Cowboy Poet Portraits in Tintype


Here’s a great, worthwhile project by Kevin Martini-Fuller, who has photographed the cowboy poets of the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Gathering for 35 years (over 40,000 images). Generous to a fault, few people have invested so many of their own resources as he has as he creates and preserves this important history. He could use some support for a new project.

He writes: “To celebrate my 35th year, of photographing Cowboy Poets, I will be making their portraits as a tintype (an antique photo process that dates from the 1860’s)…COWBOY POET PORTRAITS IN TINTYPE will add an ageless quality to the depth and the breadth of my already extensive archive and serve as a visual connection to the timeless quality of the portraits made during the beginning years of this project.”

Also at the link here, check out some chronological portraits (of Ross Knox, Waddie Mitchell, and Walt Cheney); learn a bit of the history of his work; learn about the book being created from the “Portraits of the Gathering”; and more.


ELKO, by Colen Sweeten


by Colen Sweeten (1919-2007)

They came to the mid-winter gath’ring,
Leaving haystacks and dehorning chutes.
Dressed true to old west tradition,
Levis, Stetsons, and high heeled boots.

A few were in casts or on crutches,
Some looked like I’d seen them before.
Each wore the hat no one touches
And had high polished boots on the floor.

The faces were brown as a saddle.
Some mustaches wide as a door.
And they walked with a half-cocked straddle,
Like the part that they sit on was sore.

Their poetry, sprinkled with sagebrush,
Was not meant for the city galoots.
And there each one sat in his ten gallon hat,
And a cow and a half worth of boots.

© 1987, Colen Sweeten, used with permission of the Sweeten family
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

The Western Folklife Center’s 36th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, often referred to simply as “Elko,” is getting underway in Elko, Nevada. We like to share the late Colen Sweeten’s poem every year, when it’s “Elko time.”

During his lifetime, Colen Sweeten was a part of every Elko gathering, except one. He had an enormous repertoire of poems, stories, wisdom, and humor. He always had a kind and cheerful word for all, and as he often said, so many friends that he “wasn’t even using them all.”

Colen Sweeten appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1991, along with the late Rod McQueary. See a clip from the show here.

Find more about Colen Sweeten and more of his poetry at,  where there are also tributes to him.

Find some other poems about Elko in our feature here.

This 2014 photo by Carol M. Highsmith, titled, “Fancy cowboy boots for sale at the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in San Antonio, Texas,” is from The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Find the collection here, where it notes that, “Highsmith, a distinguished and richly-published American photographer, has donated her work to the Library of Congress since 1992. Starting in 2002, Highsmith provided scans or photographs she shot digitally with new donations to allow rapid online access throughout the world. Her generosity in dedicating the rights to the American people for copyright free access also makes this Archive a very special visual resource.”

Find more about Carol Highsmith and her work at and on Facebook at Carol M. Highsmith’s America.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but please request permission for any other uses. The photo is in the public domain.)

COLD MORNIN’S, by Bruce Kiskaddon


by Bruce Kiskaddon (1878-1950)

I been out in the weather since I was a boy,
But cold mornin’s is sumthin’ a man cain’t enjoy.
It makes me feel like I wanted to quit
When I ketch up my pony and thaw out my bit.

There ain’t any cow puncher needs to be told
That my saddle is stiff and the leather is cold.
The blankets is froze and the hoss shakes like jelly
When you the pull the old frozen cinch up on his belly.

He snorts and he’s got a mean look in the eye.
He is humped till the back of the saddle stands high.
He ain’t in no humor to stand fer a joke,
But I belt on my chaps and I light me a smoke.

There may be some trouble between me and him.
It is like goin’ into cold water to swim.
It gives me a sort of shivver and scare
But once I git started; well then I don’t care.

…by Bruce Kiskaddon, 1937

Kiskaddon has a number of cold weather poems, no doubt inspired by his cowboying years in Colorado. This poem appeared in the Western Livestock Journal and on the Los Angeles Union Stockyards calendar.

This year’s triple CD from, MASTERS: VOLUME THREE, the poetry of Bruce Kiskaddon, has over 60 tracks of the poetry of Bruce Kiskaddon (1878-1950), recited by voices from the past and from today’s top reciters and poets.

Find more about Bruce Kiskaddon at

This photograph is from top cowboy poet, South Dakota rancher, and quilt champion Yvonne Hollenbeck. It was taken a few years ago, and she commented, “Ahh, the life of a ranchwife in South Dakota in winter. We just scooped two long lines of bunks (wet heavy snow) so we could feed the calves…That was just half of ’em in the picture. We feed ground feed into the bunks. I think there’s two rows of 11.”

Yvonne is headed to the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2020 in Elko, Nevada. She joins a great group of poets, musicians, and others at this “granddaddy” of all gatherings. Go! And find more at

Find more about Yvonne Hollenbeck at and at

(You can share this photo with this post, but please request permission for other uses. The poem is in the public domain.)

OL’ PROC, by Wallace McRae


by Wallace McRae

Old-timers in the neighborhood
Would bandy words on who was good
At puncher jobs for hours on end when I was just a kid.
They’d get wall-eyed ‘n paw and bawl
And swear, “By damn I knowed ’em all.
If’n Josh he wasn’t best trailhand, I’ll eat my beaver lid!”

“Down and dirty, I’m the dealer
Old Bob Seward? Best damn peeler
Ever snapped a bronc out, jist give me one he broke.”
“Give you say? That’s what I heard.
You’re right that Bob’s a tough ol’ bird.
But better practice cactus pickin’ and work on your spur stroke.

Cain’t stay astraddle one of his his’n
When he pops the plug and goes t’ fizzin’
She’ll be adios caballo and howdy to the nurse.”
They’d move from bickering bronc peeler
To rawhide hands ‘n fancy heelers.
“Red Carlin?” “Young Mac Philbrick?” They’d testify and curse.

They’d analyze Link Taylor’s cuttin’:
“His bag-splittin’ way of calf denuttin’
Is pure askin’ for trouble, ‘sides he don’t cut by the sign.”
“You cut your calves by the moon?
Keep on night brandin’ and pretty soon
The sheriff’ll change yer address and you’ll be twistin’ hair
and twine.”

On they’d rave and postulate
‘Bout who was fair and who was great.
As they scratched brands in the hot dust, I’d never say a word.
But in their jousting verbal battle,
Among the boasts and barbs and prattle,
I sat in youthful judgment as they sorted out the herd.”

So, I came early to understand
The names of every good top hand.
In my scope of country, from hearing tough hands talk.
But when they’d crow and blow and boast
The one name that came up the most
Was a wily wild horse runner they simply called “ol’ Proc.”

“You boys jist start ’em. I’ll stop ’em.”
Old Proc’d say and then he’d chop ’em
Off at some escape route. He’d wheel ‘n bring them in.
“Proc thinks horse,” I’d heard them say,
And finally there came the day
That I would get to meet this fabled mounted paladin.

My mother’s father, John McKay,
Up and said on fine spring day
While I was staying with them, “Minnie, get your bonnet.”
“Let’s go up by Castle Rock
‘N see some country, visit Proc.
If you’re late, I’ll be upset. You can bet your life upon it.”

He never paused for her reply.
My grandma fussed around and I
Asked grandpa, “Is he the wild horse man?” “That’s him,”
my grandpa said,
As we ricocheted and bounced our way
In a tobacco-stained green Chevrolet
My grandpa told “Proc stories” and chewed and spit and sped.

From all the tales Grandpa told me
I felt like an authority
On this ranahan, Joe Proctor, who came north with Texas cattle.
His wife had been the JO cook.
But Proc had sparked and won and took
Her for his bride. They fought and won the homestead battle.

I couldn’t wait to meet Mr. Proc,
Whose peers all praised his ways with stock.
But when his calloused hand gripped mine, surprise hit me
in waves.
Those old cowboys who cut no slack
Deemed it unimportant Proc was black,
And wasn’t worth a mention that Joe Proctor’s folks were slaves.

© 1992, Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission.

View Andy Hedges’ recitation of this poem at the Western Folklife Center’s 2019 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Earlier this year, Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow, told us about  this poem, which is based on a real person, Joe Proctor, who came up to Montana with Texas cattle. His grandfather talked about him, and told how he and his wife were the only Black people he ever knew.
There was a Black woman who was a cook at an area ranch, and Joe Proctor would ride over to visit her and they eventually married. Some of their descendants still live in the area. Wallace McRae’s grandfather would say that Joe Proctor was widely respected as “a heck of a hand.” Wallace McRae said that Joe Proctor died before he had the chance to meet him, and added that he took a bit of liberty in the poem.

Wallace McRae is most well known for his own least favorite poem, “Reincarnation.” A closer look at his work shows a body of serious work as well as his unique humor.

Find his stirring, masterful poem, “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of To the West, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.

Wallace McRae has retired from public appearances. Find more of his poetry and more about him in our feature at He relishes being known as “The Cowboy
Curmudgeon” (which is the title of one of his books). You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.

The Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (January 27-February 1, 2020) in Elko, Nevada will have a focus on the historic and contemporary culture of Black cowboys through performances, exhibits, films, and more.

Noted photographer and journalist Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) is most famous for her Depression-era photograph of a migrant woman, and she captured images of other migrants and workers, including cowboys.

This 1936 photo by Dorothea Lange is from The Library of Congress. It is captioned:

Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas. Born a slave about 1850, south of San Antonio, Texas. Came to Carrizo Springs during Civil War with white men seeking new range for their cattle. In 1865, with his master was one of the first settlers. He knew Billy the Kid, King Fisher, and other noted bad men of the border.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem with this post, but for other uses, request permission. The photo is in the public domain.)

INSIDE WAR, by Joel Nelson


by Joel Nelson

We read stories of Wars
Hist’ries written on pages
And records of battle
Drawn on walls of the cave
Read of Glory and Honor
And Right through the ages
And all those who fell
‘Neath the crest of the knave

The themes are eternal
Of wars on the ocean
Of axes and swords
On the Otterburn Plain
The ninety gun Frigates
The horsemen in motion
The bleeding has stopped
But the stories remain

There are terms of Armistice
And flags of surrender
This war fought for freedom
That war saved a race
Twixt savages cruel
Or soldiers yet tender
The scholars record them
And each has its place

Some go unrecorded
Wars fought self-contained
Conflicts never ending
No respite or truce
For the foe lives within
Lashing out unrestrained
And the warrior wears thin
From the battles’ abuse

The shelling subsides
Then intensity quickens
With most unaware
Of the state of the war
Leaving soldier and loved ones
With Conflict that thickens
Outsiders observing
The scene from afar

There is only so long
Any warrior can battle
‘Til he must succumb
To the enemy inside
So loosening the reins
Stepping down from the saddle
Heaving sigh of relief
He will cease his long ride

His allies left standing
Gather somewhat uncertain
Refraining from judgment
United by love
Acknowledging peacetime
And drawing the curtain
Leaving all in the hands
Of the Maker above

© 2008, Joel Nelson
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

In observance of Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, we’re honored to share the words of Texas rancher, poet, reciter, and horseman Joel Nelson. He served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. A National Endowment of the Arts Heritage Fellow, Joel Nelson is respected for his writing and his reciting.

He is just back from the soldout 2nd annual Texas Hill Country Cowboy Gathering . Find him at the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2020 in Elko, Nevada and at the Lone Star Cowboy Poetry Gathering, February 21-22, 2020 in Alpine, Texas,  where he is the keynote speaker.

Find more about Joel Nelson at

This photograph, by Idaho filmmaker, writer, teacher, and photographer Ken Rodgers, was taken in 2016 at the San Antonio Veterans Memorial Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


Ken and the equally talented photographer and filmmaker Betty Rodgers are the creators of the award-winning film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, about the men of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines during the 1968 siege at Khe Sanh in the Republic of Vietnam, in which Ken served. The film is available for streaming at Find more at, where there is an engaging blog.


Their latest project, I Married the War, tells the stories of the lives of combat veteran spouses, from WWII through today. It is in final editing stages. Find more about it at

Find poems and more for Veterans Day at

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

DYING BREED, by Jay Snider



by Jay Snider

The note was neatly written
On an old brown paper bag
Bound and nicely folded
Inside a little American flag

We found it on the mantel
Near some pictures that he had
Of an old bay hoss he used to ride
His wife, his mother and his dad

It was pressed beneath a Bible
That sixty years ago was new
He often said when it was with him
He felt the Lord rode with him too

The note read smooth and easy
The words were simple, plain, and true
Reflections of a lifetime
Of an old time buckaroo

It read: “I’m just a simple cowboy
I’ve grown accustomed to meager ways
Cause it’s sometimes hard to make ends meet
On what punchin’ cattle pays

“But if wealth is somehow measured
By the many friends you’ve made
And success is hitched to freedom
Then I reckon I’ve been well paid

“But I’ve heard we’re nearin’ extinction
The cowboy’s just a vision from the past
His ways are old and antiquated
That our future is fadin’ fast

“But in my mind,” the note read on,
“I tend to disagree
Cause I see the cowboy in the young bucks
The ones who follow you and me

“I’ve seen ’em ridin’ rangy broncs
And spur ’em jump for jump
Then loose the rein and pet ’em some
When they’ve ridden out the hump

“I’ve heard ’em hoop and holler
Bustin’ brush and dodgin’ trees
Stand hat in hand and reverent
Old Glory wavin’ in the breeze

“I’ve watched ’em tradin’ horses
Swappin’ lies on a cattle deal
Then sign it proud and proper
With just a handshake for the seal

“I’ve seen a sadness in their eyes
For an orphaned calf in pain
When in spite of their compassion
All efforts were in vain

“I know they treat their elders
With respect and dignity
Still tip their hats to womenfolk
Just the way that it should be”

It read: “As long as little buckaroos
Dream of ridin’ wild and free
There will always be good cowboys
To follow you and me

“These words I write, though roughly penned
I hope fit somewhere in the cowboy creed
The cowboy will live eternal
We darned sure ain’t no dying breed ”

© 2002 Jay Snider
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Popular Oklahoma rancher, poet, and reciter Jay Snider comes from a long line of cowboys and his sons are growing the next generation.

Find Jay at the 31st annual Cowboy Christmas Poetry Gathering in Wickenburg, Arizona, December 6-7, 2019. Other featured performers include Mary Kaye, Leon Autrey, and Trinity Seeley.

Jay returns to the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2020, in Elko, Nevada.  See Monday’s post for a list of participants and visit for more, including descriptions of workshops, films, and other events at the gathering.

Jay Snider’s recent CD, Classic Cowboy Poetry: The Old Tried and True, showcases his fine reciting. He delivers poems by Bruce Kiskaddon, Henry Herbert Knibbs, Will Ogilvie, Sunny Hancock, and others, to carry listeners back to time when, to quote Kiskaddon,
“cattle were plenty and people were few.”

For a great look at how Jay Snider handles the classics, see a video of him reciting Sunny Hancock’s “The Bear Tale” at the 2010 Western Folklife Center National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about Jay Snider at , and at

Photo courtesy of Jay Snider.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photo with this post, but for other uses, request permission.)

GET ALONG, by Jarle Kvale


by Jarle Kvale

We never talk religion – views on politics, taboo—
we’d rather keep our friendship than be stirrin’ up a stew
discussin’ things so trivial—that pack such little weight—
our friendship’s too important to be lost in some debate.
We’ll talk about the weather—or the horses that we’ve rode—
We’ll rave about our favorites and the ones that got us throwed.
We’ll chat about our families—how our grandkids make us proud –
We’ll joke and tease, and more than once, you’ll hear us laugh out loud.
But politics? Religion? No—we’d rather get along—
Besides, no sense conversin’ when it’s plain that he’s just wrong!

© 2016, Jarle Kvale
This poem should not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Popular poet Jarle Kvale is a North Dakota horseman, radio broadcaster, and host of the cowboy poetry and Western music Back at the Ranch radio show.

His new book, Horses, Dogs, (& Lingerie), is described, “Jarle takes his experiences with horses, rodeo, and North Dakota rural living and turns them into humorous verse…”

His recent CD, “Custom Made,” includes 14 original poems, well wrought—mostly humorous—verse, delivered in his understated and engaging style.

This photo is from the inside of Custom Made, taken in Wyoming of Jarle Kvale’s horses. The outside has a stunning cover photograph by Cindy Quigley of CMQ Photography. See the cover and the track list at

Jarle Kvale is just back from appearances at the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Old West Days and Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

He’s been invited to the Western Folklife Center’s 36th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 27-February 1, 2020 in Elko, Nevada. The lineup includes poets Doris Daley, John Dofflemyer, Carolyn Dufurrena, Maria Lisa Eastman, Patricia Frolander, DW Groethe, Andy Hedges, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Carol Heuchan, Chris Isaacs, Randi Johnson, Jarle Kvale, Annie Mackenzie, Waddie Mitchell, Joel Nelson, Rodney Nelson, Jonathan Odermann, Vess Quinlan, Henry Real Bird, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Jake Riley, R.P. Smith, Jay Snider, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Forrest VanTuyl, and Paul Zarzyski.

Musicians & singer-songwriters include An American Forrest, Mike Beck, Cat Clifford, Dylan Clough, Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie, Dom Flemons, Pipp Gillette & Lloyd Wright, DW Groethe, R.W. Hampton, Andy Hedges, Hot Club of Cowtown, Ned LeDoux, Corb Lund & the Hurtin’ Albertans, Miko Marks, Marinna Mori, Tracy Morrison, The Munsick Boys, Brigid Reedy, Randy Rieman, Trinity Seely, Dave Stamey, Gail Steiger, Michael Stevens, Tom Swearingen, Jessie Veeder, and Wylie and The Wild West. They also promise “special guests.” Visit for much more, including descriptions of workshops, films, and other events at the gathering.

Find more of Jarle Kvale’s poetry and more about him at and check out Back at the Ranch to tune in to the current and past shows.

(Jarle Kvale’s friend Oregon poet Tom Swearingen—also featured in Elko in 2020—suggested the title for this previously untitled poem.)

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and this photograph with this post, but for other uses, please request permission.)