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Collection Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945 to 1982


Typical buckaroo clothing in bedroom of Rusty and Peggy McCorkell, Reed (Read) Ranch

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.

Hat, Neckerchief, and Boots

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.

Buckaroos Herb Pembroke, Dave Hiller and Dick Gusky with copy of Folklife Center News, Little Owyhee Line Camp

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.