America’s first cowboy movies were “eastern westerns” shot in the wilds of New Jersey and Pennsylvania at the dawn of the 20th century. As the film industry slowly drifted to California, the Betzwood westerns were some of the last to be produced on the east coast. Though Betzwood’s owner, Siegmund Lubin, had studios in California and touring companies in Arizona, he was unwilling to give up the production of cowboy movies at his large Betzwood studio, insisting that his directors out west couldn’t keep up with the public demand for more westerns.
One of the reasons Lubin bought the Betzwood estate was to have a place to corral his cowboys. He saw the farms and barns and meadows at Betzwood as offering the perfect opportunity to provide his directors with all of the horses, cattle, and scenery they would need to produce his western movies. As soon as settlement was made on the property in August 1912, the first film crews Lubin sent to Betzwood were the companies shooting westerns.
As might be expected in the movie world, not all of Lubin’s cowboys were the genuine article. There were a few authentic western types among them, however, like Harry Webb, a veteran of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and former western ranch hands like George Steele, Harry K. Loomes, Jack Wright, Joe Riley, “Pony” Sampson, and “Kid” Bill Arthur. Others were “urban cowboys” like Harry and Charles May, the sons of Jake May who ran the saloon across the street from the main Lubin studio in North Philadelphia.
The “bunkhouse” chosen for the cowboys at Betzwood was an unlikely place—a huge ornate Victorian boathouse above “Catfish Dam” on the river. Separated from the rest of the studio by a patch of woods, the cowboys had a secluded private mansion as their home. Their off-duty lifestyle was observed and reported by a young actor named Albert Hackett in 1914. Hackett, who would one day achieve fame as a Hollywood screen writer, was so fascinated by the cowboys that on one occasion when he was sent out to Betzwood to appear in a film, he purposely stranded himself when the day’s work ended. When the assistant director escorted the fourteen-year-old to the Betzwood station to catch his train into Philadelphia, Hackett hid in the bushes near the station until he was sure the last train had gone. Thus he achieved his goal of spending the night in the bunkhouse with the cowboys—and discovered the awful truth. His heroes smelled to high heaven, spit tobacco juice everywhere, and used language that would have curled his mother’s hair. Worst of all, they argued all night about the best way to get from Texas to Montana by hitching rides on freight trains, and which boxcars they preferred.
Their salty language occasionally got the cowboys into unexpected trouble. Harry Webb remembered a scene in which he played a judge, and was told by the director to improvise dialogue. “Oh, just take the s.o.b. out and hang him!” “Judge” Harry roared on camera. Shortly after the film’s release, the Lubin publicity office received a flood of disapproving letters from shocked movie patrons who could read lips.
The Betzwood cowboys gained a colorful reputation among the folks living in the vicinity of the studio. Most of the horses and the oxen for the covered wagon were kept in a massive barn on “Farm #2,” which is today the site of the Valley Forge Corporate Center. There, on weekends, the cowboys often gave impromptu rodeos in front of the barn, demonstrating fancy riding, rope tricks, and the fact that they were armed and dangerous, with exhibitions of trick shooting. When actor/director Edgar Jones married actress, Louise Huff, at a church in Oaks in 1914, the cowboys went along yelping and firing live ammo into the air in celebration. Local children adored them. Adults gave them lots of room when they showed up in Norristown on Saturday nights, looking for whiskey, card games, and a “friendly” fight. Early in 1913, Lubin had a trainload of wild horses shipped from Arizona to Betzwood for use in the movies. Harry Webb and George Steele were assigned the task of taming and training them. These professionals were highly annoyed when the directors resorted to cheap tricks like hidden wires to trip the horses in front of the camera. The straight-forward approach the studio took to filming its westerns often resulted in injuries. The fact that the cowboys used live ammunition in their gunfight scenes posed a safety threat to both cast and crew. One of the “urban” cowboys accidentally shot himself while playing with his six shooter and nearly bled to death. Harry Webb remembered a saloon shoot-out in which one of his shots hit a mirror and a foot long shard of glass fell onto the head of an actor crouched behind the bar, injuring him severely. “Did you get that shot?,” the director asked the cameraman.
The village of Port Kennedy, just across the bridge, was often used as a set. By tacking up a few “Saloon” and “General Store” signs, the old buildings could be given a western look and the shooting—in every sense of the word—would begin. Aware that the cowboys were firing live ammunition, Port Kennedy parents ran out and rounded up their kids when they heard the ominous rumble of horses’ hooves on the old wooden bridge. Betzwood westerns also made frequent use of the massive quarries now located within Valley Forge National Park. Rough timber building facades were erected in the quarries to suggest the look of real western outposts. Eventually, Lubin had a western town set erected on the lot at Betzwood. The L-shaped street contained more than a dozen wooden facades hung on steel frames and was quite convincing. Scenes were played out there everyday, regardless, of whether any films were being shot. During the lunch break at the studio, many of the young lab workers took advantage of the opportunity to act out their adolescent fantasies in front of the saloon.
When a desert was needed for the 1913 two-reeler, A Waif of the Desert, director Edgar Jones had a large section of open land plowed, then spread with lime. Fake cactus plants were set out and in the distance a huge canvas painted like mountains was stretched to block the view of the Pennsylvania woods. Across this ersatz “Death Valley,” the studio’s real Conestoga wagon, drawn by oxen, and piloted by actress Louise Huff, was to slowly make its way “west.” Unfortunately, when an actor fired a gun, the oxen panicked and bolted. The sudden burst of speed knocked over the old dairy cow tethered behind the wagon and she got dragged along on her side. Louise Huff, unable to control the oxen or escape from the wagon screamed for someone to “stop these @#&*!* cows!” The stampede ended with the wagon bursting through the canvas “mountains” and falling into a ravine just beyond the trees. The resulting film was advertised as “Thrillingly Realistic.”
The Pennsylvania Railroad, passing through the studio grounds, was also taken advantage of. On several occasions, passengers looked out of their windows to see a tribe of western plains Indians galloping in their direction, firing rifles. The conductor would wire ahead to the station master in Philadelphia that they would be delayed due to “another attack by Lubin’s Indians.”
In 1914, the number of westerns made at Betzwood declined significantly as the tastes and expectations of moviegoers rapidly improved. As the industry changed, there was less demand for the one- and two-reel films which had been a Betzwood staple for years. By the end of 1914, all of Betzwood’s real cowboys were gone—some off to join vaudeville companies, others headed back to the all-but-vanished lifestyle they had previously known. By 1916, not even one eastern western was made at Betzwood But the Betzwood western was not quite yet a thing of the past. When the studio closed, then reopened under new management in 1918, the first films made were a series of five-reel western features starring Louis Bennison. Bowing to the public’s preference for longer films, but anxious to keep down production costs by using all the western sets and properties already in place, the Betzwood Film Company ground out the very last eastern westerns in the Philadelphia suburbs. Altogether six Bennison features were made. Though they met with mild success, they did not bring in the needed profits. The gritty realism of real westerns, like the famous feature film starring William S. Hart, Hell’s Hinges had left the Betzwood westerns behind, in a cloud of dust.