It still feels a little weird, living in this part of the Western hemisphere, where, more than a century after he is commonly said to have disappeared, the cowboy is still very much alive and the free-ranging beef cattle too are kicking. Where life is still based on the outdoors, a few 19th century customs, and the survival of the fittest. The original cowboy culture, lasting ten or maybe twenty years, had little permanence because it was a frontier institution that died even before the American frontier died. Its golden days were long gone before the dawn of the 20th century. Yet, my present domicile is living proof that it didn’t completely disappear, didn’t altogether die. I am not living the myth, either.
Of course the legend, the lore, the mystique, the myth, is still glowing brightly in the minds of many Americans as well as Germans, Japanese, Russians, Hungarians, Irishmen and, not least, Dutchmen like I. While it still permeates societies all over the world, it is agreeably not the culture of the contemporary cowboy. It is a blend of fragmented historic facts and immeasurable imagination, with writers old and young, Germans (such as old Karl May) as well as Dutch (Johan Nowee) and uncountable numbers of Americans; and with cinematographers from Japan (Akira Kurosawa), Italy (Sergio Leone), France (Jean-Pierre Melville) as well as many hundreds, thousands of film makers in America, all competing in an apparently never ending shoot-out for a dominant role in the continuation, and an even further build-up, of the romantic and adventurous cowboy myth. Meanwhile, from most cowboy stories the cattle miraculously disappeared with no rustler having anything to do with this and the public hardly noticing.
First, glamour took over the Western, and lustily singing cowboys rode on screen; all women were ladylike saloon hostesses with a golden heart — for a while at least. Gunfights between heroes and villains, or rather between the lonesome hero, this man named Nobody, and ever larger and wilder bunches of villains, at an early stage began to dominate the Western, and they still do. While the stories and the images over time became crueler and the shoot-outs more bizarre, the righteous outcome remained ever predictable. We all learned to accept that six-shooters are accurate all the way to the other end of town and deliver at least twenty-six lethal bullets in a row with an unworldly loud bang and an ever-reverberating echo, and, whatever the distance they travel, with enough kick in them to send the bad guy dramatically crashing through a store window. In the past fifty years, in a sign of the times the Western became darker, muddier, more torturous (and not just physically), and more lethal. Bye bye bonny ‘Bonanza’.
“Anti-heroes appeared, yet these stories and screenplays continued to convey the spirit of the mythical cowboy already rooted in the American culture (…) The real American cowboy was colorful, he was a romantic figure, even before writers embellished his life (…) His culture developed out of the conditions of his time.” Writes Flint Hills resident David Dary in ‘Cowboy Culture – A Saga of Five Centuries’ (the first cattle arrived 516 years ago in the Western hemisphere). His is the ultimate and very readable source book for all things Western.
The mythical cowboy survives, and he symbolizes the free life closely tied to the outdoors and nature. The frontier experience is an American tradition even for city dwellers whose only contact with the frontier is while visiting the farthest outlying suburban mall. I remember seeing trust fund cowboys shopping in Santa Fe, New Mexico and wearing fancy $1,500 boots and unblemished Long Riders rain wear under an almost 10 gallon made-to-fit hat. Their frontier is Whole Foods.
Yet, the real cowboys didn’t die out, they didn’t even fade away. In the Flint Hills the cattle ranchers and cowboys (and a few cowgirls) are not shaping their lives after the images of that mythical culture, the one that as such never existed. Their lives continue to be impacted by the land, the grasses, the streams and springs, the color of the sky and the unpredictability of the weather, and the insularly devoted care they have to give to their beef cattle. In Chase County each summer over 150,000 head of cattle arrive to graze, in the Flint Hills as a whole –still the virgin prairie– we are talking about 1,250,000 “beeves.” The land is large enough for them to be mere black dots on the horizon.
The cattle work is essentially the same as it used to be in those early days, be it without the long, hot, dusty and brutal interstate cattle drives. In the 19th century, these took many months. As this one in 1866 did, the one that started near San Sabe, Texas, on April 5th. Four months later:
August 8th: Came to Big Walnut. Cattle stampeded & ran by 2 farms & the people was very angry but we made it alright. Was visited by many men. Was threatened with the law but think we are alright now.
August 10th: Crossed from the Osage Hills into the Flint Hills of Kansas. No roads or trails of any consequence. Summer was wet, and the creeks winding through the treeless hills have plenty of water.
Reached Council Grove on August 20th. Union Stockyard in Burlington, Iowa, to ship the cattle to Chicago, on November 1st.
Seven months in the saddle. Less than half of the longhorns they started with, according to George Duffield’s journal, made it “safely” to the slaughterhouse. To end their lives as a steak done rare — in Australia they would say: “Knock off its horns, wipe its arse and slap it on the plate, mate.”
The cowboy era, as we all know, ended when barbed wire was developed and everyone began to put up fences around his property, and when the railroad had extended its lines and set up cattle loading pens everywhere. It was a sad, sad day, as show the lyrics of this old cowboy song:
They say that Heaven is a free range land
Good-by, good-by, o fare you well;
But it’s barbed wire fence for the Devil’s hat band
And barbed wire blankets down in Hell!
No more adventurous and “romantic” drives. Yet the work of those who operate ranches or are hiring out as cowhands did not change much. In the 21st century it’s still hard work, even now that cattle trucks unload and load almost in the pasture and many a ranch hand is keeping his (or her) horses more for fun or sentimental reasons than for putting them to work.
It still feels a little unreal to me, newcomer on the prairie, to see my young neighbor “T.W.” Burton hitch up the trailer behind his truck and leave for his pastures, to inspect his cattle, to mend fences, or whatever comes up. He is the son of an old time rancher who is the son of a very old time rancher, and he and his wife Rachelle decided to continue the tradition. There is not a lot of money to be made in small time ranching nowadays, but they will survive, also because Rachelle is working from her home across from us as … surprise, a day trader at the New York Stock Exchange. Modern times …
It feels a little weird to see, on days when the work is not too hectic, the trucks drive up to the ‘Hitchin’ Post’ at lunch time with the saddled horses in the trailers. The cowboys have their equivalent of a business lunch before they continue their chores. Some of them are hired by big land owners to look after 10,000 head of cattle spread out over different pastures each measuring tens of thousands of acres. They drive their trucks out, release their horses, mount up and ride off to inspect the herd. They are conscientious workers knowing that they are paid by the weight gain of the cattle under their supervision. A three- pound gain a day is not exceptional in the summer in the Flint Hills. Yet losing a calf or a heifer weighing a few hundred pounds instantly and seriously affects their income.
Cowboy hats with a high crown and a wide brim are still abundant and not influenced by any fashion (other than being kept on indoors); they are sensible work gear just as the slant-heeled boots are, as are the ropes to throw “hoolihan catches,” or “forefooting slip catches,” or “overhanded head catches,” or “heeling catches.” Neither are raised-button spurs a luxury when on horseback. In the trucks they carry spare wheels, for the rocky prairie soil commits murder on their truck’s tires; and salt blocks, posthole diggers, heavy rolls of barbed wire; and a wide variety of tools. They are men tackling each and every problem they meet themselves, in any kind of weather, for help is not only far away but costly. Most of them (including the women) are proud of their profession and of the grasslands they own or manage; they are in love with the hardships of the outdoors. They are in love with their own culture. For me, the observer, it is a feast so see them ride out far on the horizon, even the ones who nowadays take it easier and drive a 4WD Kawasaki “mule” instead of riding a four-footed horse.
We all know hundreds of stories about the cowboy days, about The Wild West of the late 19th century. There are also tall tales to tell of today’s cowboys. Jim Hoy, with roots in the Flint Hills “as deep as those of bluestem grass in black-soil bottomland,” put many an oral history in writing: “I feed on the stories of the Hills and the characters who tell them as the cattle feed on the grasses.” He himself owns a longhorn ranch near Matfield Green and is a professor of English literature, and the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies, at Emporia State University. He is also a board member at Pioneer Bluffs, where our gallery is located. He and his wife Cathy cherish the old way of doing things, and that’s on horseback. Their son Josh worked as a cowboy-for-hire until he started his own cattle operation on the beautiful Flying W Ranch northwest of us, which he runs, on horseback, with his wife Gwen. They welcome guests to their bunkhouse and allow these to join them on cattle-working days. Jim Hoy’s book ‘Flint Hills Cowboys — Tales of the Tallgrass Prairie’ is a treasure, a must for anyone interested in the ways of the real cowboy of today and the not so distant past.
Another good read is ‘Addie of the Flint Hills — A Prairie Child During the Depression’ by Adaline Sorace as told to her daughter Deborah. Sometime ago, Adaline, now 94 years old and living in New York City, came to Pioneer Bluffs to autograph her book of vivid memories of the hardscrabble life so typical for rural Americans of her generation. She is a granddaughter of the Roglers and the Beedles who settled early in Chase County — those Roglers who started the ranch at Pioneer Bluffs, those Beedles from whom our buddy Jane Koger is descended.
If one thing stands out in both books, and similar reads, it is the large number of ranchers and cowboys, and their women, who reach a very, very old age and keep going, keep on trucking. I don’t think I have ever seen a community with such substantial and unchanging number of healthy octogenarians, not to mention the men and women like Adaline Sorace, or Evan Koger, who with scores of others reach their nineties and often, like Charlie and Betty Swift, still work a hard day’s life and enjoy a lusty conversation. Betty was sick recently, for the first time in her life. She couldn’t eat, eating hurt her, and nothing tasted anymore. Everything was checked at the hospital, twice, three times, but nothing could be found. “The doctors they didn’t believe me when I told ‘em it was somethin’ my dentist had done. It started right after she’d capped me a tooth.” Betty was miserable for weeks and losing weight dangerously quick until, after the fourth test, the doctors had to admit Betty was right. Now, Betty at 92 is working in the fields again as if nothing happened. “I tol’ them so,” she says.
These prairie grasses must be good for two-legged beings too. No wonder the cowboys from yesteryear used to sing along:
Come all you jolly cowmen, don’t you want to go
Way up on the Kansas line?
Where you whoop up the cattle from morning till night
All out in the midnight rain.
Which rhymes perfectly well if you pronounce rain roughly as rine, as of course all sensible people do.
Matfield Green, KS, December 2010
PS – Evan Koger decided enough was enough and died just before I prepared to send this story
David Dary, ‘Cowboy Culture’ — University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 1981, 1989
Adaline Sorace with Deborah Sorace Prutzman, ‘Addie in the Flint Hills’ — KTAV Publishing House, Inc., Jersey City, NJ, 2009
Jim Hoy, ‘Flint Hills Cowboys’ — University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 2006
Photo of Gwen Hoy moving cattle by Anne Ausloos, Antwerp (Belgium), 2010