Ten-gallon hats, boots and jeans were the preferred dress on Saturday as "cowpokes" across the country celebrated the National Day of the American Cowboy. Designated by presidential proclamation in 2005 as the fourth Saturday of each July, this annual event honors the history, culture and traditions of those who live a good portion of their lives in the saddle.
Texas Ranch House" hspace=2 src="/english/images/PBS_1867_cowboys_cattle_texas-ranch-house_150.jpg" width=150 align=left vspace=2 border=0>Cowboys from across the northern plains gathered at the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish, South Dakota, to raise their hats to the men - and women - who lived the life that has become the image of the Old West. As familiar cowboy songs played in the background, they traded stories about their own cattle days, and shared some cowboy poetry.
The Heritage Center was established in 1989 to house cowboy memorabilia and help preserve the history of this region. George Blair's father was one of the founders. At 84, Blair says he considers himself a cow "man," not a cow "boy." "In the days gone by - in the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, you know - a man would sell a whole herd of cattle, or a bunch of cattle, and the deal was consummated just by a handshake,” he says. He’s been in the saddle long enough to see that style of doing business change. “But now, of course, the buyer and the seller each have to see their lawyer and have the papers drawn up and, of course there's always the consideration of dividing your profit with Uncle Sam, so, it's a lot more complicated than it use to be!!” he adds with a laugh.
But you didn't have to look far this weekend to find a cowboy in the classic Hollywood tradition… big and burly, used to spending long days in the saddle. In 1978, Ron Roberson became the first range detective for the state of Wyoming. He says, “the romantic definition is, a cowboy makes his life from the back of a horse caring for livestock.”
But the former lawman, musician and author adds that the definition of a cowboy is determined more by a person's code of ethics than what they do for a living. “The cowboy entails integrity and an open, free-spirited way of life. Most cowboys are good fathers, good providers, good husbands. There are those exceptions, but a cowboy is one who lives free, wants to be free, not be encumbered by unnecessary laws and regulations and large groups of people. Most cowboys prefer the open country to large cities, for instance." Roberson adds that you'll find those qualities whether a cowboy works on a ranch, ropes cattle, competes in rodeos or even farms the land.
And the women who stood, and stand beside these "men of the West" are a singular breed as well, Robertson says, not unlike the pioneer women depicted in many Hollywood films. “The women that you see in cowboy movies are good women and strong morally, and that's the kind of women that raised me: the grandmothers, the aunts, the woman next door, the rancher's wife down the road.... girls and young women. I grew up with a kind of a reverence toward morally strong women, and I think the cowboy movies depict that."
For every woman who has played a supporting role, there have been those who've actively taken part in "the cowboy way of life". Rosemary Seymour spent many of her younger years on the rodeo circuit. The former trick rider is thrilled that a day has finally been set aside to honor the American cowboy. But she's also concerned about this Western icon's future. "I'd like to think of them going on forever, but I also see that we're covering up a lot of our grassland with buildings and cement and roads.” Seymour was raised on a ranch just over the Wyoming line, and says she can’t remember a time when she wasn't on a horse. “My folks ranched, I married a rancher, I have a son that's still on the ranch, still punching cows. I have two grandsons that are rodeo riders. They ride bulls, bare backs, they work on the ranch all the time, too. It's a way of life and I've thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm sure glad I didn't miss it."
But the future of the American cowboy is assured, according to Peggy Ables, director of the High Plains Western Heritage Center. "We bring a lot of people in from foreign countries that enjoy visiting the West,” she points out. “And what brings them back is they're finding exactly what they thought they would. The further you go into the West, the more obvious it becomes that it is a way of life that people can observe and appreciate."
Whether that appreciation comes from stopping by a cowboy museum, visiting a ranch or rodeo, or lining up to see a classic Hollywood western, Peggy Ables says that as long as there's an image of the American cowboy in the public's mind, his way of life will endure.