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Front Page » October 16, 2007 » Lifestyle » The 'Cowboy Way' lives on in Utah ranching industry
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The 'Cowboy Way' lives on in Utah ranching industry

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By MATT HARGREAVES, Utah Farm Bureau News

This is the first in a two part story by Matt Hargreaves in the Utah Farm Bureau News.

"Some say they're endangered species, destined to fade into footnotes ropes that never get throwed.

To that I reply, 'Bull Feces!'

They're just hard to see from the road."

This ending of the cowboy poem "Vanishing Breed," penned by Baxter Black reveals a sentiment that many outside of production agriculture may have about one of the West's most enduring icons, the 'American Cowboy,' that they are a thing of the past that many try to recreate.

Like a Civil War reenactment or the set of some Western Hollywood movie, it seems as though many in society are trying to 'play cowboy' as a way of showing off a rugged form of living. But what many do not realize is that the cowboy has not disappeared and is in fact still thriving. They're just not signing autographs at a museum.

To honor cowboys, Congress designated the fourth Saturday in July as the "Day of the American Cowboy." However, this wasn't a celebration of some far distant icon; while it recognized the history and legend of its past, this day of the cowboy also paid tribute to the many cowboys of today that are making an impact to Utah's agricultural economy and heritage.

What is a cowboy?

Before the many aspects of cowboy life can be explored, one begs to know what exactly is a cowboy? Is it simply someone that wears a cowboy hat and boots? Is it someone that lives in the West and values individualism and hard work? Did cowboys only exist in the old days? Do cowboys even need to ride a horse?

There seem to be as many feelings on what a cowboy is or isn't that it seems almost heresy to claim "one" ultimate definition. While not claiming ultimately authority, there is a general feel for what makes up a cowboy, as well as several common characteristics that are embodied in a broader cowboy spirit.

When put to the fire, the basic definition of a cowboy is someone that tends to cattle on horseback. Variations exist to be sure, with some including a broader category of livestock that can be managed by the cowboy. The historical cowboy would be considered by many today to be a specialist, someone that rode on the open range to care for the cows for a rancher or "cowman."

The cowboy came about during the late 1860's, as many settlers went west in search of land and opportunity. The name "cowboy" is believed to come from the Mexican tradition of vaqueros, which today is commonly Americanized to mean buckaroo. Having come from Mexico, the American cowboy was split into two styles or traditions of work, the Texas tradition and the California tradition. The Texas tradition represents the iconic "cowboy" image, consisting of long cattle drives on the open range, taking cattle along trails from Kansas and Texas to railyards where the cows could be sold in the East at much greater profit.

The long, open range was needed in this territory because of the lack of adequate forage. The cowboy's duty consisted of moving the herd along so that overgrazing didn't occur, monitoring the herd and checking for sick cattle, branding cattle, mending fences, and other ranch tasks.

A rancher or cowman would employ several cowboys to tend the herd and deliver them to the transportation markets. Yet despite scenes depicted in the movies, cowboy life was not always so glorious. Often considered a lower social status, cowboys were not paid large sums of money, worked long hours and endured difficult working conditions, often without family.

Another characteristic that could identify a cowboy was his manner of dress. While "clothes do not make the man," they were an indicator of his trade. Most visible of all was the cowboy hat made popular by John B. Stetson's "Boss of the Plains" hat, which was a combination of Mexican sombrero and US Cavalry hat. So recognizable was the cowboy hat, that creases in the hat and the manner it was worn could indicate what region of the country a cowboy was from.

One common misconception is the idea that a 10-gallon hat holds 10 gallons of water inside. While the waterproof interior did allow for some water to be transported, the actual name comes from the Spanish galon, meaning braid. So a 10-gallon hat refers to a hat with a braid around the brim. In actuality, a 10-gallon hat only holds about three quarts of water.

Other items of typical 'Western Wear' included cowboy boots, with either the Western or Roper styled boots being the most popular varieties, cowboy jeans, chaps, and a variety of equipment used for riding horses, called tack.

Notwithstanding the items of clothing that make-up a cowboy, the fact remains that simply wearing a hat doesn't make a person a cowboy, and there are cowboys that do not wear cowboy hats.

Cowboys in Utah

Cowboys and cowmen have been in Utah since before the pioneers arrived in 1847, and have resided in every conceivable place that was hospitable to cattle. These cowboys drove their cattle to the most used railheads, in places such as Nephi, Marysvale, Thompson, Price, Colton, Milford, Ogden and Salt Lake City.

The livestock in Utah came from the "Old Spanish Trail" that stretched from New Mexico to California. The first herds in Utah came from Jim Bridger and Miles Goodyear in the 1840s, and by the 1860s, Utah had 34,000 head of cattle.

Despite the modest growth of the 1860s, the completion of the railroad in Box Elder County changed the cattle industry in Utah forever, as the explosion of cattle herd growth can attest. The sizeable herd of 34,000 raced to an astounding 132,655 in 1870 and 278,313 in 1890.

As the railroad expanded the cattle industry in Utah, it also contributed to the general decline of the cowboy era nationwide. As more railheads and lines carved up the open range, less cowboys were needed to keep a herd contained and in good health. Additionally, the advent of barbed wire helped keep herds in defined locations and prevented overgrazing. Most will be surprised to know that the original "cowboy era" is a relatively short period of time, from the 1850s to the 1890s.

"It didn't last as long as many people think," said Scott McKendrick, Statewide Coordinator of Equine and Small Acreage Programs for Utah State University Extension. McKendrick, who is also a cowboy poet and spends his spare time cowboying at his in-law's ranch in Nevada said that ironically, many of the real cowboys ended 'playing' cowboys in Hollywood once the demand for ranch hands declined.

Much of the modern legend of cowboys can be tied to the emergence of Western and cowboy films in Hollywood, featuring the likes of Gene Autry, Will and Roy Rogers, Clayton Moore (the Lone Ranger), and of course, John Wayne. Sadly, many in America feel that the cowboy profession and way of life disappeared the same time the popularity of Western movies declined. But while those actors are not lighting up the marquee as in years past, today's cowboys are as real and valuable as those movies ever were.

Modern cowboys

"The cowboy won't disappear as long as there are cows running in the West," said Trent Potter, a rancher from Duchesne. "It's too hard to get into many areas without using a horse.

Potter, who has been running cattle in Duchesne County since the mid 1990s, might not tell you he's a cowboy. But that comes more from a modest interpretation of the work he does, than from any embarrassment over the profession. The quiet, unassuming nature is pretty standard with real cowboys and non-existent for those pretending to be one.

"My father always told me that if you have to tell people what you are, then you're probably not," said Eileen Potter, Trent's wife and fellow cowgirl. "I think you would not find too many people who will come up to you and say 'Howdy! I'm a cowboy.' And if you do, don't believe them."

This definition of a cowboy came after Eileen reluctantly agreed that she probably was a cowgirl. It's a refreshing sense of knowing that you are defined by what you do and how you do it, rather than by how you dress and what you say you are.

"The cowboy is part of Western culture. The rugged individualism and independence of a Western icon is embedded in the hardworking, honest lifestyle of the cowboy," said Randy Parker, Chief Executive Officer of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation. "From that, the wearing of boots and a cowboy hat has come to make a statement for many, that 'I'm an individual.'"

The Old-Fashioned Way

That old-fashioned way is something that cowboys always come back to, because it ties them to former generations that realized the value of a good day of hard work�something that cowboys are known for.

"We take pride in what we do, and we do things the old-fashioned way�on horseback. I'd rather do everything on horseback because it preserves the cowboy way," said Gary Hallows, a fifth generation cowboy from Loa, Wayne County.

That 'cowboy way' is embodied in hard work, honesty, dependability and an unassuming nature that doesn't have to brag about everything he does.

"It's just a great way of life and it was a great way to raise my household of boys. But it's certainly not for the money," Hallows said. "However, you associate with a great group of people. I just love the romanticized notion of being a cowboy, and associating with other cowboys that are the backbone of our country. These cowboys and ranchers raise a great product (American beef) that just seems to symbolize what's right in America."

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