For the cowboys, ranchers, saloon girls, pioneers, and school marms living in the Old West, down time looked a lot different than the down time we are used to. There were no bowling leagues, TikTok videos, coffee runs, or Netflix series to eat away the hours.
So, if you were a resident of the Old West and you weren’t busy ropin’ cows, bustin’ sod, and slingin’ whiskey, what were your options? It turns out, you have a lot of choices. Let’s look at 9 ways you could pass the time if you lived in the Old West.
It should come as no surprise that folks in the Old West spent their spare time with a bottle of whiskey. In many Old West towns, saloons outnumbered schools and churches. They served as gathering places, music venues, dance halls, and poker parlors.
The beverages served at Old West saloons, however, were locally made with no quality control or safety oversights. Alcohol could be distilled with chewing tobacco, ammonia, pepper, turpentine, and – believe it or not – gunpowder. Think it would be better to just order a beer? Think again. The beer will be warm.
Prostitution was big business in the Old West. In fact, it was one of only a few ways that a woman could earn a living. “Soiled Doves” – a colloquial term for prostitutes – offered their services to the lonesome cowboys, miners, and ranchers. At the end of a hard day’s work, a fella could pass the time with the lady of his choice.
Although brothels were quite common in the Old West’s frontier towns, one could also find “Soiled Doves” working at every saloon in town. Women were not permitted to enter Old West saloons, so if there was a woman present, it was a sure sign that she was there to “do business.”
Swapping tales around the campfire was a favorite pastime of pioneers and cowboys. Particularly good stories were retold again and again. The best stories were embellished and enhanced with each retelling.
Take the tall tale of Pecos Bill, for example. Various unknown storytellers added their own spin on stories about this fictional cowboy, each one more absurd than the next. Soon, there were humorous folk tales about how Pecos Bill created the Gulf of Mexico by lassoing a rain cloud or how he dragged his knife behind him as he broke his horse and carved the Grand Canyon.
The Old West was a rough and tumble place where manly men thrived. It should be no surprise, then, that boxing was among the favorite pastimes. The sport doesn’t require any huge playing field or special equipment and there were only a few rules.
Spectators flocked to boxing matches to root for their favorite boxers and to see the fighters beat the tar out of each other. Wyatt Earp occasionally refereed boxing matches and Bat Masterson was an Old West boxing sportswriter.
In addition to drinking, saloons of the Old West did a healthy business from gambling. Even lawmen enjoyed the gambling tables from time to time, including the legendary Wild Bill Hickok. Poker was his game. He earned quite a reputation for his skills with a deck of cards.
One of the best-known gambling stories of the Old West tells how Wild Bill Hickok was murdered while playing poker in the frontier town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876. Hickok was shot from behind and died holding a hand of aces and eights … which became known thereafter as the “dead man’s hand.”
In 1852, a group of Texas cowboys, borrowing an idea from their neighbors to the south, hosted the Old West’s first rodeo. Entertainment-starved folks loved the spectacle and the competition, especially the steer roping, horse racing, and bullfighting.
There was one event, however, that really brought the crowds out in droves – bucking broncos. Riding the bucking broncos takes courage and skill, but what folks really loved was the danger. Soon, rodeos became a fixture of the Old West. Some of them are still going strong today.
As dark, morbid, and gruesome as it sounds, public hangings served as a form of entertainment in the Old West. For law-abiding citizens, watching an outlaw face his execution reinforced to them that crime doesn’t pay.
As for Old West sheriffs and marshals, they used public hangings as a public relations event. Not only was it visible proof that the local lawmen were cleaning up the streets and making the Old West safe, but it boosted the morale of the townsfolk. And it brought people together. Friends and neighbors gathered to watch public hangings.
Even people in the Old West enjoyed America’s favorite pastime. Many frontier towns scrounged up enough players to put together amateur barnstorming baseball teams that traveled to other towns for highly publicized, well-attended games. There was more than local pride and bragging rights on the line.
Betting on baseball was common in the Old West. It added another layer of interest to the sport. Baseball even attracted some of the Old West’s most notable gamblers. Remember Will Bill Hickok? He played baseball in addition to playing poker.
Music is a great way to pass the time, keep people entertained, and bring friends together. But in the Old West, one couldn’t simply turn to their Spotify playlist to crank up the tunes. Only live music was available. If you were a fan of the Little House on the Prairie books and TV show, you recall that Pa often played his fiddle.
He wasn’t alone. Legendary frontiersman Davy Crockett played the fiddle, too. So did Henry Ford. The banjo, harmonica, upright piano, mandolin, accordion, and guitar were other Old West favorites for music lovers. Practice makes perfect. Accomplished musicians were called on to entertain at weddings, dances, and other events.