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thedrifter
03-13-07, 05:40 AM
Winchester establishment draws Marines, veterans, visitors

10:00 PM PDT on Monday, March 12, 2007

By STEVE FETBRANDT
The Press-Enterprise

WINCHESTER - Dozens of small, hand-painted signs -- personalized tributes to military servicemen past and present -- hang over the bar of the Wild West Arena saloon.

The display is one example of how much pride people who gather here have in their country and its armed forces.

Don Nabors, 76, has lived in Winchester for 42 years and founded the Wild West Arena in 1992.

The saloon and arena sit on 10 acres next to the closed Riverside County waste-disposal site on Ninth Street, about three-quarters of a mile west of Winchester Road. It originally was a horse ranch with a mobile home. Nabors built the rodeo arena and saloon and invested almost $750,000 in the property over the years.

Willingham and Porter have pretty much kept the place as Nabors envisioned it. For example, you'll see barrel racers there one week and the Roy Rogers Mounted Shooters the next. An open rodeo is set for June.

"We don't have major sanctioned events at this point. It's more for just recreational purposes," Willingham said. "We attract people from as far away as San Diego to San Luis Obispo and Arizona."

Among them is a group of leathernecks from the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms. On any weekend, up to and 20 Marines visit the arena.

For Cpl. Luke Moss, 21, the Wild West Arena reminds him of a place 30 miles from Nashville, Tenn., where he grew up.

Moss first visited the arena on Memorial Day last year after returning from his deployment to Iraq. A buddy was heading down Winchester Road in a rental car on a fishing trip to nearby Diamond Valley Lake, when he spotted the arena's billboard along the highway and decided to check it out. After that, Moss became a regular.

"I've had offers to stay in people's houses here. This is my adopted family," he said. "Don't get me wrong, though. We spend lots of money in this place. We're good business whenever the whole crew comes down."

Ron Williamson, 58, has lived in the community 25 years. The former Marine is a semi-retired sign painter.

"When I found out about these Marines coming here and that Patty and Tom were giving them a place to stay and eat and make sure they don't drink and drive, I thought it was a great story," Williamson said. "Most of them are away from their families."

Williamson said that with the war in Iraq becoming so unpopular with many Americans, it's good to see military people honored with a place that welcomes them.

"When I met Luke, I told him I wanted to buy him a beer, because he's serving in Iraq. He said, 'No. I want to buy you a beer, because you're a Vietnam veteran.'"

Williamson has expressed his gratitude in a very graphic way by painting the military tributes that hang over the bar and on the walls. The tradition started several years ago as a project of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"We were seeing a lot of our comrades passing on and moving out of the area. Pretty soon we had all of the walls covered," Williamson said.

Added Moss: "It's just one of the reasons I consider this my home away from home."

Reach Steve Fetbrandt at 951-763-3473 or sfetbrandt@PE.com

Ellie