I was raised on matinees on Saturday afternoons, Lookin' up at Hoppy, Gene and Roy. Oh, boy. And I grew up a thinkin' The best a man can do Is be a rootin' -tootin' straight-shootin' Cowboy buckaroo -- "Cowboy Buckaroo"
Under Texas Skies at Twilight on the trail and with Stardust on the Sage, Saddle Pals all, We Rode the Range Together over Tumbling Tumble-weeds, through Rustlers' Valley and Over the Rim of the Canyon to The Last Roundup in that Goldmine in the Sky.
That is what low-budget, B-Western movies were all about: two-fisted, two-gunned, rootin'-tootin' and straight shootin'.
Gene Autry always played "Gene Autry" and sang. Silent-screen actor Bill Boyd dropped his own name in real life when he assumed the role of Hopalong Cassidy and preferred to be called "Hoppy" as he continued to dress in the role. Retired Lone Ranger Clayton Moore is doing the same today, although the courts ruled that he had to exchange his black mask for sunglasses since a new, younger Lone Ranger has officially come onto the scene.
There is something, apparently, that makes a cowboy want to stay a cowboy, even if he's only one in make-believe. After all, cowboys are the stuff of legends. And legends are lasting. Hoppy is immortal, and so is the Lone Ranger. (Even today's real-life cowboys, it turns out, share this sense of immortality and image and they work at it to preserve it.)
But while the true cowboy continued going about his traditional way of life, the movie cowboy went from one extreme to another. Roy Rogers not only sang and drove a jeep in his movies, he also became the first rhinestone cowboy. The Cisco Kid went a step further. He not only kissed girls, he actually chased them! And John Travolta turned the whole thing up-side down by triggering a coast-to-coast urban cowboy costume trend with his tenderfoot movie disco in Tony Lama cowboy boots -- the very same El Paso boots that real cowboys wear. And to carry this even further, cowboys today who wear jogging shoes call them "Tenny Lamas."
But somewhere West of Laramie there must lurk real cowboys, real buckaroos who do the real thing and live the real life in what still must be the real West. I think it was Tim McCoy who once said to one of his Rough Rider movie series endings that he was "going home to Paradise Valley, Nev.," and "So Long, Rough Rider!"
Paradise Valley? Sounds like a fictional town used in a dozen Westerns. But that's where the Smithsonian Institution and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, searching out the traditional American Cowboy, found him. And they brought part of that romantic legend back here with them to show to the public starting today.
Along with moving a 1920s wood bunkhouse here, they have also assembled more than 200 artifacts of cowboy life from the past to the present. The two-year project that intensively documented the story of a whole community fielded a team of folklorists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and photographers who gathered thousands of photographs, hundreds of hours of oral recordings, architectural drawings and a large collection of artifacts. The exhibit includes an eight-minute film on the everyday life of the buckaroo. Curator of "Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada," is Richard E. Ahlborn, of the Smithsonian.
The land was settled by pioneers moving east from California in the early 1860s. Those early settlers were prospectors who sold cows to other propectors, and that led to ranching. First came the Germans, and then Italian stonemasons who brought over hard-working Basques as sheepherdes. Businessmen in Paradise Valley needed fluency in German, Italian, English, French Basque, Spanish Basque and Spanish and a passing knowledge of the Paiute language and Chinese.
"We have put them into the formal records of American civilization," says folklife center specialist Dr. Howard W. Marshall, 38, who prefers to be called "Rusty."
Only two buckaroos from Paradise Valley attended a pre-opening party last night at the Museum of History and Technology -- Les Stewart, who is about to sell his cattle ranch, and Alvin Miller, who has recently sold his.
Stewart, 59, looked up at photographs of his grandparents, Frederick and Wilhemina Stock, who founded his "96 Ranch" in 1864, and said, "I never thought I'd be seeing them in the Smithsonian. I'm really pleased with this exhibit, though. I thought they were collecting a bunch of junk and couldn't figure out what they would do with it."
Wearing a pearl-gray Western-cut there-piece suit and a ten-gallon cowboy dress hat, Stewart looked more like a Western bank executive than a cowboy on his first visit to Washington. Asked how many head of cattle he owned, he said politely, "That's like me asking you how much money you have in the bank. sAnyway, it will be all over soon. My only son is a mechanic and is not interested in the ranch. So this is the end after the third generation. I'm going on my last trail drive next month."
Paradise Valley is aptly named. At 4,600 feet above sea level, the 10-mile-long and 20-mile-wide range is walled in by the 9,000-foot-high peaks of the Santa Rosa mountains in northern Neveda. Except for the lush, green valley, it is a fragile, arid land of litte water, no trees, sagebrush and bunchgrass.
Cowboys are known as "buckaroos" here. "And to our delight," says Marshall, who took part in two October trail drives, "they haven't changed in 50 years. But they certainly aren't cowboys as we've seen them in most movies. They are two-fisted, tough and independent, but cowhands never carried guns. We became very attached to the place and we would like to think of ourselves as friends." The most significant change in buckaroo technology, what little that there is, has been the introduction of the 4-wheel-drive pickup truck.
There are less than 100 of these buckaroos in the valley who tend to some 50,000 head of Hereford beef cattle. They spend weeks at a time out on the rangelands. "Many like it that way," says Marshall. "There is solitude, there is work, there is the land. They share a sense of exile, and they also share a sense of responsibility in preserving the image of the buckaroo. They are very aware of that, and many a man has gone to the West and to this buckaroo life in order to live these legends."
They are educated, too but this life is not conducive to raising families. And single buckaroos live up to their famous penchant of packing up their gear and moving on from time to time. They are not materialistic or acquisitive, and buckaroos with families are likely to be living in mobile homes supplied free by the big ranch corporations. Family food bills are also paid by the company that supplies five quarterhorses to each man and a pickup truck. The company gas pump is also free to use. Salary is about $6,000 a year.
A buckaroo outfit was stripped from Chuck Wheellock and now adorns a mannequin at the exhibit in the Museum of History and Technology's Hall of Everyday Life. An extremely social part of this outfit is the high-peaked, wide-brimmed hat."Each man has a distinctive hat style," says Marshall. "This is how they are recognized from a distance. hYou are known by the hat you wear. A new hat is soaked in a tub of horse tank water and allowed to dry on your head. The individual shape is formed that way. A buckaroo hates to be caught with his hat off."
Wheelock was amused at the thought of his work duds being enshrined in the Smithsonian, after being properly fumigated, of course. There is the hat, the bright neckerchief (also called a "glad rag," "wild rag" or just plain "scarf") that is wrapped tightly twice around the neck, and the "chinks."
Chinks are open-backed, rawhide chaps that stop short just below the knees and are open in front, somewhat like the "bat wing" chaps that Red Ryder used to wear. Below the knees the chaps are stripped into long leather thongs.
He wears high cowboy boots and blue jeans that are either tucked into the top of the boots or drag the ground at the heels. In Paradise Valley tucked-in jeans is the sign of a "Foreigner." The shirt are oridnary work shirts, but they wear dressier cowboy shirts when they go to town.
"Town" is Winnemucca (pop. 5,000), about 40 miles from Paradise (pop. 250), and this is where the buckaroos go to raise hell. Food and supplies are purchased here, and there are other services available. There is country music, dancing and whiskey at The Gem Bar and legal whorehouses like "The Rapid Rabbit" and "Lil's."
Next month the buckaroos will be going out into the high country, a place of stark beauty and dramatic vistas, to round up the cattle and bring them back to the home ranch and winter pastures, where they will be fed on baled hay and readied for market. During the five-day roundups and trail drives, "the scene is almost indescribable," says Marshall. "It's a Remington painting come to life. Evenings are spent in stone bunk houses at buckaroo camps. There is no plumbing, no electricity. Cooking on wood stoves, or outside over sagerbrush camp fires. They drink the strongest coffee in the world. Once I asked if the coffee was ready. A buckaroo said, 'Well, let's see. It's been a-boilin' since Tuesday and today is Saturday, so I guess it's ready.'"
Marshall was a "swamper" during these cattle drives. "That means I did the dishes, pots and pans," he says. "You fall into this way of life quite easily and I can't help but admire them. They don't do this kind of work because they can't do anything else. They love this work, this life, this land.
The land -- a world of sagebrush, alkali flats and bare gray mountains -- has produced a unique way of life that is riveted to the lanscape and the buckaroos who inhabit it are "hardassed" Clint Eastwood types, says Marshall, ranging in age from 14 to 65.
Marshall leans back in his chair in the Library of Congress, the memory of a spark from a sagebrush fire in his eye and a soft spot in his heart for the buckaroo life. "One evening around a campfire," he recalls, "they were telling stories about Butch Cassidy when he robbed the Winnemucca Bank of $30,000, and once they showed me a cave that they swore was his secret hiding place."
During those evenings they ate steak, Brunswick stew, ribs, biscuits and gravy and drank Kool-Aid. "No, they don't sing around the campfire," he continues. "They're usually too tired for that." He looked out his window as if he wanted to catch a glimpse of the Santa Rosa range once more, but all he saw was marble.