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Road trip attraction: In Palm Beach, an exhibit on the Old West

Conestoga wagon smallIf, like me, you are fascinated by the 19th century history of the American West, get to the Society of the Four Arts gallery in Palm Beach. The society has managed to snag an amazing collection of Old West art and artifacts from a private collection that will be on view through April 29.

The star of the exhibit — Recapturing the Real West: The Collection of William I. Koch — is a tintype portrait of Billy the Kid that sold for $2.3 million at auction last year, but the display cases are full of unexpected gems: A bead belt and breast piece worn by Sitting Bull. George Custer’s personal battle flag, from Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Cases of Kentucky flintlock rifles, percussion plains rifles, Winchester repeating rifles, Colt revolvers. A bawdy house license. A pharmacy case of apothecary jars labeled with the names of unfamiliar potions and powders.  Billy the Kid_tintype small_edited-1

There are gold nuggets and various scales for weighing them. Gambling ephemera. Stirrups, spurs and saddles. Women’s corsets, Native American dresses, costumes worn in Westerns. An array of men’s hats. And who knew that there were different styles of chaps, some leather, some elaborately dyed longhaired Angora?

If your road trips have taken you through some of the towns that thrived during the era of Westward Expansion and the Gold Rush, here are photos and memorabilia of the outlaws and lawmen — and some of the women — that made some of these places famous: Jesse James, Pat Garrett, John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Billy the Kid, Annie Oaklay, Calamity Jane. There’s a wedding photo of the Sundance Kid and Etta Place.

The Western art could be an exhibit by itself, featuring the paintings and bronze sculptures of Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Hart Benton, and others.

Inside the Esther B. O’Keeffe Gallery, there’s a bright red Wells Fargo stagecoach; outside on the lawn are a Conestoga wagon and other farm wagons and coaches from that era.

It’s fascinating stuff. My only complaint is that while some items are labeled and explained, much is not, especially old photos, and it left me wondering about the significance of some of what I saw.

Society of the Four Arts, 2 Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach; 561-655-7227.  

Tintype of Billy the Kid, above, from The Collection of William I. Koch.