By Amy Hale Auker

So history’s mostly a horseback song

And set to the thud of the hoofs.

~~~from Horseback Men, by Charles Badger Clark

The horseback man has long been revered worldwide. From Genghis Khan who kept showing up where he wasn’t expected to the Argentinian gaucho to the Guardians in the South of France, the romantic figure of a man on a horse has become part of the folklore of many cultures. The cowboy, relatively new on the scene, has become the most recognized symbol of our once-wild American West. He is our shiniest hero. And here in Yavapai County, he is a huge piece of our present as well as our past.

The cowboy has become an icon, a representation of a time when the West was an unsettled place, a frontier for those who were brave, strong, adventurous, and perhaps, foolhardy. Most of the cowboys that herded cattle on the plains and in the mountains or moved herds up the trails to the railheads were not born to the saddle, but chanced upon the job. They were those coming west looking for change. Historically, when human beings have made big changes, left behind old ways and sought new sunrises, they’ve done so for ideals, for concepts bigger than themselves like freedom, independence, strength, survival, and opportunity. The storytellers of all time have found those words hard to weave into legend; instead they ask the eagle and the bear and the buffalo and the mountain lion to carry them, the metaphors being more powerful than flags and documents and councils. And we’ve asked the cowboy to carry his share of this national and local history.

Now the West is settled and we sometimes forget the campfires and the dirt and the work. We speak of tradition, recite poems and sing songs, dress up for reenactment scenarios, make our cowboy not so much about raising food as paying entry fees and cooking bar-b-que. We’ve named sports teams after him, used his silhouette in advertisements, and bought clothes like his to wear on the Fourth of July, as if his hat crease might give us a taste of his independence. We relegate him to the past.

However, icons only work if there is something of substance to back them up.  The cowboy as icon only works if we recognize the bedrock beneath his feet.  He is not some model of character or ethic or integrity, but a husband of the land, a grower of food.  He is not an actor getting his share of the corporate take by reciting the words of scriptwriters and making his horse rear in time to the music.  The cowboy is not a nostalgic touchstone from Saturday matinees, but a present day reality, saddling his horse and getting greasy in the shop and building fence.  Six-guns and wooly chaps and parades and rodeos aside, the cowboy is a steward of precious resources, a caretaker of animals. He is still pitching his teepee up on the mesas, boiling his coffee over a campfire, and making wide circles, trailing up remnant, and caring for the land. Cowboy is not something that he is; it is something that he does, a set of skills that are part antique and part innovation. Part heritage and part passion.


 

 

 

 

 

We honor the history of growing food in the West. We recognize the value of hard working men and women who are rarely seen from the road. They are out there, producing something of value on tillable and untillable land, managing herds on private ranches and pubic grazing allotments. The past informs the present as they look back to methods and traditions proven by time while looking forward toward ways to continue to grow food to feed an ever-expanding hunger on shrinking available ground.


 

The modern-day cowboy faces different challenges, always changing markets, and as many misconceptions about what it is that he does as his precursors faced. The working ranch cowboy still shows up in poems, songs, and books, and he still does his work aboard a horse.

He is still a horseback man.

“The Working Cowboy… Folkways, Arts & Traditions” is a one-day event celebrating the cowboy culture that survives today, featuring individuals who still live the cowboy life. It will be held at Sharlot Hall Museum, 415 W. Gurley St., on Saturday, April 23 from 9 am to 5 pm. There will cowboy presentations, a western art exhibit and sale, children’s activities and plenty of cowboy crafts and demonstrations. Admission is $10 for adult non-members, $8 for members. Youth 17 and under are free. For more information, contact the museum at 928-445-3122, or visit our web site, www.sharlothallmuseum.org.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.