Theresa prefers more ladylike apparel — high-collared shirts, long, full skirts, and always a hat. She and most of the Regulators avoid snaps, zippers and Velcro, which weren't available in cowboy times.
Men wear pants without belt loops, opting for suspenders. Many wear collarless shirts, which were common in the Old West.
Even so, newcomers generally get about a year's grace period before they're expected to have their outfits together, Scott said.
“We're not going to send somebody away because they don't have the right hat,” she said.
Edward Hart was wearing the wrong hat during the October shoot, but he had just picked it up at a gun show, and he wanted to wear it. So he made an exception.
Usually, though, he tries to be historically accurate. Prior to joining the Regulators, Hart was in a Civil War re-enactment group.
That lost its appeal as he got older.
“One thing neat about this, you don't have to go charging up a hill,” he said.
Charging up hills, camping in old-fashioned tents and embarking on long marches through the heat all got old, Hart said.
But history didn't. Shooting didn't, either.
“A bad day of shooting is better than a good day of work,” he said.
Three weeks after the October shoot — the last of the season — the Regulators have their annual banquet. This year's is at the Knolls Country Club in Lincoln. In a party room in the back, the Regulators wear their Sunday best. The women wear corsets and carry small sequined purses. The men wear stiff collars and vests. A few wear fancy spurs. When they go through the buffet, the other diners notice.
When it's too cold to shoot, the Regulators still get together once a month. The banquet is their big event, but they do other things, too. They dress up and go to western-themed movies — “True Grit,” “Cowboys & Aliens.” They've ridden the Fremont Dinner Train and visited the Durham Museum.
“Just seeing each other once a month is the biggest thing for us,” Bursovsky said.
The banquet includes two fundraising efforts — a raffle and a silent auction. Most of the silent auction items, donated by various Regulators, are cowboy re-enactment shooting accessories — a gun, a gun-cleaning kit, a fancy leather vest. The money goes mostly to keeping up and improving Raccoon Forks.
The Regulators present Bursovsky with an engraved wooden box for a Dutch oven for his work as cook. They observe a moment of silence for Roger Bodfield, a founding member of the group who died a few weeks before. They discuss plans for their next outing, when they'll dress up in cowboy attire and see the movie “Lincoln” as a group.
The western wear draws attention, Scott said, but that's a good thing.
“We want people to know about us,” she said.
They're history buffs. They're romantics. They're gun enthusiasts. They're cowboys.
But more than anything, they're friends.
Contact the writer: