HARDIN — As enthusiastically as historical re-enactors Rick Williams and Jim Rowland — and a supporting cast of maybe 100 others — did their job Friday afternoon, it’s almost like 138 years hadn’t intervened since Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer died in a grassy field outside Hardin.
The 2014 installation of the Custer’s Last Stand reenactment continues Saturday and Sunday six miles west of Hardin on Old U.S. Highway 87. Watch for signs to direct you. Tickets, available on-site, are $20 for adults, $8 for children 6-12 and free for children under 6.
Attendees are treated to a narrated epic sprawl of history, from the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery to the famous last stand. With much of the action taking place on horseback and with guns and even cannons going off periodically, the 90-minute program, presented by the Hardin Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, was action-packed from the get-go.
On hand to open the event was historian and centenarian Joe Medicine Crow of Lodge Grass, the main author of the show, who told the story of how as a young college student he almost got cast in the 1941 Errol Flynn fictionalized film about Custer, “They Died with Their Boots On.”
The film’s casting director told Medicine Crow he was looking for “an Indian with small, beady eyes and a hook nose who looks mean and ferocious. We can’t use you,” Medicine Crow said, quoting the conclusion to the conversation from more than 70 years ago, “because you’re too good looking.”
Others who certainly looked the part are the men portraying the leading characters, Custer and Sitting Bull, portrayed by Rick Williams of Worthington, Ohio, and Jim Rowland of Joplin, Mo.
Rowland was making his 18th appearance as Sitting Bull, and Williams his eighth as Custer.
“It is a mystery of history, because no one really knows what happened (to Custer) in the end,” Williams said. He said his character has received “a lot of blame” since his death in 1876, “but he really had a lot of sympathy for Indians’ plight.”
Williams said he made at least one concession to history: he wore his hat up on the opposite side of Custer’s in order to allow the audience to see his Custeresque face better.
Rowland, who’s 68, said he appreciates Sitting Bull’s leadership skills and gifts as a medicine man a holy man.
“I will keep coming back as long as I can,” he said. “I love meeting people and I love being with them.”
Indeed, the re-enactors took time after their performance to speak with spectators and pose for photographs.
Gayl Russell, of Wise River, was portraying one of six female Indian warriors involved in the battle. About an hour before the production began Friday, she was painting her horse, Buzzard, and herself. One arm was painted yellow, indicating her character was ready to die.
One of her favorite moments, she said, is the hand-to-hand combat near the end of the production. Spoiler alert: Russell vanquishes her opponent.
Rod Beattie’s character, 1st Sgt. James Butler of Co. L, 7th U.S. Cavalry, came closest on his side to not getting vanquished. Butler, said Beattie, was “the last man standing.”
“I’ve loved history since I was young,” he said. The annual re-enactment “puts me in touch with my inner 6-year-old.”
Beattie, who lives in Forsyth, made the bright yellow elk skin jacket that Williams wore Friday. He also owns a whole campsite worth of historically accurate items, including a copy of a military telegraph page from the 1880s and a field desk “full of proper forms and appropriate manuals.”
While those items may enhance the performance for older viewers, many younger audience members just want to see the horses galloping fast and their riders shooting blanks at each other.
The hand-to-hand combat is also appealing, but not to everyone.
“There are a lot of kids who think this is real,” he said. “One year one of my grandkids thought I was being attacked. I thought he was going to come right out of the grandstand to defend his grandpa.”