SIDNEY — Cecil Steele’s love of Westerns started when he was 8 years old. And that love has grown into a collection of Western memorabilia that will be featured at the the Ross Historical Center’s Flourishing 50’s display.
As a child, Steele, of Sidney, would watch Westerns on TV and listen to them on the radio. Now, decades later, Steele has amassed a collection of antique Western themed memorabilia that bring back memories of a childhood steeped in Western lore.
Steele’s dad, Jessie Steele, used to work for the Barnum and Bailey Circus as a trick horse rider in a wild west show until one day a horse stumbled and threw him off. His ankle was crushed against a metal pole, ending his performing career. After that he started training horses to perform. Eventually, Jessie moved with his wife, Thelma, from Dayton to a farm on Russell Road just outside of Sidney. Cecil was born in 1943 shortly after the move. When the circus came to town Jessie would always take Cecil, and sometimes Jessie would run into circus employees he knew from his time in the business. Cecil said of his dad, “He just loved the wild west shows. I guess that’s where I got my Western. My dad was into it and I just grew up with it.”
When Steele was 8 he had a cowboy outfit complete with cowboy hat and cap guns that he would wear while listening to such radio westerns as “The Lone Ranger.” When the shooting would start on the radio Steele would hide behind the couch and shoot-off his two Roy Rogers cap guns. At the time the cap guns cost a couple of dollars which was a lot back then, so Steele kept very good care of them, because he knew if one broke, it might be a longtime before he would get a replacement. Today Steele said cap guns like the ones he had as a kid sell for $400 or more depending on their condition.
Steele also watched Western TV shows like “Roy Rogers” on Saturday mornings. Rogers was married to Dale Evans. and “Everybody was falling in love with his, (Rogers’) wife,” said Steele.
When the TV or radio show was over Steele headed outside to play cowboys and Indians with his friends. They lived near a small woods, where they could hide and pretend they were riding horses.
Flash forward to around 2001 and Steele’s friend Dick Lenz, of Sidney, had gotten Steele fascinated with collecting 40’s and 50’s Old West memorabilia. In 2001 Steele went to his first Western memorabilia show in Cambridge, Ohio. When he arrived Steele couldn’t believe the variety of collectibles.
“It just brought back a lot of memories,” said Steele.
Steele has been to many other Western memorabilia shows since then with Lenz. The two also resell their own antiques at some of the shows.
Though a major part of the Western shows is buying and selling memorabilia, according to Steele, the big draw to the events are the celebrities that come. One particular celebrity who stands out for Steele is Johnny Crawford. Crawford as a child actor, played the part of Mark McCain in the TV show “The Rifleman,” which aired from 1958-1963. Steele met Crawford at Western shows in 2004, 2005 and 2006.
Steele said Crawford was a very nice guy who talked to him about his TV role experiences. Crawford told Steele actor Chuck Connors, who played his father on “The Rifleman,” was like a second father to him. After Crawford would finish signing autographs he would do rope tricks. Crawford was also known as a good singer, but sadly according to Steele he now has Alzheimer’s Disease.
When Steele was 17-years-old, Westerns were prevalent in movie theaters. He worked at Checkers Theater which is now called the Historic Sidney Theatre. Steele would change the marquee, make popcorn and clean-up after shows. After Checkers finished showing a movie he would be asked to dispose of the large, promotional movie posters. Steele decided to keep one of these posters because it featured one of his favorite Western characters, Red Ryder, played by Wild Bill Elliott, in the movie “Sheriff of Las Vegas.”
Steele still has the poster and the public will be able to view it, and dozens of other items from Steele’s personal antique collection, in the Flourishing 50’s display, at the Ross Historical Center. Younger visitors can glimpse what was a major form of enjoyment for children long before video games, and older visitors can experience forgotten childhood memories. The Flourishing 50’s historical display will open around the end of April.