By Elise Modrovich
Special to the Sun
2019 Whiskey Flat Grand Marshalls Mike and Erin Woodward have been participating in Kernville’s signature annual event since they moved to the Kern River Valley over 33 years ago. Their involvement has made such a strong and indelible impression on what Whiskey Flat has become that it’s a wonder they haven’t received the honor before now.
Mike’s interest in historical and reenactment events, particularly the Civil War, Indian Wars and Cowboy eras, became a full-time passion following his retirement from the Federal Aviation Administration, when “Erin told me I needed to keep busy and leave her alone,” he laughs. For her part, Erin says, “I got involved in costume contests because I got to sew fun dresses.” Shortly after their move to the Kern River Valley, Mike became heavily involved with the Fort Tejon Civil War reenactors, followed by the Indian Wars Cavalry group in Los Angeles, and the couple won several costume contests at Calico Days in California’s Calico Ghost Town. His hobby had become a passion, and he soon flew to Harden, Montana to “learn how to do it period correct,” and participate in a Custer’s Last Stand reenactment for over 4,000 people that was broadcast on the History Channel.
As for Whiskey Flat Days, well, “first we just got into the parade stuff,” says Mike, as well as entering the entire Woodward clan in the costume contests, thanks to Erin’s skill with a sewing needle.
“I’ve always sewn, formal dresses, regular clothes, since I was a kid,” says Erin, who went out and bought all the period costume books and got to work. She started by sewing period costumes for herself and her husband – new ones every year – then their kids, and even their pets. “Dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, lizards, even made covered wagons for them all,” says Erin. “Every year I upped the ante. It was hilarious.” They also got involved in several of the Melodramas, where naturally, Erin sewed the costumes.
But thanks to Mike’s increased interest in “period correct” reenactment, he got an itch to fix what he saw as a glaring flaw in the town’s Whiskey Flat Days. “What was really interesting back then,” says Mike, “it had become so far removed from what it had been when it started in the ‘50s. We were really interested in period correct for everything, especially getting the authenticity back into Kernville.” Erin consulted her books, and Mike his reenactor groups, and they decided to set the bar higher. “Instead of the old Hollywood attempt at it, we got into the really authentic stuff, 1880s, mountain men, cavalry, all of it,” says Mike.
Then, in 2003, it all came together when “Tom Moore came to me and said, how would you like to do a show for the Whitewater Olympics?” says Mike. The Woodwards put together a Wild West Extravaganza in the rodeo arena for a hundred visiting world class athletes and locals. “The arena was packed; probably a thousand people came to see 70 to 80 mounted cavalry, 60 horses, and the local tribes participated in staging reenactments of the Indian Wars. We even got a real stagecoach, staged a robbery. The tribes acknowledged the athletes, brought them on the field, gave them gifts. It was amazing.”
After that, Mike realized he wanted to keep that kind of authenticity going for Whiskey Flat Days, and started producing the Encampment, one of the highlights, and many say the best thing about the entire event. “It didn’t exist before. There had been staged gunfights, but no encampment. We wanted to go beyond cotton candy to what the original intent was and bring authenticity back to Whiskey Flat Days.” Mike immediately gives kudos to Whitewater Rafting pioneer Chuck Richards for helping make it happen. “Chuck got the land secured with the chamber, championed the cause, and helped us get it going 16 years ago.”
Once the location was secured, Mike set about getting participants. He called on his Civil War reenactor friends in Fort Tejon, and now the reenactors come from all over the state, some even coming all the way from Nevada. “All the reenactors are historians in their own right. You don’t get involved in that unless you are dedicated to it,” says Mike. Erin nods, adding, “They all say this is the biggest and best California event they participate in every year.”
Even though many people come a long distance to participate, Mike says he counts on the loyal locals to “direct” the different camps within the encampment, including Rob and Monica Lambert who run the “Whiskey Flat” town; Horse Robinson, key in guiding the Indian camp; and Perry Steinhoff, who directs the Mining Operation. “Every camp has its own director, so they can make sure rules are followed,” Mike says. These include “chuck wagon” meal vouchers for the participants and period correct attire. “We have costume contests at the encampment every year.”
Possibly the most important rules are regarding firearm safety. “Gun checks are crucial. Everyone with a firearm has been checked and approved. Those cleared sport color-coded ribbons indicating they are authorized to carry weapons. And absolutely NO live ammunition is allowed. We stay compliant with AB144.” Mike feels these rules are important to ensuring the success of the Encampment. “We’ve been doing it accident free, incident free, for 16 years. We pride ourselves on being safety conscious.”
As Encampment Producer, Mike also makes sure the area is prepped properly, with a work crew of local volunteers who start clearing and cleaning up every Saturday for a month before Whiskey Flat weekend. “We’ve gotten as many as 5,000 people coming through in one day,” Mike reports. “We get visitors from all over the world, and the Whiskey Flat Encampment goes on, rain or shine. We’ve done it in snow, floods, everything.” Erin, who still teaches Spanish and supervises the CSF and FCA clubs at KVHS, also takes the lead on guiding the living history presentations for local elementary and middle schools, including the bus loads of elementary school kids who come to the encampment every year prior to Whiskey Flat to learn about the Valley’s history.
In his “off time,” Mike still teaches part time at the California Aeronautical University and runs the Kernville Carriage Company with his number one employee, Charlie the horse, and Erin is still plenty busy with her students at KVHS, but the duo is not planning on slowing down any time soon. “I’ve been trying to pass the baton, but nobody else wants to take it on,” Mike says with a smile.
“I’ll produce it as long as I need to.” As for Erin? Well, she has some special costumes planned. “I’ve got a special 1870s dress for the parade. It’s going to be special.”