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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Old-time Cowboy

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It wouldn't get much publicity at the time, but in 1893 a historian named Frederic Jackson Turner proffered a paper in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Historical Society declaring that the U.S. frontier had ceased to exist as of 1890.

Even so, West Texas remained fairly wild and wooly in the early 1890s, at least compared with the older, more densely populated eastern half of the state. But with a new century approaching, it was not lost on some that an era was fading. In the cattle industry, rail had replaced trail drives as the primary means of getting a rancher's four-legged product to market and to some that meant that the cowboy was, in a figurative way, riding off to the last roundup.

At the least, cowboying had entered a transitional stage. By the mid-1890s, the way things had been only 20 years back had begun to look like the good old days.

In the summer of 1896, as a long-defunct magazine called the Illustrated Texas Monthly noted the following year, the people of Baylor County put together a reunion for old-time drovers and "[an] exhibition of horseback athletics...." In other words, a rodeo.

The following year, during the first week of August, Seymour saw its second cowboy reunion. An estimated 20,000 people showed up for an event featuring "bronco bustin' by which the tenderfoot will understand the breaking and riding of wild mustangs; steer-roping in approved cow-boy style; and a notable gathering of Comanche Indians under their chief, Quanah Parker...."

The magazine's editor opined that the Baylor County reunion-exhibition had proven "creditable alike in its conception and its execution."

Clearly someone who remembered the trail-driving era, the unnamed editor sought to define the old-time cowboy:

"Instead of the 'border ruffian' he has been pictured to be by the sensational newswriters of the East, he was never worse than a very lively embodiment of abundant courage, wild and reckless enthusiasm and an untamed contempt for civilized conventionalities."

Not that the cowboy did not do some of the things those Eastern "newswriters" had them doing in fiction. In fact, the editor continued, "His six-shooter was frequently called into requisition with unnecessary alacrity, and his propensity to 'clean out' a border town, or to tantalize a raw recruit from the 'States' with familiar exhibitions of marksmanship at his hat or shoes, was sometimes a trifle irregular."

Here, the Illustrated Texas Monthly editor was doing his own exaggerating. While gunplay certainly did happen, since 1874 it had been illegal in Texas to carry a pistol. If a cowboy had a handgun, he generally kept it in his saddlebag.

No matter the occasional casual discharging of a .44 or .45, the cowboy was generally regarded as an all-round nice guy:

"But the Texas Cowboy was and is a genuine product of a great and worthy industry, and a rude type of all the qualities that have made life heroic and high-minded at every age," the editor went on. "Shorn of his rough and local peculiarities, he is indeed 'The Last Knight of Chivalry,' as [Frederick] Remington has depicted him..."

Perhaps, the editor mused, at least in his "original Homeric simplicity and vigor of character" the cowboy was indeed passing away. "But enough of his tribe remain to keep alive the fires of his wonted enthusiasm and to preserve the sports and feats of his splendid horsemanship and dexterity with rope and pistol."

When the Baylor County cowboy reunion played out is not known, but the concept calved again in 1930. Despite the ongoing Great Depression, 13 businessmen at Stamford (which is on the border of Haskell and Jones counties) met to talk about organizing an event calculated to cheer people up -- and maybe stimulate the ringing of local cash registers.

Given that their town lay near two large ranches, those civic leaders decided to put on a rodeo called the Texas Cowboy Reunion. In addition to giving dispirited Texans something to whoop and holler about, the event would help preserve the state's cowboy heritage. Whether the first cowboy reunion in 1896 led to the later reunion can only be speculated on, but some if not all of those organizers would have been old enough to remember the pioneer cowboy reunion in Baylor County.

Interestingly, in chartering the Texas Cowboy Reunion Old-Timers Association, the Stamford men stipulated that members had to have worked on a ranch prior to 1895 and be at least 55 years old. Now, the only requirement is that a member has to have cowboyed and be 45 or older.

The annual gathering continued even during World War II and is still held for three days every summer around July 4.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 12, 2017 column

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