Collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982Show Featured Items
Written by Howard W. Marshall
This essay originally appeared in Buckaroos in Paradise: Cowboy Life in Northern Nevada, published by the Library of Congress in 1980 and republished as a Bison Book by the University of Nebraska Press in 1981. The book marked the midpoint of the Paradise Valley Folklife Project and accompanied an exhibition mounted at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in 1980.
The Cowman's Dominion
The broad region that encloses Nevada is variously called the Intermountain West, the Basin and Range Province, and the Intermountain Sagebrush Province. It includes southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, southwestern Wyoming, western Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California's eastern slope. During his second long exploration of 1842-43, John C. Frémont called this massive continental trough spreading from the Rockies to the Sierras "the Great Basin," its most common name today. For a long time the region was called the Great American Desert. Everyone from Horace Greeley to the young Mark Twain to traveler-writers like Samuel Bowles joked about its desolate barrenness.
The region northern Nevada more particularly shares and represents includes southeastern Oregon, a piece of southwestern Idaho, and northeastern California. In this big heart of the Great Basin, both the land and the work define a cultural region with a special personality. It is chiefly the territory of the range cattle industry now, and settlement is mostly confined to clusters of ranches, ranching communities, and small cities spaced along Interstate Highway 80, where county governments function and the gaming and entertainment business thrives. Interstate 80, the modern superhighway, follows safely along the old emigrant trail, the Humboldt River, and at times the Southern Pacific Railroad mainline. It is a land of great distances, great panoramas, and great cattle ranches.
This huge Intermountain West comprises vacant, semiarid deserts and mountain ranges that rise up out of the distance like ghosts. It both frightened and lured the emigrants passing through on the California trails in the mid-nineteenth century. The great Humboldt River, the pioneer's lifeline, is unlike others that empty into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean: it rises in the mountains and disappears in the desert.
The state of Nevada has a small population, and the majority of people live in the two main cities, Reno and Las Vegas. Only one United States representative is elected to serve in the House. Nevada's state flower is the sagebrush. Its state tree is the piñon pine, and the state bird is the mountain bluebird. It is the fifth largest state in size and nearly the smallest in population. With about four inches of rainfall a year, it is the driest. Federal agencies own and manage 87 percent of all the land in Nevada, as they control 54 percent of the entire Western United States.
Paradise Valley, the focus of the project and the exhibition, is about forty miles long and twelve miles wide. "Shelton lane" divides the "upper end" or "upper valley" from the "lower end" or "lower valley." The valley is walled in on the west and north by the 9,000-foot peaks of the Santa Rosa Range, where pine and quaking aspen grow, and on the southeast by the lower Hot Springs Range.
The lower end opens out around the Little Humboldt River, where Martin Creek and Cottonwood Creek join it, and spreads into the sagebrush flats south toward Winnemucca, the county seat and business center of Humboldt County. Paradise Valley, at 4,600 feet, is cattle and hay country with scarce water and a growing season of about ninety days. Its modern capacity to produce fine crops and cows is largely the result of intricate and efficient irrigation systems that pioneer farmers and ranchers checkered across the cleared fields. The region is at once inviting and threatening. With only seven to nine inches of rain each year, the people depend on the winter's snowfall and snowpack in the mountains, which produces the spring runoff that renews the bunchgrass, brings back creeks, and provides water for the irrigation of pastures and fields that sustain cattle herds through the following winter.
The summers are very hot but the winters are moderate. Spring comes early, and there is almost no summer rain. There are few permanent streams, and occasional dry years slow to a trickle even steady creeks like Martin and Cottonwood. It is a world of sagebrush, alkali flats, bare gray mountains, and stark beauty. Just over the valley's eastern apron lies the vast Owyhee Desert, where no farming has succeeded. The endless sagebrush and rocky hills are broken only by an occasional buckaroo camp nestled in a draw or canyon. Thin lines of aspens and willows in these places enfold the small creeks flowing on into the Owyhee and Little Humboldt rivers.
Emigrants, Miners, Railroads, Ranchers
The area that became Nevada was only sparsely settled when the region of Upper California was given over to the United States by the "Mexican Cession" (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) in 1848. It had barely been explored. Gold and silver ore still lay undisturbed by pickaxes and black powder gangs. By the time Nevada became an official territory in 1861 (after separation from the Utah Territory), the Comstock Lode had been developed and the new territorial seal sported a mining scene. By the time of statehood in 1864 the cattle industry and buckaroo trade were just starting up and had attained no particular influence or character. The 1864 state seal again showed hardrock mining but added a steam locomotive and a railroad trestle. Still, many a teamster and miner saw that there was a better and more permanent life to be had in selling cattle to miners than in being miners.
Following the big mining years, the bonanza generation of ranchers and businessmen like Angelo Forgnone, Aaron Denio, William Stock, and Charles Kemler saw the opening of the region by the Central Pacific Railroad, which reached Winnemucca in 1868 and built yards and shops there. The budding town was originally called French Ford, after the river crossing and village started by a French fur trader, and was renamed in honor of the peaceful and influential Paiute chief when the transcontinental railroad's western division passed through on its way to completion in northern Utah a year later.
Humboldt County borders Oregon on the north and Idaho on the northeast. It fills a space the size of some eastern states, yet its population is about seven thousand. Winnemucca, a small city, grew up around the Humboldt River crossing and like other towns got its big push when the railroad worked its way by. The railroad made Winnemucca important as a shipping point, and it soon replaced the larger mining town of Unionville as the county's hub.
In the 1870s Winnemucca bloomed as a railhead for cattle driven to the loading pens from across northern Nevada and the "Owyhee country" in southeastern Oregon and southern Idaho. The Central Pacific hauled most of the market cattle west toward the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco slaughterhouses, although some were shipped to the Midwest.
Since it had no railroad shipping point or continual industry (the mines flourished only briefly), the town of Paradise Valley established itself as a community to service and be served by family and corporation ranches. But it was no "cow town" of the sort we are accustomed to seeing in popular images. It reached a population peak around the turn of the century, when the sheep business brought more Basque herders than buckaroos to the valley. Winnemucca was the county seat, railhead, and center of commercial enterprises, and Paradise Valley, with a current population of about two hundred and fifty, still has a satellite character. The town is at the end of Nevada State Road 8B that branches northeast off U.S. 95 at Paradise Hill between Winnemucca and the Oregon state line at McDermitt. Although the valley seems tucked off in the mountains, it was never and is not now isolated from business, communication, and transportation centers. It is forty miles from Winnemucca but never was cut off from ties to the county seat and the rest of the nation. By the time Paradise Valley was effectively settled and the cattle industry was blooming in the 1870s, the little town was thriving, with constant goings and comings from other regions, chiefly Oregon and the Sacramento Valley and northern California. Ties with Sacramento have always been very strong, and families maintain the old California connection. Most of the first settlers came into northern Nevada from California. They imported everything from English ironstone china to the California Mexican vaqueros who put their lasting stamp on cattle-raising and horsegear traditions in the valley. They sent for catalogue furniture, Belgian draft horses, Hereford breeding stock, Portland cement, garden seeds, lombardy poplar saplings, blue denim work pants, Aladdin lamps, radios, Fords, Winchester rifles, and terra cotta chimney pots. For almost a century, families in Paradise Valley have sent not only their products to market in California but their children to Berkeley for high school as well.
Paradise City (renamed Paradise Valley by the 1870s) grew up around the ranch of C. A. Nichols (now the Boggio 7UP Ranch), as newcomers in the late 1860s began to locate their homesteads near Fort Winfield Scott, the short-lived U.S. Cavalry post in the upper end of the valley on Cottonwood Creek. Charles Kemler was the town's first big businessman and along with Alphonso Pasquale a chief developer in the early generation. Kemler's house was the first hotel, schoolhouse, and lodge hall. In its heyday the town had the usual assortment of wagonmaking shops, blacksmith shops, general stores, livery stables, hotels, and saloons. A white frame Methodist church (1893), now a community church, and a gray granite Catholic church face west on the town's main road.
There is a volunteer fire department. Frank Meyers operated an adobe brick factory and put up nearly all the many adobe buildings in the valley. William Kirschner operated a lager beer brewery in the basement of his adobe house on Cottonwood Creek, and Italian families still go to California in the fall to bring back Zinfandel grapes for making wine on the ranches. The town's first lawyer and schoolteacher, J. B. Case (from Tennessee via California), went into storekeeping and hired Steve Boggio (one of the many north Italians in Paradise) to build a fine granite store in 1910 that now is Jerry Sans's bar. The Odd Fellows lodge was chartered in 1874, the Daughters of Rebekah in 1884, and for years the lodge hall has been the adobe store building that was once one of Charles Kemler's enterprises. The U.S. Forest Service came to town in 1935, and Civilian Conservation Corps crews built their headquarters, the town's grammar school, and other structures around the valley. The "C C boys" built the road up over Hinkey Summit out of the valley to the northwest, and laid the state road branch from Paradise Hill in 1938, making obsolete the old wagon road that went straight down to Winnemucca.
High school students today ride the bus to Winnemucca's Lowry High, a trip taking a good hour and a half each way. The town is changing again, as fulltime farming increases in popularity and as more people find it a good place to settle in their retirement, to establish summer homes, or to commute to Winnemucca from. Ernest and Emily Miller, who ran Case's Store for many years, keep the town's post office open, although the town's population is a few hundred and the operation is only marginally profitable. The "mail stage" from Winnemucea pulls in at Miller's post office at 10:00 every morning of the week, and valley people have a chance to exchange news and conversation when they come to fetch mail from their boxes. Buckaroos drive to town to check mail and sometimes stop in at Jerry Sans's bar for a moment of relaxation and a break in the monotony of the work. On most mornings, a cast of regulars drink coffee and trade stories in Frank Gavica's garage behind Sans's. Like the buckaroo trade which gives the town its reason for existence, the pace of activity is generally slow.
Thompson and West's history of Nevada (republished by Myron Angel) described Paradise Valley in 1881.
[Paradise Valley] is one of the oases sometimes found in the most barren and desolate countries, like Broussa, in Syria, or the vale of Cashmere, in Persia. . . . As, from its fertility and favorable situation, it is likely to become the most important permanent agricultural portion of Nevada, an account of its discovery and settlement well deserves a place in the history of the State. About the first of June, 1863, R. D. Carr, W. B. Huff, J. A. Whitmore and W. C. Gregg started from Star City with the intention of prospecting the mountains on the north side of the Humboldt, ranging to the east. They crossed near where Mill City now stands, and followed the western slope of the mountains until they struck Rebel Creek, which they followed to its source near the summit. On attaining the summit a wide and beautiful valley burst on their view. Having seen only canyons and rugged hills they were much surprised, and W. B. Huff involuntarily exclaimed, "What a paradise!" and thus gave a name to the valley.
These prospectors saw the chance at hand, came back the following year to set up homesteads, and began growing crops and cattle. Indian raids in 1865 brought the Army post and further settlement, and by the time the post was closed in 1871 the valley was on its way. The place-name legend involving the prospectors has been kept in circulation in the community, and most people today have some version of the story of "how Paradise Valley got its name." It is a question we often asked in our field research. Like the variant dressed up and published by Thompson and West, current variants of the legend contain certain vital facts--that the valley was first found by prospecting hard rock miners and that they were surprised and thrilled at its beauty.
In March of 1978, Ernest Miller, a grandson of German pioneer Gerhard Miller, Sr., told me this variant, matter-of-factly:
They said that they, in the real old times, there was a couple prospectors came up from the valley on the west side of us and they come up on top of the beautiful Santa Rose range, and when they looked over the top they said, "Now isn't this a beautiful paradise!"
The story was told in a similar way in October 1979 by Butch Recanzone's wife Vicki, a Californian, who heard the place-name legend when she married and moved to the valley.
Well, the only story I ever heard was that some-one came up over the Santa Rosas, and looked down into the valley after seeing nothing but sagebrush and desert and said that this was a paradise, because there was water down here and it was green and there were trees. And now that's what I heard. You know, that they looked down and saw a paradise. And being that it is a valley, there's no doubt about that.
In any story-telling situation, others present chime in with enlargements, confirmations, additional information, or reflections. Here Vicki's father-in-law Carlo Recanzone added: "But I know that they've always said that they came from the north. And came across the Santa Rosas, and looked down upon this thing, and says, `Oh, this is paradise.' [laughter] So, that's the way they say the name came."
The people who settled the valley have names like Bradshaw, Harvey, Byrnes, Case, Lye, and Shelton, but also names like Ferraro, Stock, Schwartz, Recanzone, Kemler, Pasquale, and Forgnone. Historian Wilbur Shepperson shows that within several years after statehood Nevada was peopled by immigrants from nearly forty foreign countries and five continents. Yet in this huge state of more than a dozen mountain ranges, certain groups settled in certain places. In Paradise Valley, the chief influx was from Germany, Italy, and the Basque provinces of France and Spain. Americans from the East, Midwest, and California joined these distinctive groups, as did English, Irish, French, and Swiss Italians. Others who appeared in the early days but failed to establish permanent settlements included Mexican vaqueros from California and a small community of Chinese.
No one group could claim to be the first settlers here. In spite of generations of acculturation and change, some ranchers and buckaroos are still most assuredly Italian or German. The three main groups of families--from other American places, from Italy, and from Germany--all came most immediately from northern California. The Germans came to farm and raise cattle and build commerce. The Italians came to ply their ancient craft as stonemasons and soon became ranchers and businessmen. The Basques, brought from California by Italians to tend sheep, became businessmen and ranchers themselves. The Basques had not been sheepherders before coming to Nevada; they worked in various occupations and many were gold and silver miners down on their luck. By the time the Basques were working into sheep and cattle ranching in the 1870s, there was a small Chinese neighborhood in Winnemucca made up of Chinese who stayed after serving as laborers building the Central Pacific Railroad along the Humboldt River past the town. Further, Paiute and Shoshone Indian men and women worked on ranches as buckaroos, hands, and cooks. The ethnic and linguistic mix must have been puzzling and bothersome to some pioneers. A businessman and rancher like Alphonso Pasquale, who operated a number of businesses in Paradise Valley and several sheep and cattle ranches in the valley, needed some fluency in six languages--his own Italian, English, German, French Basque, Spanish Basque, and Spanish--as well as a passing ability to make himself understood to Indian and Chinese employees.
In the Great Basin range cattle industry, the vaqueros came first--not Anglo or black cowboys, but Hispanic California horsemen. In the Spanish colonial days before the cattle business developed, vaqueros worked mostly for hide and tallow companies in California. Later, as Anglo ranches and herds were being built up, the European-American pioneers employed Mexican vaqueros, and the vaquero traditions of horsemanship, equipment, and language greatly influenced other working cowboys. By the time the open-range cattle business reached its heyday in the generation after the Civil War and family and corporate ranches were thriving in northern Nevada, vaquero was the word used for cowboy. The legacy of expertise imparted by the oldtime vaqueros lives on in Paradise Valley, in the riatas and horsegear made by traditional "rawhiders" like Frank Loveland and the everyday use of Hispanic California-style, center-fired saddles with "taps" covering the stirrups.
Vaqueros were probably not a year-round fixture of the local scene in the early days in northern Nevada. They drove herds into the territory, providing breeding stock for ranchers, but the earliest farmer-ranchers did not or could not use many hired riders.
Families helped neighboring families with cooperative labors, and the community's different herds of cattle "ran in common" on the open range. The first full-time, wage-earning vaqueros were probably employed by the big companies that for different reasons bought out small ranches in the county, slowly acquiring title or control of huge tracts and many small ranches that became "headquarters," foreman's homes, or buckaroo camps. Outfits like the Milpitas Land and Live Stock Company (with holdings in California, Nevada, and Idaho), Miller and Lux, and the butchering firm of Godchaux and Brandenstine (with headquarters in the San Francisco area), typified the large corporations that were influential alongside the family ranches in Nevada's growth. In time, the absentee-owned companies of the early days and later locally run corporations like the McCleary Cattle Company were bought out by corporations like today's Nevada Garvey Ranches, Inc., with head offices in Wichita, Kansas.
Vaqueros who began the buckaroo trade in the old Spanish times began the trade in Nevada, too, as the essential core of working men employed by the big companies. As these itinerant vaqueros from California and northern Mexico got acquainted in Nevada, they gradually became employees of local family ranches and remained in the region. Many of the early vaqueros were Anglos, of course, and several were black men.
Along with the rotating, changing population of wage-earning vaqueros who gradually became semipermanent in Paradise Valley, the pioneer family ranchers solved the problem of locating hired hands in a way that by the late nineteenth century had become a venerable American custom. They wrote letters home--whether to Illinois or Italy or Germany--and invited cousins, nephews, and brothers to come join them. Many young men got their start working for wages for a family member, gradually learning the business, saving up money, and then putting a payment down on a small spread of their own. Some of the young men "sold their saddles" and went into some sort of business enterprise.
In this essay, the three terms vaquero, buckaroo, and cowboy mean roughly the same thing. The term of preference in the early days in northern Nevada was vaquero, and the preferred word today is buckaroo. The term cowboy has never been used much in northern Nevada, where "cowboys" are from Texas, Montana, or some other place. Some scholars believe buckaroo comes from bukra (boss or white man) in the Gullah dialect of the Georgia and Carolina Sea Islands, and that the word was carried west and introduced into the cowboy's lexicon by black cowboys in Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. In northern Nevada, though, our research supports a Spanish derivation for the etymology of buckaroo. Vaquero (from the Spanish vaca for cow) is the obvious source for buckaroo, and the oral testimony of ranchers adds significantly to the understanding of how buckaroo was Anglicized from vaquero. Reinforcing conversations at his ranch over two years' time, Leslie Stewart (grandson of William Stock, the German who developed the 96 Ranch) wrote me a letter in February 1980 summarizing his own experience this way:
The word "Buckaroo" sprang from the Spanish word "Vaquero," as you know "V" is pronounced "B." Even in the time I can remember the word Vaquero was used much more than Buckaroo, finally it was corrupted to Buckaroo. The word was not brought in by any specific group of early settlers as the Spanish word originated many, many years before this country was settled. The early Spanish Grant owners in California used the word for their herdsmen and horsemen in the time of the first settling of California and when it was still owned by Mexico. . . . The Spanish style and custom of working cattle spread into Nevada, Oregon and Idaho. Hence the Vaqueros or Buckaroos came with them. Even in this area in early days a large percentage of the riders were Mexicans or California Mexicans, especially on the larger outfits. One of my early, and fondest memories, is of the Circle A round-up crew annually coming up through our meadows on the way to the fall round-up. They had a Chuck Wagon drawn by six mules, a "Caviada" of many horses and 8 or more Mexican riders. They would generally stop here to get some eggs, potatoes, any other fresh garden produce that might be available and especially as much fresh homemade bread that my Mother might have for them.
Stewart remembers a period in his youth, around 1935, when buckaroo became more popular in Nevada than vaquero, and today buckaroo is the word of daily use. The use of buckaroo by a cowboy, like the style of hat he wears and the kind of saddle he prefers, is a sign of origins and traditions. Knowledge and use of buckaroo separates insiders from outsiders.
Community language functions in different ways, from simply getting work done to providing insiders with a sense of identity and pride. The buckaroo's lexicon is distinguished by its deep bilingualism.
Hispanic California vaqueros provided not only the way of work but the words of the trade. Oreanna, corresponding to maverick elsewhere, is the term for an unbranded cow running loose in Nevada; in earlier times a rancher could get started in the business by collecting oreannas and branding them. A buckaroo's long rope of braided rawhide used for catching animals is called a riata in northern Nevada; lariat is more familiar to other Americans.
Other terms of Spanish origin in northern Nevada, some of which are also used outside the Great Basin, include bosal (a small hackamore), canyon, chapparal (tough, thick brush), caviata or cavvy (the group of saddle horses used during roundup as the pool of mounts for buckaroos, called remuda elsewhere; each rider is assigned several specific horses which make up his "string"), corral, chaps (protective leather leg coverings of various styles; Nevadans prefer the short "chinks" variety or the "shotgun" variety), dally (as opposed to the "hard-and-fast" or "solid" roping style, the dally method loops the long riata or rope around the saddle horn so it can run or hold tight when a roped cow is being caught and held), 'dobe (a building of local adobe bricks), fiador (or "theodore," a device consisting of a halter or a hackamore and a rope, knotted to the romal, that forms both a lead and a pair of closed reins), hackamore (a headstall or a halter for a horse, usually made of braided rawhide), macardy (long rope of twisted horsehair pulled from the mane or tail), mustang (wild horse), savvy (to comprehend another person's statement), and taps or tapaderas (leather covers or hoods over the stirrups). Many Anglo buckaroos command a working conversational ability in Spanish. Spanish words, and phrases like "mucho caliente!," pepper everyday speech. But the vaqueros themselves are almost completely absent from the trade today.
The buckaroo life has undergone many changes since its nineteenth-century beginnings. Yet the object of attention is still the cows. Methods of working cattle and dealing with the land are learned by practice, by watching and listening to older hands, and by imitating and varying accepted models. The rules and standards, once learned, can be varied according to one's personal abilities and intentions. While buckaroos are individualists, they place a high value on the opinions and respect of their peers--and that respect must be earned. The basics of the business can be mastered in fairly short order--riding, using a rope correctly, baling hay during the summer, mending fence--but the many kinds of work range widely in difficulty. With practice, just about anyone can learn how to throw a rope to catch his horse in the morning or how to make a bedroll with some blankets and a big piece of heavy canvas. It takes more time and patience to learn to shoe horses, brand a cow without burning through the hide or making an uneven or upside-down mark, or wallow a truck out of a desert mudhole. Learning how to make reasonably good biscuits from scratch takes years of practice, and so does learning how to make a braided leather riata from a cow's hide. Most buckaroos master horseshoeing and branding; few buckaroos master biscuits or learn riata making.
There are different kinds of chores on a ranch. Dyed-in-the-wool cowboys prefer work on horseback. In the hierarchy of ranch employees there are bosses, buckaroos, ranch hands, and helpers. Below foreman or cow boss come buckaroos, expert horsemen at the center of the work. The special buckaroos who start colts (break horses)--often called "bronc busters" or "bronc peelers"--enjoy great respect if the job is skillfully and humanely done. Third in order are ranch hands and mechanics, who, though they also ride and help with herd work, are better at farming and equipment maintenance. A good mechanic is vital to the successful operation of a modern ranch, and a top one is harder to find than a top rider. Increasingly sophisticated and cranky haying equipment and machines, draped in grapevines of hydraulic lines, demand mechanical ability to keep them working right. Savvy in the shop is as important as savvy in the sagebrush, and the shaky state of the cow business makes the switch into full-time agriculture more socially acceptable for both employers and employees as time goes by. An "irrigator" is a ranch hand charged with properly managing and operating the agricultural watering system on the home ranch. Cooks and wranglers (who care for the horses) fall into this third group of men, too.
The fourth category, called helpers, includes young people who learn how to buckaroo, fix tractors, and run a ranch. It is a curious category, for it includes both green beginners and experienced oldtimers who may now want less strenuous assignments. Variously called helpers, swampers, choreboys, and hands, these workers need no particular special skills to accomplish the odd jobs that keep the ranch running smoothly--from bucking hay bales to swamping out the stables or painting a board fence around the garden. During the spring and fall periods of intense activity (calving, branding, round-up) and during the summer haying season, all employees join the labor of the moment. All the ranch employees can generally be called "ranch hands"--but seasoned buckaroos dislike being called that. A neat division of labor is practiced on the largest family ranches and the big corporation outfits where enough men are at work. On the small family ranch, however, everyone does everything, like it or not. The jobs you learn to do as a boy depend on who you are: if a young, would-be buckaroo with no particular roots or resources, you will likely learn horsemanship or machine-shop skills only, but if a rancher's son, you will likely learn everything possible. To grow into an effective ranch manager--a supervisor of experienced specialists--a young man must know every corner of the trade and the life. But first, he learns to buckaroo.
Carlo Recanzone started riding a horse at twelve and well remembers the oldtime buckaroos who taught him the profession. "They were real good teachers, but they were rough!" Boys of twelve would find it difficult to rise cheerfully before dawn, eat breakfast, go off in the chill mist, work, and return saddle-weary and hungry after dark. Every youngster comes to a moment that vividly marks the plateau when mastery of the skills is within sight. Many stories are told about losing cattle out in some canyon or desert draw; among the countless sins a boy or green hand could commit--from neglecting to keep closed gates closed and open gates open to jamming a hot iron on a cow sideways--the neglect or loss of cattle is very serious. A loss of a single cow can mean the loss of thousands of dollars, as well as wasted effort to locate the beast. A common mistake made by new or careless buckaroos is the needless hurrying along of walking cattle, and many a boy has been reprimanded for "chousing the cows."
Recanzone's son Butch, 30, has two words for how you learn to buckaroo: "Hard way." That is how young men have always gained proficiency in a trade or profession, whether as a cowboy or a stonemason, a sailor or a trial lawyer. As Butch Recanzone said in October 1979:
All it is is just another learnin' process. Trial and error. When you mess up you know about it, and the next time you don't do it. . . . You tried to pattern yourself after what they did.
At a certain point, not at all mysterious, you make the grade. You know you have made it because the old hands stop calling you "boy."
They start telling jokes to you instead of about you. You begin to be trusted to perform jobs on command and to conduct business professionally, and if you fail to get the work done right you soon become known as lazy or foolish. If you are a young man on a family ranch, you get a second chance. If you work for a corporation run by absentee owners, you might be asked to draw your pay, put your gear in your truck, and seek employment elsewhere.
Given an ordinary physique and a willingness to work, the essentials of skillful performance as a buckaroo boil down, as Les Stewart says, to a single ingredient: "judgment." Good judgment leads to the ability to be at "the right place at the right time" when riding and working. Mr. Stewart believes that good judgment, and the "right place at the right time" ability, make the difference between a good cowhand and simply a man mounted on a horse.
Cattlemen Were Farmers First
When William Stock, Batiste Recanzone, Jim Byrnes, the Lye brothers, and the other early settlers unloaded their wagons and set up homesteads in Paradise Valley, they were coming to be farmers and sheep growers as much as to be cowmen. The range cattle industry as we know it today was just beginning in the middle 1860s, and the Nevada settlers practiced agriculture as it was practiced across most of the West--as a diversified operation in which crops of grain were as important as cattle. Indeed, the first farmer-ranchers in northern Nevada started business in answer to the good markets for grain and hay and cattle in the booming mining centers like Virginia City and towns like Unionville. In the early phases of the business, families had their market crops freighted to the mining areas over wagon roads and largely sustained existence at home on what they could produce in their own gardens and farm lots. It took the coming of the railroad in the late 1860s to open up the ranching country and give the farmers and ranchers access to distant markets in California that soon became their chief commercial outlets.
The Old South is generally credited with the invention of the range cattle industry in the West, and perhaps rightly so, but in northern Nevada the business was developed by Midwesterners, Northerners, immigrants from Germany and Italy, and California Mexican vaqueros. The open-range cattle business glorified and exaggerated in popular fiction, movies, and television shows really flourished for a brief time, from about the end of the Civil War to about 1890. Because of a combination of economic conditions and the killing winters of the late 1880s, vast herds of Texas longhorns were no longer driven over thousands of miles of trails to Kansas or Missouri railheads and markets or to the frontier Northwest, and the cattle business settled into its modern character of family and corporation ranches raising cattle for local herd replenishment and regional markets. As Nevada settlers realized that scarce water supplies and low soil yield made the usual sort of farming operations difficult, they turned to a single enterprise for long-term investment, grazing cattle, mainly Hereford, on the open ranges. The names of the pioneering ranches reflect their initial goals and visions--like the William Stock Farming Company (1864), which today is a cattle ranch--and while they began to concentrate on cattle raising at the end of the nineteenth century, they continued to cultivate grains and hay crops for their own use and for local trade. Every Nevada rancher is a farmer too, since he must irrigate hayfields and harvest his own feed crops for feeding cattle through the winter on the home or "base" property. Few ranchers could afford to purchase winter feed, so they developed keen abilities and technical skills in the yearly cycle of irrigation and harvest of hay and grains.
In addition, many of the old cattle ranches began as sheep-raising operations. Particularly in the days when cheap, good labor was available, before the federal grazing lands were enclosed and brought under control in the 1930s and before the development of synthetic fabrics, sheep were profitable. Ranches like the Stewarts' 96 (originally the William Stock Farming Company), the Recanzones' Home Ranch, the Millers' 101, and the Pasquale ranch owed at least part of their early success to the sheep industry. The 96 Ranch once ran as many as twelve thousand Merino sheep. For many of these farmer-ranchers, like the Stocks and Recanzones, the demise of the sheep trade was not exactly mourned. There were problems with landless "tramp herders" whose many sheep competed with local ranchers' cattle for scarce grass on the open range, and there was a gradual shift away from diversified stock toward concentration on range cattle. Some welcomed the sheep industry's end and turned their attention and resources to developing the cattle herds.
In Ernest Staples Osgood's treatment of the range cattle industry, the "range cattleman" is credited with certain contributions to the developing United States. He was the first to make effective economic use of the dry plains, and his business brought foreign investment to the economy, stimulated the national urge for building transcontinental railroads and communications networks, and laid the foundation for the development of communities and states in the region. To this list could be added the western rancher's refinement of irrigation processes. Domesticated crops were watered in systems of ditches by the Pueblo Indians in the American Southwest. Spanish colonization further refined irrigation techniques, and the Spanish colonial bureaucrats devised codes of water rights for farmers based on a tradition of prior use and first settlement. The techniques of watering crops in northern Nevada come out of Hispanic colonial usage, but they are also reminiscent of medieval British and European irrigation. Ranchers in the late nineteenth-century semiarid West brought irrigation to a fine science, and the old systems of banked ditches and head gates across fields remain effective today. At the same time, ranchers and farmers are taking advantage of new, complicated, and expensive water systems involving deep-drilled wells and sophisticated electric appliances and machines. The expanding cultivation of root crops, which need more water and fertilization than native strains of hay, ultimately means less natural annual moisture available for cattle and hayfields. As the annual snowfall, on which the ground-water yield in the valley is dependent, remains fairly steady over the years, use of deep wells and water technology will increase as the water table falls.
Family ranches have sizable gardens. In the early days, when more hired hands and larger families lived on the home ranch and when wives needed to can and preserve vegetables and fruits for home use, they were as large as 150 feet square. Today's best gardens are likely to be about 18 by 20 feet. They are laid out east to west and planted with some combination of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, green beans, wax beans, onions, radishes, cabbage, carrots, beets, turnips, spinach, swiss chard, broccoli, peas, squash, and peppers. The perfectly ordered garden is framed by lilacs and other ornamental flowers and bushes. Ranchers long ago devised ingenious ways to water gardens by building an irrigation ditch from the nearest hayfield.
Ranching is a different operation in each particular region and climate. As Marion Clawson has written, it is the diversity of ranching that is striking, not the sameness. For the family rancher, and to a degree for the corporate outfits, the similarities are in the reliance on nature's ample or scarce resources in order to graze cattle or sheep for slaughter for human consumption; the need for sophisticated agricultural technology to support one's ranch competitively; the day-to-day engagement with a federal or state agency's regulations and regulators; the need for stout, quick cow horses to get certain jobs done; the carrying of huge debts to maintain yearly operation; the need for wage laborers during certain times of the year; and a liability to boom or bust according to the vicissitudes of national and international economic and political situations. In the West, there is a growing feeling among family ranchers that the control of their business and their future well-being is somehow vanishing. Some will survive while the unsupported or less capable will move off the land into Winnemucca, Reno, or San Francisco.
The Cowboy's Creed
Oh, when I die,
you just bury me
Away out west,
where the wind blows free.
Let cattle rab my tombstone down,
Let coyotes mourn their kin.
Let horses come and paw the mound,
But please, don't fence me in.
Tex Bonnet recited that poem for us in October 1979 in his white frame home on a quiet street in Winnemucca. It was a bright, clear fall day. Bonnet sat straight up in the chair, rested his hands on his knees, and stared ahead through the microphones. We had come to learn about the old buckaroo days and to record the stories, songs, and poems Bonnet knew so well and had become known for. You could tell he was thinking hard about the words as he spoke them. That serious bit of verse from a widely known poem that Bonnet had used over the years could serve as the buckaroo's creed.
The image of cowboys as ramblers and rugged individualists leading Teddy Roosevelt's "strenuous life," who shun the fences of civilization, indeed seems to hold up. They don't pack pistols, they don't croon mournful songs at cattle, they aren't uneducated. But to a man we found them purposeful individualists who cherish their work even while they complain about its inequities and problems. They would rather spend time making wages on horseback or in a line camp removed from town and regular society. These men volunteered for the job. As in any occupation, the laborers' complaints are thoroughly part of the life and the work itself.
"The cowboy" as a subject has been complicated by the national mythmaking process. The misinformation and stereotypes that trickled out of the West in travelers' reports and diatribes in the mid-nineteenth century turned into a flood in illustrated weeklies, dime novels, and wild west shows at century's end. Countless books, articles, radio programs, sound recordings, and Hollywood movies have kept up the flow of simplistic visions of the West. Occasionally movies or books appear presenting a more accurate view of buckaroos, but they make little popular headway. Not only is the image of the past distorted, but most people assume that there are no more buckaroos pushing cows through the bunchgrass.
Even in earlier days there was ample reading material available to cowboys, from the dime novel and True West through loftier literature. In Paradise Valley, buckaroos working in the cow camps do a great deal of reading. They read cattlemen's journals, outdoorsmen's magazines, Reader's Digest, and Smithsonian; popular paperback novels like Rich Man, Poor Man and Oklahoma Crude; and serious nonfiction like buckaroo Herb Pembroke's copy of a history of Russia and pocket editions of the classics. For many, the favorite topics are adventure, western themes, and the outdoor life, but for others something of Shakespeare is preferred. Certainly the particular heap of magazines and paperbacks on any line camp dinner table reflects haphazard selection and collection. Used books are exchanged by the batch at places in Winnemucca and purchased at the Poke and Peek Thrift Shop and the shop in the basement of the historical society museum.
Buckaroos live most of the year in some sort of house on the home ranch, but those who work for the big corporations spend weeks at a time out on the rangelands tending the cattle. They go to and from the camps in trucks, hauling horses, equipment, and supplies as they go. The buckaroo camps are without plumbing, electricity, or other luxuries of civilization. Working "on the mountain" and "on the wagon," many men like it that way. There is solitude, there is work, there is the land.
Many a long afternoon on the mountain (working cattle through the BLM or Forest Service grazing allotment) is spent in camp, when the day's work is done, and the hours are whittled away by an assortment of pastimes. Dave Hiller, a Nevada Vaca corporation cowboy in 1979, spent hours making horse gear from miscellaneous materials salvaged from the home ranch. The steel spurs he makes are not for the cases in the stores in town, but for his job. Bunkhouse furniture is homemade out of lumber highgraded from the ranch, and some buckaroos make their own riatas, macardies, and hackamores as well as lead ropes and other equipment. There is a great pride of workmanship in everything handmade, whether a piece of equipment is created from scratch or decorated to make it one's own.
There used to be a good deal of storytelling around evening cook fires, and sometimes a bit of singing or "music making," too. The stories generally were succinct accounts of scenes from life and history in the region, long personal anecdotes of memorable times, legends, or jokes. Storytelling sessions often commenced, then as now, with one man's offhand complaint or comment about one or another problem of the day. This gripe or thought leads to others on the same or different themes, which sometimes leads to testimonies and tales of how much better (or worse) things were in "the good old days." Cowboys as a group are very conscious of the real and imaginary history of their trade. Many a man has gone to the West and the buckaroo life in order to live legends. Although buckaroos and ranchers do not volunteer poems, "legends," or "folksongs," there are many such traditional forms of expression in circulation. Once in a while, usually in town, under the right combination of a late evening, good whiskey, juke box, and dancing partners, a fine poem or polished story will be recited about the castration of the mythical Strawberry Roan, or Butch Cassidy's legendary robbery of the First National Bank in Winnemucca. But these occasions are rare.
Buckaroos own no land or house but do own personal property--a car or pickup truck, horsegear, household goods, a "war bag" of personal effects, bedroll, and other things that transport easily. Some own their own horses, which are kept and fed as though they were part of the rancher's cavvy.
Working cowboys have a dwelling, wages, some groceries, and certain benefits according to the deal worked out--fresh beef butchered on the ranch, garden produce, access to the ranch gasoline pump, use of the machine shop, workmen's compensation, and other medical provisions. Most cowboys and other hired hands earn between five and six thousand dollars a year. Buckaroos working for wages often prefer using and maintaining their own saddles, bedrolls, bridles, and horsegear, though every rancher keeps a roomful of extra equipment. There are no set hours, no time clocks. Buckaroos live on the corporate or family ranch, and when the job needs to be done, it gets done. Some of the work ignores "work weeks," since hay harvest and roundup go nonstop. Factory workers in the city who dislike punching time clocks do not complain about the overtime wages those clocks dictate. There is no such thing as "working overtime" on a ranch. After long spans of long work days, though, a kind of compensatory time off can be taken on most ranches. The Fourth of July and Labor Day are traditional days off. Buckaroos are expected to take orders from and work side by side with the rancher and his family. Though they often buck authority, what they hate is not so much the issuance of labor commands as the way those instructions are sometimes given. It is not unlike the functioning of a small military unit, except here the troops can, and do, "up and quit" when things feel wrong. Buckaroos used to try to save up their earnings, hoping in some cases to make a payment on a small ranch of their own. But the economic conditions today, taken with the uncertainties of BLM management policies, means it is virtually impossible for a young man to make it--especially a family man. Not only would start-up require vast amounts of money and resources, but the available land is tied up. Most ranches are passed on within families or from family to family, or they are instantly bought up by established ranchers or a corporation or developer. So, like an able seaman who can never pilot his own ship, a buckaroo is unable to gain sufficient power and capital to run his own ranch. It may have always been that way in Nevada, because since the first phase of settlement the region has been almost entirely controlled by a few large corporations, several dozen families, and the United States Government.
The relationship between rancher and buckaroo is based on a traditional code of mutual trust, respect, and the essential honor in doing a good day's work for a good day's wages. Buckaroos are more likely to feel loyalty to the family ranch than to a large corporation owned by outsiders. Similarly, family ranchers are likely to be loyal to good hands. Honest, self-reliant buckaroos hold the entire industry together.
Many buckaroos lead the life because it is an alternative to what they know and want to leave behind. In this way, it is still the Real West, a mix of romantic belief and cold fact. This supposed escape from civilization that smacks of strength and freedom is an essential part of the appeal of the cowboy image and life-to them as well as to us. They are self-conscious players in the drama of the dusty, tough cattle business. The cowboy life stands for vigorous human liberty. At the same time, as one aging cowhand with back trouble said over and over again, the cowboy life is the dumps. A sense of exile links many working cowboys, as does a sense of quest and adventure. In various individual ways they have rejected or found uncomfortable other trades and professions. But though they are often noncomformists, most conform very strictly to their own community's expectations and customary legal system.
Some buckaroos are married, and some are not. Most working cowboys in earlier times were single, but today the number of married versus single men is about evenly split. The life is not conducive to raising families, and the buckaroo's rowdy ways and legendary flight from domesticity work against family life. There are some married buckaroos, however, who share a small house or mobile home with wife and children on their employer's ranch. In the future, there may be more such families on ranches, since there is a serious shortage of good hands, and ranch owners are increasingly willing to provide a home and benefits for a whole family in order to retain the services of proper laborers. Buckaroos with families tend to be more reliable employees and to stay longer. Single buckaroos live up to their famous penchant for moving on from time to time on impulse, after a quarrel with the boss, or in search of better wages.
Buckaroos tend not to be acquisitive or materialistic. Beyond a fine saddle (made by Ken Tipton in Winnemucca or at Capriola's in Elko) and good horse gear, some special possessions packed in a bed roll or war bag, and some household goods, no personal wealth will result from this work. Some of the men are mightily against the amassing of material things, which would be a hindrance to their self-reliant itinerant habits.
Is this a life of freedom? No--and yes. Buckaroos are trapped by wages, the environment, the nature of the labor, and the will of the current foreman. They are freed by the ability to choose where they work and what they do for a living. That kind of freedom attracts men to the work and serves as the core of the myth still sustaining the occupation. The years after the Civil War when the range cattle industry flourished saw the evolution of this cowboy trade and the simultaneous evolution of the glorified cowboy image. The symbols at the center of the myth do, after all, represent truth: buckaroos do have a kind of freedom, they do tend to be responsible though quixotic workers, they are surely rugged individualists, and their job provides them with a proximity to nature.
At the Ranch
Nature and weather control life in the range cattle industry as in farming; battles with foul weather and tough landscape are waged year in and year out. A rancher is almost completely dependent upon the natural water supply to keep the bunchgrass in the high country and in the desert growing and usable for his herds. "Bunchgrass" is both a particular small grass type and the general name for assorted hardy forage grasses like fescues and wheatgrass. He has more control on the home ranch, where the elaborate systems of flood irrigation channel water over fields of alfalfa and grains.
The pace of life on the ranch is slow. There are jobs like sitting on the back of a quarterhorse, meandering after cows nibbling grass under the sage. The alarm clock whines, you get up. When your work is done, you lie down. The daily cadence has been developed over years of experimentation and practice to find out what makes things work.
The cadence of the days then merges into the larger cadence of the seasons. The yearly round of life and work on Paradise Valley ranches runs like this: In the spring, there is calving, "turning out" of the herd onto federal grazing lands leased from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), cultivation of crops, and irrigation of fields. Young cattle are branded and marked before being released on the grazing allotment with other cows. Experienced hands "start" colts on the path to becoming good cow ponies. In the summer, branding and marking continues, the cattle are moved from section to section of the BLM lands, then onto the higher U.S. Forest Service lands, and the main hay crop is harvested and stored on the home ranch. Each Father's Day brings the main social event of the season, the annual Fireman's Bar-B-Cue hosted by the volunteer fire department in the valley. And the Fourth of July has always been a buckaroos' holiday. In the fall the cattle are "gathered" and driven from the high country back down to the home ranch. Buckaroos brand the missed cattle and select cows to be sold and shipped to market. Hunting and trapping seasons commence. The main autumn social occasion is the Fireman's Ball at the Odd Fellow's lodge hall. It is also county fair and rodeo season; in addition to large regional and national rodeos, there are occasional "ropings" held on family ranches like the 96. There are also "team roping" competitions, which differ from multievent rodeos. Here, two mounted riders work together in roping calves. There are team ropings at regular intervals from spring to fall, and the events are more for insiders than for outsiders. Winter is a time for catch-up chores about the home ranch, feeding cattle daily with the past summer's hay crop, and vacations and rest. There are more cattle to be sold and marketed. And there is the weather to be studied: will there be enough snow to replenish the valley's streams and water table? Throughout the year there are jobs that know no season too--the constant checking and doctoring of cattle and horses, periodic butchering of a steer for home range consumption, and routine maintenance of property and equipment.
The people of the region respect custom, order, and practical knowledge gained through apprenticeship and by following established techniques. It is a way of life that treasures and is given sustenance by old patterns of thought and attitude. But change has been continual, particularly in the technology of hay production and in the private use of public grazing lands. And in conveyances: the four-wheel-drive pickup truck is to some ranchers the most important development in their lifetimes.
There are several distinctions between ranching and farming. A small paradox: Ranchers are farmers, but farmers are not ranchers. Ranchers have always tilled the earth to a certain degree to produce grains and have worked hayfields in order to harvest the necessary feeds for cattle, horses, and mules. Among key factors separating "ranch" agriculture from "farm" agriculture are these:
- Ranchers and their hired hands produce crops mainly for their own use on the home ranch. In a good year, a rancher may have an unusually abundant hay crop which allows him to market the surplus hay tonnage at distant points, but this is not usual. Ranchers customarily trade surplus hay bales to neighbors whose crops or supplies may be scant that season; this does not fall within the commercial sphere but is one of the ways ranchers cooperate for mutual aid and well-being.
- Farms are commercial crop operations where the primary energies are funneled into growing and selling cash crops. Most farmers keep cattle, but the herds are usually considered secondary in importance to the farming operation, often indicating the farmer's desire for diversification. Farmers and ranchers harvest the same alfalfa, wheat, oats, and barley, but ranchers keep the crops for their own use, while farmers ship them to Winnemucca for sale and transportation to big city markets. Dairy cattle operations are farms, not ranches, since the essential product for market is milk, not livestock. Several old ranches in Humboldt County are now farming operations. This significant development is lamented by some ranchers, while it is heralded by others as a way of surviving in the future.
- Ranches and farms have in their employ one or more wage-earning laborers. But their skills and characters tend to differ. Buckaroos farm, but farm hands do not buckaroo. The true buckaroo prefers working cattle on horseback. But during lengthy periods of the year buckaroos attend to agricultural equipment and the irrigation of hay fields for late summer harvest. Buckaroos maintain and operate modern haymaking machinery--combines, swathers, windrowers, balers, "harobeds," stack-retrievers, tractors--but most prefer cattle work. Buckaroos and farmhands, like ranchers and farmers, have had an uneasy relationship in the West. Along with sheepherders, farmers have in the past been in serious competition with ranchers for the land. Many Nevadans like to make distinctions between buckaroos and farm hands, though few express the difference as vividly as Pete Pedroli did during a visit in July 1978 at his ranch outside Winnemucca.
Dick Ahlborn: Well, I'd like to ask you one other question. Could you tell the difference between a buckaroo and a farmer, just by walking down the street?
Pedroli: Yeah, you could always tell the difference.
Pedroli: The way he walked. Buckaroo was generally stoved up from sittin' on a horse so damn long. The farmer, he was generally stoved up from goin' over the clods and the dirt followin' the plow.
The image outsiders have of cattle ranches populated by tough cowboys on wild ponies wrestling mean longhorn bulls is not altogether correct. Television shows like "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," and "Big Valley," and the countless Western movies seldom give us a glimpse of buckaroos sweating over a blown-out diesel tractor tire or heaving wet hay bales. Unfortunately for our conceptions of buckarooing in the West, we know little about these men in that large part of their lives spent fussing with balky combine engines or mending endless miles of barbed wire fence, doctoring edgy cows with injection guns filled with vitamins and serums, or working through stacks of government regulations and tax forms. The reality of western ranching life and the buckaroo business was lost in the mythology and legend that began a hundred years ago.
Some observers think that farming is the wave of the future in the arid West, thanks to new strategies of land preparation and irrigation; indeed it is likely to became increasingly difficult for the family ranch to maintain itself by raising cattle alone. Ranchers customarily paint a dark picture of the future of their business. Carlo Recanzone and his son Butch, who as a young man hopes to continue operation of their pioneer family ranch, agree that their future is in the government's hands. They can make it, they say, but there will be significant changes. In an optimistic mood Butch says, "Ranchers are known to be survivors." One of the strengths of western ranching families is that they are inheritors and conscious curators of a significant piece of the real and mythic American past. They know that the past of gritty pioneers and greedy exploiters lives visibly and immediately in their present. A family ranch is a living family album, and in its story are lines from every history book about what America is.
Branding livestock is an essential piece of work performed by ranchers and buckaroos. A brand is the special mark or identifying design owned by a rancher and used in registering and identifying his cattle and horses. A branding iron is the handmade iron or steel tool that applies the mark to the beast. The end with the owner's brand is pressed against the side of the animal after being heated to red hot in a fire in the corral. The earliest "irons," as they are called in Nevada, were simple initials, figures, or numbers, but the designs grew intricate and ingenious as generations passed and conflicts arose over duplications of simple figures. The iron designs are recorded in a statewide brand book published by the Nevada Department of Agriculture, which often provides the ultimate evidence of ownership in disputes. The brands are illustrated, previous owners are listed, and the location of the mark on the animal is given. Brand books also indicate other ownership marks--wattles and ear notches. "Irons" are serious business.
Each community has its own state-operated and employed brand inspector, often a rancher who inspects cattle on a part-time basis. The inspector is charged with overseeing the shipment of certified cattle by ensuring proper ownership; he sometimes arbitrates in brand identification problems. Identification of brands on cattle is usually simple, but it can be difficult if the irons were applied carelessly or improperly. When the same brand is held by different ranchers, for various reasons, it must be applied on specific sides or parts of the cattle to keep things straight.
Cattle branding is done mainly at two times of the year, in the spring after calving and in the fall after the roundup and driving the herd back to the home ranch for winter. The fall branding serves to locate and mark any calves born in the summer range or yearlings missed in the spring work. The work is traditionally done "outside" by roping the cows from horseback, throwing them, and slapping the hot iron on. It is a chore relished by many buckaroos.
Some ranchers now use "squeeze chutes" (metal contraptions that are placed at a corner of a corral or pen to trap and hold the cow firmly while the iron is applied) and the latest electric branders. Other important tasks are performed at the same time as branding: castration, ear marking, wattling, dehorning, and the administration of vaccinations, medicine, or vitamin serums with modern injection guns. All six pieces of work can be done in quick succession by several men working as a team. One person ropes and throws the cow and holds the rope taut. A second person lops a piece of ear off with a pocket knife while holding the cow's head down with one knee. That "knife man" (man or women) can then move around to accomplish castration (if necessary) and also cut the wattle mark. In ear marking, a crop, slit, split, or bob of the cow's ear is made with the penknife blade, and portions of the ear are removed or cut according to the established precedent in the brand book. The wattle is a special knife cut on the fatty portion of the cow's neck, jaw, or brisket area; the cut hide heals and hangs down in a certain position. Like the iron itself, ear mark styles and wattles are considered a rancher's property and can be used by other ranchers only if purchased and duly recorded with the state brand inspector's office. Ear marks and wattles are efficient identification methods in foul weather, under dusty conditions, or when cows are bunched up together. The law requires marking cattle with branding irons, and the customary legal system based on traditional usage since the middle of the nineteenth century calls for ear notching and wattling. Some ranchers use modern plastic tags secured to the cow's ear instead of the knife cut; the tags come in different colors and carry numbers and identification codes. All ranchers brand cattle, and most ranchers brand their horses too. Some ranchers also ear mark and wattle their cattle.
There are conventions in brand choice and design based on practicality and economy. A design should not blotch, so the iron or steel that will touch the cow's hide has to be a certain thickness, about one-eighth to one-quarter inch. Thinner irons would slice through the hide and injure the animal, and wider irons would dull the design. A plain design further reduces the blotching problem. The best iron designs are simply but ingeniously created to represent the owner's ranch or name. Good brands are also simple enough to discourage thieves and rustlers from being tempted to change the mark with "running irons." Running irons are kept by ranchers and used to mark strays when necessary, or to put a neighbor's brand on his strays that drift into the wrong herd. In addition, some now use "year irons," which apply a single digit brand indicating the year; far example, "4" indicates 1974, "9" indicates 1979.
Irons are read from top to bottom, left to right, and from outside in. Many irons are easy to read, like the Stewarts' 96 iron, a pioneer brand Mr. Stewart's grandfather bought from Aaron Denio when they took over the Denio ranch adjoining on the south. "The 96" is a major family ranch in Paradise, and the iron is well known throughout the Great Basin. Increasing in complexity are irons that have a "bar," "slash," "bench," "rocker," "circle," "three-quarter circle," "quarter circle," "wings," "box," "diamond," "rafter," and other conventional symbols that are attached in various ways to the core of the brand--an initial, a number, a figure.
In a hypothetical case of iron design, the first pioneer who stakes out the land and starts building the ranch might simply use his last initial--say, M. He finds that something more is necessary, since a new ranch over the mountain has the same iron, and furthermore a ranch in the next county has the W iron. Careless or inexperienced hands have been known inadvertently to apply his M iron upside down in the flurry and confusion of the branding activities. So he adds a rafter over the initial, creating the Rafter M Iron:
Later, one of his sons decides to go into the cattle business and wants to register his own brand but stay on the home ranch with the family elders and eventually take over the operation when the old man retires. So, the young man registers his own iron, which he calls the Diamond M:
made by welding another piece of iron onto the rafter. One or two additions are usually the limit before completely new irons are concocted. Ranchers may own several irons at once, since neighbors and other herds are occasionally bought out and added.
In Paradise Valley, these are some of the irons on some of the ranches we became acquainted with:
Now owned by the Nevada First Corporation, this iron is called the "Circle A" locally and was registered by an early cattle corporation, Abel and Curtner. Its full name is "Quarter Circle A." It is thought that the brand was originally called Compass, but there was some conflict with local Masons over its use, so it began to be called "Circle A." It is one of those irons with a common name that does not quite match the symbol itself.
The 7 U P iron is well-known as the Boggio brand, and Joe Boggio's son Harold now owns it. Even when an iron passes down within the same family, the symbol is re-registered with the state.
Seven H L Combined, an original 1864 iron of the Lye brothers, is now owned by Keith and Jean Thomas who operate the venerable pioneer Lye ranch at the head of Indian Creek.
C Bar, the iron owned by Bob Cassinelli and his sons, Bob, Pete, Dan, and Don.
Loui Cerri's Inverted T N T Combined.
Stan and Janice M. Klaumann's Four R Combined.
Quartercircle Hanging H, owned by Elizabeth Miller.
The 101, a pioneer brand invented by the patriarch of a German family, Gerhard Miller, Sr. The 101 is a popular iron in the West, but there is no connection between this one and the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma, founded in the 1890s by Col. George Miller. The Paradise Valley 101 was recently sold by Alvin E. and Anesita E. Miller to a young rancher from Turlock, California, Steve Lucas.
Carlo A. Recanzone of the pioneer Home Ranch, begun in 1864, has the Open A 9, which he registered in 1939 when he took principal leadership of the family operation.
Carlo's son, Carlo J. (Butch) Recanzone registered his iron with a symbol that cleverly coincides with his father's brand, to make the band closer and make identification of Recanzone stock simple. He calls it the 6 V.
Keystone, owned by Lyman W. Schwartz, grandson of pioneer businessman and rancher Robert Schwartz, a German immigrant.
The 96 iron used by the Stewart family on 96 Ranch cattle.
Several of the irons can be read correctly upside down, making the concentrated work of cattle branding a bit less troublesome: the 101, the 96, the Inverted T N T Combined, the Seven H L Combined, Fred and Robert Buckingham's Reverse B B Combined (left), and Jose Gastañaga's Seven X L (right).
A surprisingly ancient custom (performed by Egyptians four thousand years ago and spread throughout the globe), branding cattle and horses is of extreme importance in the range cattle industry. It is not required on ranches and farms where the herd is kept inside fenced lots and controlled pastures, but the use of the iron is mandatory in the West where cattle graze out on the range. It is a rigidly enforced custom that answers both official legal orders and the unofficial, traditional legal system within the community. The official code combined with the unwritten laws of custom help keep life peaceful and orderly. It is hard to imagine the buckaroo life and work without the branding scene.
Like the many costumes worn by Americans for the performance of different jobs and chosen roles in society, the cowboy's clothing is distinctive. It developed according to the requirements of the profession--boots, chaps, neckerchiefs--but with a certain style of its own that is particularly "American" and more particularly "western." The western style of cut and cloth is periodically fashionable in other parts of the country, and another wave of western fashion is upon us, with "designer jeans" and Tony Lama boots propped on Wall Street walnut desks. While certain features of cowboy clothes come from necessary function, like the heels on boots, other features are more aesthetic and symbolic than practical, like pearl snaps on shirts. For young men in the West, becoming a buckaroo is greatly enhanced by the image of manliness, vigor, and pride the special clothing conveys.
They could just as easily wear suit coats, vests, plain shirts, small felt hats, and "work shoes" like the buckaroos in the 1890s. Fashions change for traditional working people as well as for the city's upper crust. The Angora "wooly" chaps once standard in Nevada gave way to "batwings," which gave way about thirty years ago to today's short, fringed "chinks." Jeans are still worn, but a good pair of brown Sears work pants or Big Smith overalls would probably serve as well. Ranchers and cowboys who are secure and reasonably content with their way of life prefer to dress according to the standards and traditions of the community. A feeling of belonging and mutual respect is more important to people in Nevada than a feeling of being different. Clothes are yet another way of expressing one's role in society and one's acceptance or rejection of a community's traditions and habits. In Paradise Valley first impressions are important and character judgments are often formed quickly on the perception of a stranger's appearance.
Clothes that are too fancy or expensive-looking are avoided by most experienced buckaroos, even when getting cleaned up and going into Winnemucca for an evening or special occasion. You can tell a newcomer or outsider by the clothes he wears, and the old hands reveal subtly the correct standards and customs to a new man in the outfit. Certain variations may be significant only to insiders. For example, a cowboy's place of origin and mode of upbringing and training in the profession can often be determined by the style of the heel of the boot, or by the manner of wearing jeans--very long or shorter, tucked inside the boot tops or left out. A cowboy from the Nevada tradition believes that wearing jeans very long outside the boot keeps dust and pests out. Another man, from Montana, perhaps, believes pant legs have to be tucked inside the boot tops for the same reasons.
Hats, too, help determine origin. Shapes and styles of cowboy hats change according to a regional sense of fashion, and young men are always particular about hat shape and style. Older men care less about it, and since years ago hat brims were narrower and crowns lower, any hat like that (worn by a man aged fifty up) is called an "old man hat." Buckaroos hate being caught without their hats planted on their heads. Hats are permanent fixtures, essential equipment not to be fiddled with too much. Some oldtime cowhands believe that decorating hats with ornaments of any kind bespoils them, but others, like Chuck Wheelock, feel funny wearing a hat without a tail feather from a cock pheasant sticking out behind the hatband. A buckaroo usually has at least two hats, both expensive. One is worn every day, all day, indoors and out. The second hat is kept in a box at home and fetched out for special occasions like a cattleman's association meeting, a birthday party, a big dance, a BLM meeting at the Humboldt County Library, or the Fireman's Bar-B-Cue each June. Every man's hat is given a particular pinch, roll, or wrinkle to make it his own. The same hat is generally worn until it wears out, and a man riding horseback with cattle can be easily identified through the dust and haze by the outline of his head and hat. A good, expensive hat is highly prized today just as it has always been, and some ranchers' organizations present fine new hats as special awards, the way big rodeos give the all-around champion a fine new saddle.
In the past few years, caps or "cat hats" have grown in popularity in Nevada as elsewhere, and some men wear cat hats instead of cowboy hats. Cat hats are made of synthetic fabric, shaped like baseball caps with a bill on the front, and emblazoned with some sort of emblem such as Caterpillar (hence "cat hat"), John Deere, Powder River, or Eagle Claw Hooks. Cat hats are worn almost exclusively during periods of work on the ranch, but usually not when riding and tending cattle. For example, young Fred Stewart of the 96 Ranch wears a cat hat when working on farm machines or running equipment on the home ranch, but always wears his black felt cowboy hat when working cattle on horseback.
Neckerchiefs are another distinctive part of the buckaroo's outfit. The blue or red-and-white patterned neckerchiefs sported by dudes at eastern square dances are not found in Nevada on working cowboys. They seem more suitable for farmers or railroad men, or as pocket handkerchiefs. Moreover, the kind that can be bought at the local dimestore is really too small to be worn in the Nevada tradition, where they are wrapped around the neck twice and then tied in a small knot in the front. Buckaroos and their wives sometimes make these functional and distinctive neckerchiefs by purchasing a large piece of soft cloth (about three square yards) in town and then cutting and edging it to the individual's preferred size, but most men buy them in the women's scarves section in stores like The Stockmen's in Winnemucca. Called "neckerchief," "scarf," "wild rag," "glad rag," or "bandanna," this basic item can be plain black or a brilliantly colored print.
Chaps, from the Mexican-Spanish chaparreras, are leather leg coverings of various styles worn by working buckaroos when riding in brush or sage, for warmth in the winter, and for "show" in rodeos or parades. There are several different styles: "shotguns," "woolies" ("hair chaps"), "batwings," and "chinks," reflecting different regional traditions as well as changing fashions and personal preferences within the same region. The oldstyle shotgun chaps were never very popular in Paradise Valley. They are straight, plain, narrow, and completely enwrap the rider's legs from belt to boot sole. They have to be stepped into and pulled up over the jeans. The buckaroos we visited who wore shotguns generally had a pair of chinks as well. Another old form, the semi-shotgun style woolies of Angora goat skin with the fleece out, were widely used in northern Nevada from early times into recent years. In their time, Angora woolies were popular for their warmth and comfort, their appearance and ability to "turn the storm." They were in turn replaced by leather batwing chaps which fitted loosely but fully covered the legs, waist to ankle, and were wrapped around the rider's jean legs and strapped or buckled behind. Batwings are rare in this region, but Harold Chapin, a well-known rodeo champion and former herd boss for the McCleary Cattle Company in Paradise Valley, likes to wear a special pair of thin, floppy, fancy "bronc chaps" that are cut like batwings when he competes in a rodeo. The newest style, which has been popular for more than fifty years, is called chinks. Chinks are short, fringed chaps that reach below the knee and are often open behind the leg. Rancher Les Stewart explained their development in a letter in January 1979. I had asked him if chinks could have came from a Mexican tradition, since one of the buckaroos we visited told us they were from the Spanish "chinquederos." Beyond our not discovering any such word in Spanish, old or new, Mr. Stewart said that
Chinks probably originated when a buckaroo's old chaps became well worn and frayed and in an attempt to salvage something and save the cost of new ones, he trimmed them down until "chinks" were all that remained. Then the idea caught on and the style became popular. I think their origin is as unromantic as that, purely a practical evolution. They are just chinks, "chinquederos" is getting far too sophisticated.
The word "chinks" may have come from Spanish words chingo (leather stirrup covers) or chingadera ("cut off, blunted"), but the derivation is still unproven. Today, same people still make their own chinks from a wornout pair of shotguns or batwings.
But more people make chinks and other chaps from scratch, like Chuck Wheelock, Henry Taylor, and Butch Recanzone, who made his first pair of chinks by taking the pattern off his father's. Butch made a fancy pair carrying the ranch's 6 V iron for his father as a Christmas present in 1978. He says that they are not difficult to make; all you need is some leather, two needles, a sharp awl, and heavy waxed thread. It is "Something to do on a winter's night."
In Paradise Valley, as in other small communities, everyone dresses much the same. Wild outfits indicate a strong ego or eccentricity of some sort. These "dude outfits" will not do for the average citizen, though they are permissible on special occasions. As Pete Pedroli told Dick Ahlborn, a buckaroo's clothing should not be "too fancy for us sagebrush boys." Everyday dress gives little sign of social standing, financial power, or status. The key to picking out clothes is conservative practicality matched against the prevailing standards of the region.
Bunkhouses and Line Camp Cabins
Bunkhouses shelter buckaroos. The same shelter may be called by different names, depending on location and use: bunkhouse, cabin, line camp, buckaroo camp, cow camp. A bunkhouse is usually thought of as a small house on the home ranch that serves as a permanent home for employees, whether buckaroos or hands. With one or more rooms, there is space for cooking, eating, sleeping, and storing horsegear and equipment. Ranch hands and buckaroos call this dwelling home for the duration of their employment. Temporary shelters are also placed strategically at great distances from the home ranch and in the privately owned fields enclosed in BLM or Forest Service grazing lands. These are the line camps, buckaroo camps, or cow camps where men stay for short periods of time while tending cattle through the government grazing allotments "on the mountain." Line camp refers to both the building and the place. Some line camps are canvas wall tents right on the ground, same are wall tents with raised wood platform floors and frames, and some are beautifully constructed granite buildings made with more care than many modern homes in Winnemucca.
Few bunkhouses or line camps were built and used by the early pioneers, since in the beginning few extra employees were kept by the family ranchers. Most ranchers had large families, and with the help of neighbors during seasons of peak activity—calving, branding, haying round-up, shipping—they could marshal sufficient hands to get the work done. As ranchers gradually built up the range cattle industry and their herds grew in size, itinerant buckaroos began staying beyond particular seasons and required special housing both on the home ranch and in the desert and mountain grazing areas. Paradise Valley was settled in the 1860s, and the first special-purpose bunkhouses were like the one built on Aaron Denio's homestead of adobe bricks in about 1870, on property now used as a "hay camp" on the Stewart ranch. The early Italian masons built no stone bunkhouses or camps at first. Their energies went into the main house, horse barns, and granaries and into developing their agricultural and cattle-raising enterprises. They found time to build stone bunkhouses when their first responsibilities were met and when changing work patterns in later years made the construction of bunkhouses necessary.
Specialists who study traditional architecture spend more time and effort documenting the buildings' details and history and less on trying to place them in styles or periods of architecture. Unlike academic architecture, folk buildings are the result of generations of experiment, use, and custom and pay less attention to popular trends and fashions. Like ballads, or legends of Butch Cassidy's escape from Winnemucca, or ways to make biscuits over a sagebrush fire, folk buildings are expressions of the region and the people's heritage, as settlers carve out shelters in the new landscape. Architecture specialists study four aspects of a building (in addition to history): form, construction, use, and decoration. Dimensions and floorplan (form) place folk buildings in a classification of similar types, which can show regional distribution and traditionality. Construction methods indicate not only the builder's origins and craftsmanship but his way of coping with the new land and its possibilities for creating architecture. Understanding the function of a building helps us know more about the people who built it, and details of ornament or decoration indicate the effect that some period of national taste or style has had in the region or community.
The dwellings and temporary shelters of working cowboys fall into different categories of traditional structures. There are three types of bunkhouses and buckaroo camps in northern Nevada--two house types well known in other parts of North America, and one type introduced into this region by Alpine Italian masons.
The first of the three types of dwellings represents the modern continuation of a house form known for hundreds of years in Europe, the single-pen house. Built either square or slightly rectangular, it developed in its present size and shape in the Middle Ages and was brought from the British Isles to the American colonies in the East by the first settlers. It is found all over the United States, constructed of various materials: heavy timber in New England, red brick in the Chesapeake-Tidewater, stone in Pennsylvania, round logs in the Deep South, hewn logs in the Midwest, light frame everywhere. In Nevada this venerable house type is found built in sod and adobe by the first pioneers and in stone and frame by later ranchers. The single-pen house type is exemplified by the cabin at the Little Owyhee line camp ("the Circle A" ), the bunkhouse at the Bradshaw-Cerri-Wallace place, and the house from the Mill Ranch that has been reconstructed as part of the "Buckaroo" exhibit at the National Museum of History and Technology.
This house form is the basic building block for most American folk house types. Its prime features are its one-room square or rectangular shape with the door in a long side and a gable roof. Though scholars call this house a "single-pen" house, the people who make and use them just call them cabins or houses.
The second type of bunkhouse is actually a version of the single-pen house, but the house plan has been turned and the door placed in the gable end rather than in one of the long sides. The placement of the door in the gable may reflect Greek Revival and carpenter Gothic styles of the late nineteenth century in the West. There are numerous examples of this end-opening single-pen house type; good ones include the Stewart ranch bunkhouse, the Ferrara-Zatica/Gavica-Cassinelli bunkhouse, and the cabin on the Boggio property. Bunkhouses of this form are usually frame, but the Boggio cabin (on property leased to the Klaumanns) was built by Italian stonemasons of sawn sandstone. Both of the single-pen forms (side-opening and end-opening) are often divided into two small rooms inside, but the general rule calls for one open room. Sometimes the second type is added onto for more sleeping rooms, as with the Stewart and Schwartz bunkhouses.
Line-camp cabins may be either of those two main forms. On the 96 Ranch property there are several line-camp cabins in both frame and stone. The Bradshaw field cabin and the Hartscrabble cabin are made of granite, and both were built by Italian stonemason Antone Ramasco about 1920. They are single-pen houses of the first type, but with shed roofs rather than gable roofs. At Cold Springs camp and Black Ridge camp, Les Stewart built frame cabins for the buckaroos; Cold Springs is of the second type (end-opening) and Black Ridge is of the first (door in the long side).
The third type of bunkhouse consists of two-level buildings of stone designed and built by immigrant masons from the foot of the Italian Alps. Several outstanding examples are in use today in Paradise. The first floor is partly underground and houses a cellar or meat room, and the buckaroos and ranch hands live in the second story, reached by an outdoor staircase. They are roughly square with thick rock walls, generally have a hip roof, and were built by several specialists in the Ferrarro, Recanzone, and Ramasco families. The best of the Ramasco masons, Antone Ramasco, was the acknowledged master of stone-masonry in the valley, though other Italians like Steve Boggio and Virgil Pasquale did important work, too. Rather than convert to a rancher or businessman like other Italians, Antone Ramasco remained a builder all his life, and his expertise and personal mortaring style are evident on many buildings in Humboldt County today. The sandstone bunkhouse at the Bull Head Ranch is a masterpiece, as are the two huge granite horse barns at the 96 Ranch, built by Ramasco with his brother-in-law Charlie Zorio. The Italian masons got their soft sandstone (easily cut with a hand saw or special hatchet) from a quarry site on the east edge of the valley on the desert's apron, while the granite came (with considerably more effort) from a quarry up Lamance Creek at the western edge where the Santa Rosa Range rises.
The bunkhouse in the exhibition was acquired from Bob Cassinelli, whose family has operated the Mill Ranch for some years. It was built for John Schneider in about 1921. Schneider was an immigrant German trapper who came to the ranch in the 1920s and stayed on as a ranch hand and jack-of-all-trades. Called "Coyote John" or "Hans," Schneider was well-known in the county in his later years working for Lorenzo Recanzone at the Mill Ranch.
Schneider became an informal member of the Recanzone family, who found in him a stout worker and loyal friend who was able to protect the Recanzone women and children when the men were working away from the ranch. Carlo Recanzone remembers from his childhood at the Mill Ranch when Schneider chased a threatening stranger away with his trusty "thirty-thirty" Winchester.
And when Lorenzo Recanzone took the whole family back to Italy and France in 1919 to deliver a deceased relative to the old country, Schneider was put in charge of the ranch. A substantial amount of money was put in the bank in Winnemucca in Schneider's name, to be used as needed. When the family returned to Paradise not one dollar had been spent. Trustworthy men like Schneider had a strong role in rearing the youngsters and passing on knowledge of the ranch life and work. Carlo and his sister Angie Recanzone Genasci fondly recall "old Hans." As Carlo put it, "Old John was a grand ole guy for us." Schneider died in 1932 at the age of ninety and is buried in the Paradise community cemetery near the Recanzone family plots.
The dwelling typifies the form of bunkhouses and line camps across the West. It was built in a distinctive mode common for small frame buildings in some sections of the nineteenth-century West. Called "single-wall construction" by people in Nevada, this framing technique uses no vertical bracing but depends instead on a strong wall of large vertical boards made rigid by the roof system. Second and third layers of battens, horizontal boards, and interior insulation are usually added. Recanzone hired a carpenter named Teddy Weller to build the house for Schneider, who had been living in a wall tent with a board floor--a chilly dwelling in wintertime. It was built on wooden skids or runners so that the building could be dragged to different parts of the ranch according to Schneider's duties of the season or year.
In the building's later history at the Mill Ranch, it served as a bunkhouse and as a store room for fence materials, tools, branding irons, and other supplies kept under lock and key.
Most buckaroos today live in modern mobile homes or prefabricated houses on the home ranches, provided by the ranchers mainly because there are so many married men needing separate dwellings. Most of the old bunkhouses where several single buckaroos lived together are now vacant and used as saddle rooms or storage sheds. But on the larger outfits like Nevada Vaca, Nevada Garvey, and the 96 Ranch, the traditional bunkhouses are maintained and in use both on the home ranch and out on the summer range--at line camps many miles from the ranch headquarters.
John Schneider's bunkhouse is at the heart of the buckaroo exhibition. It is a tangible artifact that exemplifies an important mode of wooden carpentry in the West. It is a traditional dwelling rooted in the cultural landscape on a family ranch and represents the way many cowmen and ranch hands live, yesterday and today. Numbered in the catalog, it is an exhibit artifact of larger dimension and of major significance both as an individual sample of folk housing and as a reconstructed context for a constellation of other artifacts from northern Nevada.