Roughly 100 years ago, a little rich girl learned a lesson she'd never forget about Colorado Springs.
Before her 10th birthday, Margaret Hamp lived on Wood Avenue, the city's "Millionaire's Row." She'd strap on roller skates and play in the street.
Then one day, hooves thundered and dust flew as a herd of cattle being moved across town came barreling toward her.
"I then climbed up the steps [of a neighbor's house] on roller skates and hid behind the screen door," Hamp later recalled in a recording.
Her voice, one of many collected in the Pioneers Museum's archives, reminds us that cattle were kings even in the ritziest parts of "little London," as Colorado Springs then was called.
This weekend, a stubbly assortment of ranchers, country poets and musicians seeks to remind this growing metropolis of its cowboy roots.
Friday at high noon, they'll announce their arrival by running a herd of longhorn cattle down Tejon Street, from Cache La Poudre Street to the Pioneers Museum.
Saturday night, 100 working-ranch cowboys will compete in Ride for the Brand, an old-time rodeo at the Norris Penrose Events Center.
Also on Saturday, traditional cowboy entertainers such as Don Edwards of Colorado Springs' own Western Jubilee Recording Company -- the main sponsor of Ride for the Brand --will salute the crowd with poems and songs born of cowboy blood, sweat and tears.
"Each region has its history," said Waddie Mitchell, a world-renowned cowboy poet from Elko, Nev., who also records for Western Jubilee and will serve as "host on horseback" for the affair.
Speaking via telephone from his Nevada ranch, Mitchell asked, "If you don't know where you came from, how do you know where you're ever going to go?"
Put to the test
Mitchell's poetry, delivered in a soft-spoken drawl, guides listeners across the once-vast, now-disappearing cowboy landscape of the West. In his poems, cowboys are often the butt of jokes yet seldom regarded as less than heroes -- as in this selection from his poem "No Quit Attitude":
To the cowboy drawin' wages ridin' ranges of the West.
Those who have it, you'll find, usually conquer most their undertakin's
For the best in them is drawin' out when their spirit's put to test.
Although he grew up on a huge ranch in Nevada, Mitchell intimately knows Colorado Springs and its cowboy past. "Colorado Springs was a mecca for ranching and the things the frontier had to offer," he said.
In 1970, after serving a tour of duty for the Army in Vietnam, he was stationed at Fort Carson's Turkey Creek Ranch.
His mind still reeling from the teeming jungles of Southeast Asia, he found relief back in the saddle, breaking and training horses amid the arid grasslands of El Paso County.
"When I got [to Colorado Springs] and I saw that grama grass and that buffalo grass, I was excited," he said. "That's really good cattle country."
Mitchell found solace in the region's cowboy past.
Back when young Miss Hamp nearly took a tumble on her roller skates, massive herds of cattle and sheep grazed in abundance on the vast prairie east of town.
The city lies just west of the dusty corridor used by pioneer rustler Charles Goodnight, who, with his business partner Oliver Loving, drove cattle north from Texas into Colorado more than 130 years ago. The corridor became the Goodnight-Loving Trail, one of the most heavily traveled cow trails in the Old West.
Colorado Springs also was home to some authentic cowboy characters, like burly rancher and miner Andy Adams. He wrote books such as The Log of a Cowboy, published in 1903, which accurately chronicled the trials of long-distance cattle drives. He ran for El Paso County sheriff three times, but the urban voters never elected his brand of cowboy justice.
Despite being brushed by cowhand luminaries, the story of ranching in El Paso County is generally humble.
Poor and grubby boys from various ethnic backgrounds guided the descendants of Goodnight's stock. They were called "cowboys," but the moniker didn't mean much in those days. Lucky to bathe more than a once a week, they spent their nights cooped up in bunkhouses.
Their turn in the spotlight came several times a year, when local ranches held rodeos where they could represent their ranch brand and try to impress the girls with their roping and riding skills.
Hoity-toity cow country
Historians say that when railroad baron William J. Palmer founded Colorado Springs in 1871, his intent was to create a hoity-toity resort town separated from cowboy riffraff and the West.
"Despite what Palmer was trying to do," said Mark Gardner, a Western historian and cowboy musicologist, "you cannot remove Colorado Springs from the West."
That's not to say that the area is immune to changing times. Over the past 10 years, the number of ranch parcels in the county shrunk to 310 from more than 430, according to the county assessor. Meanwhile, over roughly the same time period, the average size of farms and ranches shrunk by more than 40 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census.
Yet cowboy culture -- at least the professional and commercial types celebrated on cable television -- has thrived here. The city is home to the ProRodeo Hall of Fame and the Professional Rodeo and Cowboys Association, an organization that attracts around 25 million spectators annually to rodeos around the nation, including Colorado Springs' Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo.
Cash prizes at such pro rodeos have swelled to payouts worth millions of dollars, creating superstar professional rodeo athletes who travel the county in huge trailer rigs equipped with sleeping quarters and ample space for horses.
Around the world, the American cowboy has become a romanticized figure and a big money maker who markets everything from movies and blue jeans to whiskey, gambling and cigarettes.
Pro riders and ranch-rodeo riders may share similar backgrounds, but the nature of their respective rodeos and the circumstances of their daily lives remain quite distinct.
Branded for greatness
What's the difference between the Marlboro Man, pro rodeo champion Ty Murray and a ranch hand competing for a belt buckle?
To a true cowboy, few things claim higher importance than the brand he sears into a cow's hide.
"A brand is your name, address, monogram and bill of sale," said Loren Whittemore, an El Paso County rancher and politician. "It's everything."
Whittemore displays his 'W lazy L' brand on his gold ring and watch bracelet. Born here in 1935, he's worked as a cowhand, publisher, ranch historian and county commissioner, and he currently serves as Congressman Joel Hefley's chief of staff in Colorado Springs.
Whittemore brought working-ranch rodeo to Colorado Springs several years ago, and has supported the Ride For the Brand rodeo sponsored by Western Jubilee, now in its third year.
"I believe in ranch rodeo because that's where the West is still alive," he said. "It's a chance for cowboys to run for a buckle."
Rather than offering a big cash reward like pro rodeo does, Ride for the Brand offers a small-by-comparison $3,500 purse to the winner. The grand prize is more symbolic: one of seven silver, copper and brass belt buckles handmade in Santa Fe, N.M. Six go to the winning team, which, like an Olympic gymnastics team, consists of members competing in individual events. The other buckle is presented to the top ranch hand. And the best horse wins an exclusive bit.
The differences between the ranch-rodeo cowboy and the pro-rodeo athlete aren't lost on Scott O'Malley, Western Jubilee Recording Company owner and Ride for the Brand promoter.
It's common for individual purses awarded at regional pro rodeo events to top $200,000.
"It's night and day," O'Malley said. "The pro rodeo cowboy is like a baseball player, specializing in particular aspects," such as bull riding, steer wrestling and bronc riding.
The ranch-rodeo cowboy, on the other hand, competes using the wide array of talents necessary to work as a year-round ranch hand. That's why ranch-rodeo events are limited to those who display ranching skills. There's no bull riding, says O'Malley.
"What cowboy in his right mind trying to survive on a ranch would want to jump on a wild bull?" he asked.
Besides the nature of the events, perhaps
the most important distinction between pro rodeo and ranch rodeo is who's allowed to compete.
Only ranchers who work year-round with more than 300 head of cattle can compete in Ride for the Brand, one of 22 such regional ranch rodeos held across the United States. Each regional champion team receives a shot at the ranch rodeo championship in Texas in November.
Altogether, 16 teams representing 24 ranches from nine Western states will compete this weekend at Ride for the Brand. Each of the six old-time rodeo events tests a skill every ranch hand must master.
There's ranch bronc riding, where a cowboy must straddle a bucking horse using a standard saddle for at least eight seconds -- an event that re-creates breaking in new ranch horses. There's team sorting, where three cows must be separated from a herd and driven into a pen. And there's team doctoring, where yearling cattle are numbered, separated and roped.
Additionally, the working cowboys compete in branding, where two calves are dragged by their hind feet across a line where a chalk brand is applied; trailer loading, where a yearling and two horses must be rounded into a trailer; and milking wild cows. They're activities typically not seen in big money rodeo.
The events are conducted according to regulations set by the Working Ranch Cowboys Association, an organization founded in Amarillo, Texas, 10 years ago. The organization seeks to help the "dying breed of men and women" known as working ranchers.
Whittemore says it's a tough life, stripped of any romance the image might imply.
"There's no accidental health program, there's no retirement program," he said. "A young fella who chooses that life, whether he knows it or not, is giving up a lot."
Songs of the pioneers
While today's cowboys still make sacrifices for a life under the open sky, their stories do not go unsung. Western Jubilee Recording Company, here in Colorado Springs, makes sure that'll never happen.
Tucked away in an old Santa Fe railroad warehouse on the eastern edge of downtown, Western Jubilee provides a haven for cowboys and their ballads.
Quite a few nationally known cowboy legends now hang their hats at Western Jubilee's tin-house studio: old-time cowboy baritone Don Edwards, three-part harmony trio Sons of the San Joaquin, poet Waddie Mitchell, Texas songwriter Red Steagall, cowboy balladeers Wylie and the Wild West, guitar virtuoso Rich O'Brien and bluegrass pioneer Peter Rowan.
In 2002, Rowan and Edwards combined to record High Lonesome Cowboy, a collection of songs ranging in influence from Appalachian bluegrass to the cowboy music native to Abilene, Texas. The album earned a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album that year.
Western Jubilee got a second Grammy nomination last year for Norman and Nancy Blake's CD of traditional country tunes, The Morning Glory Ramblers. It's an amazing feat for a small niche-market record label.
"Most country music today is pop with a cowboy hat," said Gardner, historian and musicologist.
Western Jubilee and its artists are different, harkening back to old cowboy traditions, he says.
"People want a piece of the true cross," he said. "Maybe that helps us maintain our sanity in our rapidly changing times."
Sponsoring a heritage
Holding the reins of both Western Jubilee and Ride for the Brand stand two music producers who grew up back east but dreamed of a life on the high dusty plains.
"I had a fondness for the West, like the rest of my generation," said Western Jubilee's O'Malley, who grew up in the 1950s watching Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on television in his Indiana home.
"I see it as a continuation of a grand tradition of people who have taken care of the land," Kathleen Fox Collins said of the music and culture she's helped to document at Western Jubilee.
Coincidentally, Fox Collins and O'Malley both moved to Colorado Springs in 1975. O'Malley initially came for a visit, but ended up staying and forming an artist management agency that grew to specialize in cowboy and folk music.
He bought the old Santa Fe warehouse 12 years ago and subsequently filled the space with Western relics. Somewhere along the line, he also founded Western Jubilee.
Fox Collins arrived to take a job as administrator of the Colorado Springs Symphony in 1975, which she held until she joined Western Jubilee in 1998.
"My passion in life is building bridges between people who might not meet one another," Fox Collins said, adding that she wants to bring traditions of the Old West to new generations raised on video games and cell phones.
The pair anticipates barely breaking even after sponsoring Ride for the Brand. Still, they have promised to donate a portion of the proceeds to the Latigo Trails Center, a nonprofit horseback-riding center for children near Black Forest.
"It's a proud heritage and it's beyond commercialism," said O'Malley.
A dying breed
The man who will drive his herd of longhorn cattle down Tejon Street on Friday knows a lot about both cowboy heritage and commercialism.
Monument-based rancher Stan Searle has been raising Texas longhorns in Colorado for more than 30 years. When he speaks about cowboy life, he's far from boastful.
"To the people living it, it's not that big a deal," he said. "They see it every day."
But when he talks about his cattle, bred for their striking wide horns and lean grass-fed beef, his tongue tends to loosen.
"Generally speaking, [longhorns are] gentle and easy to handle, and they seem to be smarter than other cattle," he said.
Searle sees himself as a part of a Colorado cattle tradition dating back to Charles Goodnight. The longhorns, he says, are descendents of the first Spanish cattle brought to the Americas by Columbus.
Despite the proud tradition Searle represents, he admits that the ranchers' presence is becoming smaller on the Front Range. Searle scaled back his own operations east of Monument and sold some of his land. He now runs his cattle in Monument and in eastern El Paso County near Ellicott, while golfers cruise electric carts around other land where his cattle used to graze.
"It's becoming more challenging, as the state is urbanized, to find pasture land," he said.
El Paso County rancher Whittemore concurs, lamenting the death of cowboy life on the Eastern Plains. "Those ranches, the big ranches -- they're gone," he said.
To raise the 300 head of cattle necessary to participate in Ride for the Brand in El Paso County would require around 10,000 acres, Whittemore says.
"You're going to have to hunt to find 10,000 acres," he said. "It's not there."
But that, Whittemore says, makes events such as Ride for the Brand important for the people of Colorado Springs.
"It gives them tradition," he said. "It keeps alive what built this country and what built the West.
"If you lose your roots, you've lost your bearing."
Friday, July 1 at noon: Longhorn cattle drive down Tejon Street, from Cache La Poudre Street to the Pioneers Museum. Free.
Saturday, July 2:
Noon: Best of the West Auction at the Penrose Indoor Arena (near the Norris Penrose Event Center rodeo grounds), 1045 West Rio Grande St.
5 p.m.: Cowboy concert featuring Waddie Mitchell, Don Edwards and Sourdough Slim.
6:30 p.m.: Working ranch rodeo.
General admission: $15 for adults, $5 for kids ages 2 to 12. Box and loge seats: $25.
Tickets available at 719/635-9975, ticketswest.com or at Western Warehouse.