Library patrons hear stories of old-time cowboys
Jim Hoy stood with one freshly shined boot resting on the chair in front of him. On his bent denim-clad knee, he balanced an acoustic guitar. He ran his fingers across the strings and softly said, “This is a song about a cattle drive.”
Hoy, a folklorist and Emporia State University English professor, came to the Basehor Community Library on Tuesday night to share with visitors tales of the west, of the original cowboys. Hoy is the author of numerous books and articles about cowboy life, and he gives speeches around the state as part of a Kansas Humanities Council program called Boots and Stetsons.
The name Boots and Stetsons is appropriate, Hoy said, because the cowboy boot and the cowboy hat were invented in Kansas.
“I know Texans hate to hear that,” Hoy said, “But it’s true. The first cowboy boots and hats were made in Kansas.”
Some of the most common misconceptions about western history, Hoy said, involve the nature of cowboys. Hoy said the west wasn’t nearly as violent or romantic as movies have portrayed.
“These quick-draw cowboys you see in the movies, it wasn’t like that,” he said. “There were some fights, there was some killing, but all of that has been exaggerated in movies.”
A quickly conjured image when one hears the word “cowboy” might be of John Wayne with his smooth drawl, take-charge attitude and twinkling eyes. But Hoy said Wayne was hardly the typical cowboy.
“The original cowboys were nothing like that,” he said. “They worked hard. They didn’t pick fights. And let me tell you, John Wayne was no cowboy in real life. He couldn’t walk like a cowboy, and he couldn’t talk like a cowboy.”
American cowboy roots were planted with cattle drives before the Civil War. Drovers would take cattle from Texas across the United States to sell for hide. The war took its toll on the cattle industry, Hoy said. Division in the country left limited markets. After the Civil War ended, tons of cattle were around, but they were worthless. Market-ready cattle sold for only $2 each, Hoy said.
One man named Joe McCoy turned it around. Hoy said he was the first person to move cattle by railway, and he did so in 1867 out of Abilene. In five years, nearly one million cattle were shipped by rail from Abilene. McCoy is often cited as the inspiration for the phrase “The Real McCoy,” because of his innovative, reliable strategy and his positive reputation among Texas ranchers. During the late 1800s, Hoy said, the freight rate in Texas was so high, ranchers saved a lot of money by hiring men to drive their cattle to Kansas where they were shipped by rail to other markets.
A usual cattle drive was comprised of 2,000 to 3,000 cattle, 200 horses, 10 cowboys, one cook and one trail boss. During the first two days of the drive, the pack would travel between 20 to 25 miles a day. For the remainder of the trip, they would only go about 5 to 10 miles each day. Hoy said the cowboys wanted to get the cattle far away from home at first, so the cows could get used to the trail and lose the scent of their old ranches, which would tempt them to run home. The slow speed the rest of the trek was calculated to help the cattle gain weight and thus be more valuable for beef sale.
“A really good drover would arrive with his cattle weighing more than when they started,” Hoy said. “Even after they’d walked thousands of miles.”
Time on the trail passed slowly, and the cowboys sang songs to keep themselves entertained. Hoy shared several such songs with the library audience, ending with a tune about a talented horse rider and the bronco that tormented him.
For more information and a look at some of Jim Hoy’s articles, go to plainsfolk.com.