Howdy, I am very honored to have the opportunity to visit you, the great Farm & Ranch Guide family. Here’s a brief introduction.
My family and I ranch on the outfit I grew up on that my dad started putting together in the early 1930s. The land had gone back to the counties from the homestead collapse and they were happy to get it back on the tax roll. We’re located some 20 miles northeast of Sentinel Butte, N.D., or the same mileage northwest of Medora across country in the beautiful Little Missouri River badlands – it’s cowboy country. The deep hardwood canyons harbor fantastic shelter for entire herds of cattle during three-day blizzards.
After the first eight years at a one-room country school, my sister and two brothers were scholars at Sentinel Butte High, where I struggled with marginal grades. The youngest of the litter, I was never harassed or teased of my short-comings. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that they diagnosed me as suffering from dyslexia, which was a total surprise to me that I was suffering at all. They had since came up with that “no child left behind” program. I was simply “slow child left behind.”
After working several ranches, operating heavy earth-moving equipment, rodeoing, driving malamute sled dogs in the Colorado high country above Aspen, and two winters enrolled at the Art Institute of Miami, Fla., I returned home to ranch and took JoAnn, a local ranch gal, as my bride, where we purchased a ranch from a neighbor widower.
It was a passed down family tradition to scour the steep canyon slopes in early December to find the perfect Christmas tree, after the daily feeding chores were done. One year, winter had hit early and hard, with no signs of a break, so JoAnn and I decided not to take our two little sons, Lane and Lusk, out, rather I’d just saddle up and ride a couple miles over into the deep canyon country and fetch one and we’d get back to tradition the next year.
We also grew up with the tradition of singing old cowboy songs in our daily work of riding or pitching hay. In the winter months, I started writing cowboy songs while waiting for cattle to come out of the canyons to feed, but I don’t know a note of music so they turned out to be cowboy poems instead, all for self and family amusement to record history of worthwhile events, nothing else.
The horseback Christmas tree hunt was one of these, and then I wrote:
MA’S CHRISTMAS TREE
It’s all a part of Christmas
Fetchin’ Ma’s tree in the cold
I could have took ol’ Wrangler
But he’s getting’ kinda old
So I caught up little Badger Gray
And pulled down my old scotch hat
When things ain’t right around him
He turns inside out, quick as a cat
My stomach was gettin’ empty
It was almost dinner time
I had Gray rode down pretty good
We’d been through a mighty climb
Over in the cedar breaks
Quite a ways from home
The snow was crusted ’most knee high
Over the dusty loam
I was draggin’ Ma’s tree with a rope
When the rope went under his tail
He gathered all four and went to the sky
You could say we really set sail
Every time we came back down
His rump that axe handle would hit
I’d better pull all the leather I can
For danged sure he ain’t gonna quit
Thought I was done for a couple of times
But managed to gather back in
You’re just gonna have to forgive me Lord
If cussin’s considered a sin
He paused for a second when he lit
Next to a creek bank trail
It was then I saw my chance had come
And jerked it free from his tail
We’re both sweatin’ and tremblin’ now
And hurtin’ bad from fatigue
I looked over my shoulder
Ma’s tree ain’t nothin’ but a twig
JoAnn got a kick out of it and sent it to a local magazine. News of it got to North Dakota Arts Council Folklorist Greta Swenson at Fargo. A study was in progress in the early 1980s by all western state folklorists to determine if cowboy poetry still existed after the demise of popularity of the late 1800’s trail drives from Texas to northern grass and shipping points. She drove out to interview me and broke the news that they were planning a one-time national gathering of poets to convene in late January of 1985 at Elko, Nev.
My friend Sam Wilson of Sentinel Butte (N.D.) and aging Hilda Putney of Rhame (N.D.) were also chosen, but I was the only North Dakotan to perform at the first National Gathering, which then became annual.
It was a very special event of life-long friends and memories, but I did come home with a burr under my saddle. A correspondent from Chicago, writing for a national magazine dubbed Montanans as cowboy poets and North Dakotans as plow boy poets. Western North and South Dakota was plush with real working cowboy singers and owned the largest mass of world-ranked saddle bronc riders.
I immediately went to work to establish the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Medora, enlisting the help of Ev Albers of the N.D. Humanities, the N.D. Arts Council, Rod Tjaden of the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, Jim Fuglie of the N.D. Tourism Department, and Horizon Magazine’s Sheldon Green.
May of 1987 was the beginning of the longest annual running regional cowboy poetry gathering in the nation, including 2020. I am most proud that I have pulled many poets out from obscurity and sent them on to national recognition, including the late Elizabeth Ebert and Rodney Nelson.
Thanks for your time.