Celebrating Old West, B-movies and the Siler City man who championed them

Posted 3/29/19

SILER CITY — Of all the familiar motifs of old cowboy movies — and its a genre brimming with recurring themes and images — one of the most indelible is that of the hero riding off into the …

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Celebrating Old West, B-movies and the Siler City man who championed them

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SILER CITY — Of all the familiar motifs of old cowboy movies — and its a genre brimming with recurring themes and images — one of the most indelible is that of the hero riding off into the sunset at the end of the picture.

It’s tempting to imagine the late Milo Holt, an ardent and lifelong champion of old B-Western films, doing just that when he died in September 2011.

But while Milo — his full name was Odeal Bathey Holt, but that’s not how most people knew him — is gone now, unlike Shane or Maverick or a host of other good guys who, riding tall in the saddle, guided their horses towards a setting sun, Milo didn’t entirely go away.

The Milo Holt Western Festival, an annual event bearing his name, is returning to Siler City in May for its eighth edition.

The festival is a tribute not only to Siler City’s most well-known film buff, but also to the perseverance and dedication of Milo’s niece, Linda Lehman, who has organized and largely self-funded the event, which draws a few hundred people to downtown Siler City each spring to enjoy Western movies, cowboy music and mock shoot-outs between Stetson-wearing heroes and outlaws.

“He just loved cowboys and Indians and that kind of thing,” Lehman said of her “Uncle Milo.”

There was more to Milo than just movies, of course. Born in 1927, the youngest of nine children, he was a Navy veteran of World War II. And he was a well-respected musician, known for his harmonica work, playing alongside his musician friends who called themselves the Rocky River Cowboys. Milo was a fixture at Charlie’s Barn, the music venue between Pittsboro and Siler City.

But it was through cowboy movies — his love for them, his knowledge of them, and certainly his comprehensive collection of them — that Milo left his most enduring mark.

He was the founder of Milo Holt’s Ole Time Western Film Club, a group of like-minded folks who gathered in the single-wide trailer off U.S. 64 where Milo lived to watch and enjoy and discuss the old movies. The trailer housed his large collection and it was the home base from which Milo wrote and distributed a bi-monthly newsletter dedicated to the Western film genre, especially the low-budget variety (known as B pictures) that featured Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, Tex Ritter and Gene Autry. The newsletter enjoyed an international readership.

Milo even taught a class on Western movies at N.C. State in Raleigh, which lead to the birth of a club, still active, called the Western Film Preservation Society.

A fire in the 1990s wiped out much of Milo’s movie collection, but even that set-back didn’t slow him down much.

“He did so much to keep those movies alive,” Lehman said.

After Milo’s death, aiming to keep his work and momentum going, Lehman created the Milo Holt Western Festival and, as sure as budding flowers and chirping birds, its become a springtime fixture.

The festival is also among the last of its breed.

Similar events along the East Coast have come and gone, but the Milo Holt festival, though it faces some challenges, is still going.

“We’re the only hub now,” Lehman said.

Aimed at appealing to all ages, Lehman said, the festival is for everyone “from zero to a hundred. I try to keep it family-oriented.”

But planning and organizing the event isn’t easy. Though you won’t hear a complaint from Lehman, it’s a demanding task. She’s gotten financial donations over the years — the Wren Foundation and Mountaire have given money, for example — but she’s also covered most of the out-of-pocket expenses herself. That includes housing in local hotels the talent that comes in from out of town. And, with some help from her husband and her son, Lehman has been almost solely responsible for all the work involved in putting on the annual event, securing locations, obtaining permits, contacting the talent and securing vendors.

You could call it a labor of love.

“I loved him dearly,” Lehman said of her uncle. “And I love doing this festival. I’ve always enjoyed putting things together, organizing things. And this was a way to keep my uncle’s name alive.”

The festival, Lehman said, is one of the last of its breed, at least on the East Coast.

It typically draws a crowd of around 200 to 300 people, but lack of funds — advertising the festival on a broader scale is expense, Lehman said — has likely kept attendance down a bit.

“I’d love to see more people come,” Lehman said.

For those who do attend, Lehman said there’s a lot to enjoy.

This year’s event will feature many movies, of course, including a screening at the Oasis in downtown Siler City of one of Milo’s favorites, “The War Wagon,” starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. That kicks off the event on Friday night, May 17.

Moving into high gear from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, May 18, the festival will offer much more, including a host of Old West re-enactors bringing with them an authentic props, including a chuck wagon, and loads of expertise and knowledge about life on the open range and the skills required to live it. They’ll demonstrate roping and how to saddle a horse. They’ll discuss and demonstrate old-timey soap-making. Also on hand, there will be a recreation of an Old West Town complete with a jail, a saloon and a Pony Express Office that will almost certainly set the scene for a hold-up and a shoot-out or two.

Steve Silverheels, son of the late actor Jay Silverheels, who portrayed Tonto on the popular television show “The Lone Ranger” in the 50s, will be among the featured guests, alongside country/western singer Duane Deemer, from Nashville, Aspen Black & Alice, a mother and daughter singing duo from Virginia, and Cindy Smith, the “Singing Cowgirl” from Georgia.

Lehman said she foresees no end, no riding into the sunset, for the Milo Holt Western Festival any time soon.

“I’m planning on keeping it going,” she said, “as long as I’m able. We’re already making plans for the tenth anniversary.”

She’d welcome help, too, including donations which would be “greatly appreciated” and help sustain the life of the festival. Contributions may be mailed to Milo Holt Western Festival, 823 East Cardinal St., Siler City, NC, 27344. Lehman also welcomes the participation of additional vendors. Those interested in participating in this year’s event may contact her at 919-200-5161.


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