When his friend Clayton Moore was laid to rest in 1999, Gordie Peer penned these words:
“Who’s going to ride those silver stallions?
Who’s going to sing those cowboy songs?
Who’s going to save us from the outlaws
With all our Western heroes gone?”
Clayton Moore, the great Lone Ranger of radio, movie, and television fame, was a longtime friend of Peer’s. And Peer, too modest to rank himself a Western hero, is nonetheless a living treasure from the days when a Saturday matinee movie was sure to be filled with shoot-’em-ups, wagon trains, and stampeding herds of cattle.
Folks around Okeechobee, Fla., (pop. 5,376) are right proud of their town’s Wild West cowpoke. Down at the Village Square Restaurant, Peer’s photos line the walls.
“I grew up during the Great Depression, was on my own by the time I was in my teens. One day I hopped a freight (train) with a buddy of mine, and it turned out to be Col. Jim Eskew’s Wild West Show,” Peer chuckles. “I ended up getting a job taking care of the horses. That’s where I started learning the tools of my trade.”
Shows such as Col. Eskew’s provided entertainment at what back then were informal rodeos. They gave a glimpse of the real West with shooting exhibitions, bullwhip stunts, rope tricks, and so forth. Between them and cowboy Westerns, the public couldn’t get enough.
“For a period of a hundred years, the West was being opened up. In all the news you read, ‘Go West, young man,’ and so forth,” Peer explains. “Everybody loves the adventure of new places. The West was not knowing what was going to happen the next minute, (but) the good always won and the evil always lost.”
Now, even at the age of “plenty old enough,” Gordie Peer—with his guns, whip, and rope—is pure poetry in motion. Demonstrating the accuracy of his whip, Peer can slice through his mark with razor precision, even when the target is behind him. Rope tricks are still a breeze as Peer encircles himself in a smoothly spinning loop.
“By the ’40s, the show had sort of become a combination of Wild West show and rodeo. They’d quite often have a movie star make an appearance to help draw a good crowd … the Cisco Kid, Poncho. That’s how I met Clayton Moore. I was in my early 20s then,” which is as close as Peer will come to admitting his age.
“See, I’d worked on ranches, handled cattle. But Clayton was an actor, not a cowboy.”
Twirling a six-shooter with impressive speed, Peer affects a back-spinning draw from his holster. “That’s the one the Lone Ranger always used. I worked with him a long time on that one.”
Peer says the gun spinning wasn’t just a Hollywood gimmick, although it probably wasn’t as prevalent as the movies would make it seem. “They didn’t do it a lot and they didn’t develop it as a fancy show thing. They did spin the gun back into the holster, because that’s what it took to become familiar enough with the gun.”
“Lash LaRue and I worked together, too,” Peer adds, recalling the famous whip expert from early Westerns.
With the Lone Ranger and Lash LaRue as longtime household names, it seems Peer had been cheated of the fame that his own abilities should have achieved for him. He adamantly disagrees.
“I didn’t have the personality to stay 12 months out of the year in front of people,” he shakes his head. “That’s one of the reasons I ended up settling in Okeechobee in ’58 … it was a quiet little cow town.
“Doing stage shows and such, you could walk away when you got tired of being in front of the public. I never did much at all in the way of movies. And, too, I found out real quick that I’d much rather make $100 for a stage show than $10 to get knocked off a horse in a picture.”
Peer and the Lone Ranger teamed up for a number of appearances at fairs and rodeos during Moore’s last years, and Peer recalls a favorite story from their adventures.
“We stopped at a restaurant and sat down at a table. Clayton was wearing a ball cap and sunglasses, but when he ordered his food, the waitress started looking at him funny and said, ‘Don’t I know you? Your voice sounds familiar.’
“After we got in the van to leave, he told me, ‘Hold on a minute.’ He went back and stuck his head inside the cafe and hollered, ‘Hi, ho, Silver, away!’ Then he ran back to the van and we took off. You could hear that waitress screaming, ‘I knew it was him! I knew it was him!’” Peer swipes at tears of laughter as he remembers.
Those memories are about all that are left of Peer’s cowboy buddies. Nowadays, Peer himself is the lone ranger, the last of a breed that is “pert nigh” on the verge of extinction, as he puts it. He spends more time at home now but still enjoys a light schedule of performances at county fairs. Recording his cowboy poetry has become a major pleasure in his life, another talent that he practices mostly for his own enjoyment. And he’s begun teaching his son, Joseph, to handle the tools of his trade.
Peer recently held the first Old-Timers and Trick Ropers Get-Together on his ranch, where a few of his “students” came by to swap cowboy stories and show off what they’d learned. The crowd included a few newcomers eager to try their own Western tricks, which Peer views as a golden opportunity.
“I figure I better pass it on while I’m still here to do it.”