The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center in Puyallup observed the completion of the first 20 years of its astonishing existence on June 24, 2022. The celebration included a gala event complete with talent and music and Daffodil Princesses. The only thing that was missing was fishing. Fred Oldfield loved to fish. There should have been fish.
Before we go on, we need to take a last look at Part Three of the Fred Oldfield story.
After his Army days, Fred married the beautiful red head who had occupied his dreams while he was overseas. Alice Compton Oldfield was his brother Russell’s widow. After the terrible explosion that left them without Russell, Alice brought her two children with her into her new life. Jerry and Patti would find a devoted father in Fred.
“By the time I left the Aleutians and was on my way home,” Fred recalled, “Alice just simply wrote, ‘Well, do you want to get married?'” “Sure,” I replied, “Why not?” Hollywood-cute baby Joella was born in September of 1945, and then eleven months later, the family started life in Seattle.
Fred wrote about those early days in the big city, “I started losing my hair early on and that caused a bit of a problem. Alice was working for an upscale salon in downtown Seattle that restored men’s hair. I guess my thinning hair was not a good representation of their work, so Alice encouraged me to keep my hat on.” It was the only time he wore a fedora and sports jacket. This news will come as a big shock to Fred’s admirers who thought of him as one of the good guys perpetually wearing a white Stetson.
In fact, decades later, Fred was being honored by the State of Washington when the Governor declared Fred Oldfield Day. A caravan of friends and admirers made its way to Olympia, the capitol, to see Fred recognized. Now, if there was one thing this polite cowboy knew, it was to respectfully take his hat off when he entered the capitol building. Fred’s cheering section was sitting in the balcony. It was hard to recognize Fred. He looked very small down there on the stage, humbly holding his hat in front of him. Suddenly one of the Senators shrieked. “For Gawd’s sake, Fred Oldfield, is that you.” Fred moved forward, still holding his hat in his hands. “Yes Ma’am,” he said.
“Put your hat back on,” she commanded. “You just look like any old man without it.” Fred respectfully put his Stetson on, and as far as any of us knew, he was never without his hat again.
Fred had planned to become a commercial artist, study that would be covered by the GI Bill. It took him very little time to realize that the stylized world of commercial art just wasn’t for him. He wanted to paint the west he knew, attracting around him a select group of artists also dedicated to chronicling the old west.
He was very successful and his name was becoming well known, but that was certainly not enough for Fred Oldfield. Inspired by the opening of Disneyland, a dream was taking place. If they could have a magic kingdom in California, why not a frontier kingdom in the Northwest? “The idea of a fun tourist attraction was just his style,” Joella remembered. In the summer of 1957, Fred rented an old service station just outside the Nisqually entrance to Mt. Rainier.
“I paid thirty dollars for the whole summer,” Fred recalled. He also built a life sized Indian out of concrete (tribe unspecified). Tourists would stop to have the pictures with the cement celebrity and that gave Fred a chance to sell the pictures that he was painting production line style. He remembered, “I found a frame shop that was going out of business, and I bought 150 frames for twenty-five cents apiece, with a small stack of canvas boards, and I’d set them up ten at a time. I would paint ten skies, ten mountains, and ten foregrounds, each a little different and sold them for three or four dollars apiece and would make twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a day.
It was on this spot that Frontier Village was born. Lifesize figures of cowboys and Indians with replicas of teepees – and Fred would stoke fires in them every morning, so the smoke was visible from the freeway.
“The village was busy and usually full of visitors but if things got too quiet we’d have a gun fight in the middle of Main street,” Fred said, “Or maybe we’d have it have it in front of the stage coach and one of us, usually me, would fall into the dirt. We were little kids reliving our childhood fun.”
The Village was popular and successful but vandals, stealing and breaking the concrete figures, combined with record shattering storms made it impossible to go on. By the Spring of ’64 Fred wrote, “No matter how hard everyone worked, we just had 90 days for a tourist season and I guess the truth is that I was not a very good businessman.”
So the Frontier Village was gone but Fred Oldfield was always able to see opportunities and now Fred found that art shows were being held on shopping mall side-walks. “I hung my paintings on makeshift display boards and started to paint. “I could always draw a crowd, and it was not long before the sales took off.”
Fred soon became the master of the Quick Draw – the ability to create a painting in 30 minutes while keeping up a steady patter of talking to the watching crowd. He did these paintings everywhere. Art shows, and fairs ranged from Lakewood, Washington to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and at least one memorable time live on my TV show, Never Too Late. That one still hangs in my office.
Fred’s fame grew as his paintings were collected and prized around the world. He made friends everywhere he went from actor George Montgomery and Jack Palance of Hollywood fame to Matt Fontana, a gifted artist, who held a special place in Fred’s heart. Afflicted with polio as a teenager, Matt created breath-taking paintings, holding the brush between his teeth.
It seemed evident Fred had become the premier painter of the old west in the world, taking his place with Remington, Russell, and Catlin, with shows and exhibitions in museums from Seattle, across the US and “across the pond.” But then the Redhead needed him and all bets were off.
Alice’s long battle with Multiple Sclerosis was coming to an end, and while the demand for Fred’s appearances had shifted into high gear, he would not leave her alone. In those days before the internet, Fred kept track of his friends by phone, calling to check in, and then, when Alice needed him, he’d say, “Don’t go away.” He’d leave the phone off the hook, while he went to take care of his Redhead, and then come back to pick up the conversation. Fred had chosen the life he wanted, and no one ever heard him complain.
He stayed by her side until finally, Alice didn’t need him anymore.
In 2002 The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center opened with Joella Oldfield wrangling the idea from start to finish, and at last Fred’s dream came true. Art classes and events were offered for kids and grownups too. Kids flocked in for their art lessons with Cowboy Fred, and Fred delighted in telling about the children who started with lessons at the Center and then went on to study the arts in college.
Director Joella Oldfield, took scarcely a pause to breathe before plunging on to the goals for the second twenty years.
- Goal one: Increase and build on our very successful children’s programs by increasing the number of art classes offered for children in grades K-12
- Goal two: Increase Adult Workshops that we offer by bringing in nationally acclaimed teachers
- Goal three: Add to our scope by building a complete Dance Program for children through adults including conditioning classes
Start a music program and a drama program for young performing artists.
Oldfield observes, “of course that means we’ll have to find or a build a larger facility to accommodate classrooms and gallery space.”
But heck, they’ve got twenty years. They can do it.
See y’all in 2042.
You can see a tour of the Center with Fred Oldfield at itsnevertoolate.com/videos
Now that the Oldfield Western Heritage Center has passed its first twenty years, you may guess correctly that there’s a lot of the story you really don’t know, and that’s true. If you’d like to know the whole story, Joella Oldfield’s book, Better Than I Deserve, is available at the Western Heritage Center. The Center is open all summer Monday-Friday 9:30 am-12:30 pm or by appointment. Visitors are always welcome for private tours.