The Bowsers… Hard work, gunfights & romance

Scene from the past… Lovilla, aka Anna Belle the saloon girl. (Chronicle file photo)

Editor’s note: The following article by Ellen Miller-Goins is a reprint of a story that appeared in the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle’s 1999 Summer Enchantment magazine. Gary and Lovilla sold the landmark business in April 2007, to longtime locals Randall and Paulette Kiker.

The way Gary and Lovilla Bowser tell it, they had to get married. Not for children, those came later, but because they were headed up to Red River to operate one of the many businesses owned by Lovilla’s parents, Garnett and Thurlene Frye.

Her folks opened Frye’s Western Store (now the Mountain Shop) “to escape the Oklahoma heat” and by the late ’50s, her family owned five businesses in Red River and one in Taos.

In 1956, their sophomore year, Gary and Lovilla were “going steady.” She came up without Gary, who was working at a cemetery, but Lovilla says he sent her tear-stained, cologne-scented letters with “maybe a flower… He’d send me flowers off people’s graves!”

In 1957, after their junior year, Lovilla says, “I told my parents, ‘If you don’t bring him out here to work, I’m going to run away and get married.’”

Lovilla ran her folks’ cafe and Gary says, “The first thing I had to do was clean out the caved-in septic tank behind Frye’s. The rest of the time I did a lot of bicycle fixing and dug worms (Frye’s rented bikes and sold bait).

They had to get married during Easter break their senior year in 1958 so they could come up and operate the Arrowhead, a gift shop on
Mallette Road where the Sitzmark is now.

The winter of 1959-60, the first year Red River Ski Area opened, Gary and Lovilla took a break from college to open a ski shop. They made $278 and Gary says, “This ended our winters in Red River!”

Newlyweds Lovilla and Gary (right) at the Arrowhead. (Photo provided)

Gary and Lovilla ran The Arrowhead until the summer of 1962 working “6 days a week with 1 day a week off,” Gary says.

Lovilla expresses surprise — she doesn’t remember ever taking a day off:  “We worked 7 days a week, 14 hours a day.”

“That’s what it takes if you want to make it here,” Gary adds.

‘Movie set’ to store front

Garnett Frye owned a livery stable that faced Woody’s Village Inn and in 1962, he moved it to its present location, opening a Country Store. He built a long false-front that extended from either side of the building.

“They were doors to nowhere,” Lovilla says of the first Frye’s Old Town, a facade attached to the Country Store. “It was like a movie set.”

“In the fall of 1962, Elmer Janney filled in the false fronts,” Gary says. “He extended the Country Store and built living quarters.”

By 1963, when the Bowsers started managing Frye’s Old Town, they had two children. Gary and Lovilla slept in the living area, their son Tyler in the small bedroom and their daughter Toni in what is now a storeroom.

In summer 1962, Garnett thought up the gunfights. He played the town drunk and Gary was “Oklahoma Slug.”

Gary Bowser has thrilled legions of tourists with his summer gunfights. (Chronicle file photo)

Since that time, the gun fights have become a Red River institution with characters like Wild Bill, Horrible Harold and Anna Belle the saloon girl (played by Lovilla for years). “I had a horrible time coming up with all their names,” Lovilla says.

Gary the law

Law enforcement was rare in Red River, so in 1964, Gary says local businesses took matters into their own hands:  “I was the first merchant patrol in Red River. The Justice of the Peace Jack Chambliss took me over to the sheriff’s office and they made me a ‘special deputy,’ which, I found out later, didn’t mean bull.

“In July and August the merchants offered up $300. That was my pay. I bought a magnetic red light for my car and I did the patrolling from 8 p.m. to midnight. I wrote about 18 tickets that summer.”

Gary took his experience as a merchant patrol and went to work that fall for the Woodward Police Department for a few years. He and Lovilla ultimately ran the family’s western wear manufacturing operation for years.

The college of life

Gary took some business courses, accounting, business law, marketing, but after the 1960 fall semester, “Garnett Frye told me, ‘I can teach you all you need to know about business.’”

Gary learned everything from “important business principles” to electrical work and carpentry and “practical application taught me the rest of it.”

Up to 1968, the Frye’s different enterprises were operated by Garnett and Thurlene, Lovilla and Gary and Mona and husband Travis Johnson.

In April 1969, after Thurlene had a mild heart attack, Lovilla says, “We were informed, ‘You have to go run the stores. We’re not going to Red River anymore.’

The Bowsers are down to one location now, Frye’s Old Town, which they have kept open every summer — and winters since 1987. (Gary and Lovilla’s daughter-in-law April manages the shop for them.)

Any recreation?

Garnett loved fishing and was involved with the Red River Trout Association which stocked lakes and streams in the summer months. Gary fished a little, too, but Lovilla says, “I really didn’t do recreation…. I don’t like being a workaholic. I wish I weren’t a workaholic.”

Ah, but there is always work and Lovilla does it while visiting.

She fills out orders, deals with an unhappy employee, answers questions, watches the monitor for shoplifters, and when the stress of sitting still gets too much, she says, “Nice talking to you,” and heads back to work.

Lovilla and Gary Bowser in front of the original Country Store. (Chronicle photo by Ellen Miller-Goins)
Frye’s Old Town and the Bowsers’ gang before the Kikers did the snazzy updates. (Web photos)