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Old Cowboys

Judy Buffington Sammons
Gunnison, Colo.
Hired man, Joe Echert hailed from Missouri and spent his entire life working on a Western Colorado ranch.

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“If his face is the color of a good slice of roast beef, done rare – if his forehead is white above the line of his hatband…if the back of his neck is seamed and wrinkled by blizzards and dust storms and broiling sun – if there are wrinkles around his eyes and hair in his ears, you have a right to believe what he looks like. He is undoubtedly a cattleman.”

Cowboys and Cattle Kings – C.L. Sonnichsen, 1950

I liked the way Sonnichsen summed up the fifties era cattleman. I reread his words recently and got to thinking about them – the old time cowboys. The circumstances that shaped their lives and formed their personalities have changed. Today we have “new cowboys” – and some pretty good ones – but they aren’t really the same. Old cowboys are scarce now, and very valuable. I would like to pay tribute to them here and say a few words on their behalf.

These were men who had their beginnings back in the horse and buggy days and lived long enough to marvel at a man walking on the moon. They were born on the last fringes of the pioneer period – back in the Old West – where it was said, “men were men, and women were glad of it.”

Old cowboys come in several categories: some were hired men, some were small operators, and some built up veritable empires of land and cattle. Regardless of their station, most of these men enjoyed in their time, some of the most beautiful country in the mountain West. . . enjoyed it – tamed it – knew country that was still silent, wild, and free. Often they were taciturn, using brief and forceful words to get their point across. Yet these same men frequently possessed a remarkably sunny disposition.

They had a certain look, too – one that didn’t change much over the years. Their style could almost be deemed sophisticated…in a rustic way. They were beefy and rugged, with barrel chests, hands big as hams, and legs more and more bowed as the horseback years added up. They looked strong. There was no mistaking one.

The old cowboys had a familial connection with the land. In the late 1800s their fathers and grandfathers had pioneered in the ideal stock grazing lands on the unsettled Western Slope of Colorado. Early on they had moved into the Paradox Valley, the Mancos Valley, the Uncompahgre Plateau, up northwest to Brown’s Park, on to the Yampa River and to the mild climate where the Colorado and Gunnison rivers joined and on up to Grand Mesa and into the Gunnison country.

These early day cattlemen began populating their new found treasure of grass with cattle by the thousands. Ranching, under their guidance, started, steadied, grew, and prospered. The dishonest, the impatient, the inept, and the unlucky of the pioneer ranchers did not make it in the business for long. Nor did the faint of heart. It was a hard business that would make a man’s body hard and his mind too, if he wasn’t careful, and age his wife before her time. A gambler’s courage was needed to succeed and the sons of these pioneers – now the “old cowboys” themselves – seemed to have inherited that courage.

My grandfather, Clyde Buffington, was one of these men. He was always a big part of my life because our ranch was a family business. Grandad favored his male grandchildren but had a tolerant affection for his granddaughter. I was always a little in awe of him, but returned his affection and thrived on his limited praise. “You’re mighty pretty, Miss Judy,” he would say as I modeled the frilly pink dress he had brought back from the Kansas City Royal. But that was all – then it was right back to business.

Grandad was the epitome of the “old time cattleman.” He lived his entire life with a great singleness of purpose – that of building up a good ranch, enclosing it with barbed wire, and putting his blue-ribboned Herefords behind the fences. He never aspired to do anything else. He lived a long life, dying at the age of 92 and going out the way he had lived, with great dignity and a good fight up to the very end. It was a strange feeling of surprise to me when he left us. I had thought him to be indestructible, and he very nearly was.

Because of this grandfather of mine, I have retained a great affinity for “old cowboys.” My career as a writer of Western history has brought me to the doors of more than a few of them. I treasure the time I’ve spent in the company of these gentlemen and I greatly value the wisdom they’ve imparted. I like everything about them. They all have a certain “look” and it’s one that cannot be copied. It starts with an old Stetson hat, or something closely resembling it – one not decorated with feathers or silver conchas, but possessing that degree of character that only honest wear and tear brings.

My grandfather always claimed you could spot a “real” cowboy by looking at his knuckles, saying that years of roping and flanking would produce knuckles that look like miniature doorknobs. He said a cattleman should be shod in boots – conservative ones, and “have some mud on his boots. . . and know which way north is.” On top of the boots my grandfather described, will be the standard uniform of Levis or Wranglers and a Western shirt with snap buttons. If he’s seen in winter, an old cowboy will be wearing a wool gabardine shirt, the kind that “new cowboys” wouldn’t be caught dead in. It will be buttoned up tight to his neck that by now probably resembles a turkey’s.

“If his face is the color of a good slice of roast beef, done rare – if his forehead is white above the line of his hatband…if the back of his neck is seamed and wrinkled by blizzards and dust storms and broiling sun – if there are wrinkles around his eyes and hair in his ears, you have a right to believe what he looks like. He is undoubtedly a cattleman.”

Cowboys and Cattle Kings – C.L. Sonnichsen, 1950

I liked the way Sonnichsen summed up the fifties era cattleman. I reread his words recently and got to thinking about them – the old time cowboys. The circumstances that shaped their lives and formed their personalities have changed. Today we have “new cowboys” – and some pretty good ones – but they aren’t really the same. Old cowboys are scarce now, and very valuable. I would like to pay tribute to them here and say a few words on their behalf.

These were men who had their beginnings back in the horse and buggy days and lived long enough to marvel at a man walking on the moon. They were born on the last fringes of the pioneer period – back in the Old West – where it was said, “men were men, and women were glad of it.”

Old cowboys come in several categories: some were hired men, some were small operators, and some built up veritable empires of land and cattle. Regardless of their station, most of these men enjoyed in their time, some of the most beautiful country in the mountain West. . . enjoyed it – tamed it – knew country that was still silent, wild, and free. Often they were taciturn, using brief and forceful words to get their point across. Yet these same men frequently possessed a remarkably sunny disposition.

They had a certain look, too – one that didn’t change much over the years. Their style could almost be deemed sophisticated…in a rustic way. They were beefy and rugged, with barrel chests, hands big as hams, and legs more and more bowed as the horseback years added up. They looked strong. There was no mistaking one.

The old cowboys had a familial connection with the land. In the late 1800s their fathers and grandfathers had pioneered in the ideal stock grazing lands on the unsettled Western Slope of Colorado. Early on they had moved into the Paradox Valley, the Mancos Valley, the Uncompahgre Plateau, up northwest to Brown’s Park, on to the Yampa River and to the mild climate where the Colorado and Gunnison rivers joined and on up to Grand Mesa and into the Gunnison country.

These early day cattlemen began populating their new found treasure of grass with cattle by the thousands. Ranching, under their guidance, started, steadied, grew, and prospered. The dishonest, the impatient, the inept, and the unlucky of the pioneer ranchers did not make it in the business for long. Nor did the faint of heart. It was a hard business that would make a man’s body hard and his mind too, if he wasn’t careful, and age his wife before her time. A gambler’s courage was needed to succeed and the sons of these pioneers – now the “old cowboys” themselves – seemed to have inherited that courage.

My grandfather, Clyde Buffington, was one of these men. He was always a big part of my life because our ranch was a family business. Grandad favored his male grandchildren but had a tolerant affection for his granddaughter. I was always a little in awe of him, but returned his affection and thrived on his limited praise. “You’re mighty pretty, Miss Judy,” he would say as I modeled the frilly pink dress he had brought back from the Kansas City Royal. But that was all – then it was right back to business.

Grandad was the epitome of the “old time cattleman.” He lived his entire life with a great singleness of purpose – that of building up a good ranch, enclosing it with barbed wire, and putting his blue-ribboned Herefords behind the fences. He never aspired to do anything else. He lived a long life, dying at the age of 92 and going out the way he had lived, with great dignity and a good fight up to the very end. It was a strange feeling of surprise to me when he left us. I had thought him to be indestructible, and he very nearly was.

Because of this grandfather of mine, I have retained a great affinity for “old cowboys.” My career as a writer of Western history has brought me to the doors of more than a few of them. I treasure the time I’ve spent in the company of these gentlemen and I greatly value the wisdom they’ve imparted. I like everything about them. They all have a certain “look” and it’s one that cannot be copied. It starts with an old Stetson hat, or something closely resembling it – one not decorated with feathers or silver conchas, but possessing that degree of character that only honest wear and tear brings.

My grandfather always claimed you could spot a “real” cowboy by looking at his knuckles, saying that years of roping and flanking would produce knuckles that look like miniature doorknobs. He said a cattleman should be shod in boots – conservative ones, and “have some mud on his boots. . . and know which way north is.” On top of the boots my grandfather described, will be the standard uniform of Levis or Wranglers and a Western shirt with snap buttons. If he’s seen in winter, an old cowboy will be wearing a wool gabardine shirt, the kind that “new cowboys” wouldn’t be caught dead in. It will be buttoned up tight to his neck that by now probably resembles a turkey’s.


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