THE OLD COW MAN by Charles Badger Clark, Jr. (1883-1957)


by Charles Badger Clark, Jr. (1883-1957)

I rode across a valley range
I hadn’t seen for years.
The trail was all so spoilt and strange
It nearly fetched the tears.
I had to let ten fences down
(The fussy lanes ran wrong)
And each new line would make me frown
And hum a mournin’ song.

Oh, it’s squeak! squeak! squeak!
Hear ’em stretchin’ of the wire!
The nester brand is on the land;
I reckon I’ll retire,
While progress toots her brassy horn
And makes her motor buzz,
I thank the Lord I wasn’t born
No later than I was.

‘Twas good to live when all the sod,
Without no fence or fuss,
Belonged in partnership to God,
The Gover’ment and us.
With skyline bounds from east to west
And room to go and come,
I loved my fellow man the best
When he was scattered some.

Oh, it’s squeak! squeak! squeak!
Close and closer cramps the wire.
There’s hardly any place to back away
And call a man a liar.
Their house has locks on every door;
Their land is in a crate.
These ain’t the plains of God no more,
They’re only real estate.

There’s land where yet no ditchers dig
Nor cranks experiment;
It’s only lovely, free and big
And isn’t worth a cent.
I pray that them who come to spoil
May wait till I am dead
Before they foul that blessed soil
With fence and cabbage head.

Yet it’s squeak! squeak! squeak!
Far and farther crawls the wire.
To crowd and pinch another inch
Is all their heart’s desire.
The word is overstocked with men
And some will see the day
When each must keep his little pen,
But I’ll be far away.

When my old soul hunts range and rest
Beyond the last divide,
Just plant me in some stretch of West
That’s sunny, lone and wide.
Let cattle rub my tombstone down
And coyotes mourn their kin,
Let hawses paw and tromp the moun’
But don’t you fence it in!

Oh it’s squeak! squeak! squeak!
And they pen the land with wire.
They figure fence and copper cents
Where we laughed ’round the fire.
Job cussed his birthday, night and morn,
In his old land of Uz,
But I’m just glad I wasn’t born
no later than I was!

…by Charles Badger Clark, Jr.

South Dakota native Charles Badger Clark worked as a cowboy on an Arizona ranch and became South Dakota’s first poet laureate. He wrote many lasting poems, and others also found their way into song (including “Spanish is a Loving Tongue” and “To Her”).

Top cowboy balladeer Don Edwards has a wonderful rendition of “The Old Cowman.” You can watch a performance in a video here.

Find poetry and more in our features about Badger Clark.

This photograph is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division. By C.A. Kendrick, it is captioned, “F.D.W. Ranch, about 1903. Some of the cowboys pose on a tree trunk somewhere on the plains country, possibly Texas or Oklahoma.” Find more about it here.

The South Dakota Historical Society Foundation holds Badger Clark’s papers and offers his books for sale.

The Western Folklife Center has a collection of Badger Clark poems and songs recited and sung by National Cowboy Poetry Gathering participants over the gathering’s three-decade history.

From their description, “The CD features 22 tracks (over 74 minutes) of Clark’s best loved works. A 24-page booklet with the CD contains an essay about Badger Clark written by folklorist Elaine Thatcher, as well as words to all the poems as published by Badger Clark between 1915-1922. The CD is being released in conjunction with the 2016 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s celebration of life in the Northern Plains.”

Included are the voices of Owen Johnson, Jerry Brooks, Don Edwards & Waddie Mitchell, Cain Eaton, Rod McQueary, Connie Dover & Skip Gorman, Denise Withnell-Cowboy Celtic, Joe Hertz & David Wilkie, Gail Steiger, Joel Nelson, Lorraine Rawls & Crystal Reeves, Tom Pearlman, Gary McMahan & DW Groethe, Randy Rieman, Jill Jones & Lone Star Chorale, Linda M. Hasselstrom, Carl Sharp, and Jim Ross.

Find more at the Western Foklife Center gift shop.