The Wild West looms large in the national consciousness. Studied in high school history classes, immortalized in spaghetti westerns, celebrated in books and song, the West evokes ideas of rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth-century belief that America was destined to expand across the continent.
Connect to that Western mystique—and test how much of it is true—when you visit Elko, a northeastern Nevada city known for its cowboy and ranching culture. Among other attractions, Elko is home of the Western Folklife Center, recognized for its annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering; J.M. Capriola Co., where saddles have been made for decades; and the Northeastern Nevada Museum, which houses an extensive collection of work by Western artist Will James.
And although Elko today is known for its mining economy, “there’s a lot of ranching culture left here,” says Claudia Wines, director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum. “There really is.”
Western Folklife Center
Cowboys and poetry may seem an unlikely combination, but not according to Darcy Minter of the Western Folklife Center.
“Cowboy poetry is something that has always been created and recited in communities, in families and among neighbors in the ranching West,” Minter says.
The custom of reciting verse around a campfire after a long day on the trail dates back to the post-Civil War era, according to information on the Western Folklife Center website.
“People were still practicing it,” Minter says, when the Western Folklife Center held the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985 to present the tradition to a larger audience.
Since then, the Gathering has been an annual event, one that garners national and international attention and has made stars out of cowboy poets and musicians such as Waddie Mitchell, Baxter Black and Ramblin’ Jack. Held at the end of January when ranchers have more time to participate, the Gathering draws hundreds of visitors to Elko to watch performances at various Elko venues, including the Western Folklife Center.
Located in the century-old Pioneer Hotel, the Western Folklife Center houses the Wiegand Gallery, which has Western-themed exhibits and a twenty-seat black-box theater where you can watch a sixteen-minute video about why the cowboy sings. Also take in the renovated bar, which features art and memorabilia from past poetry gatherings, and the gift shop, which sells books, CDs and other items related to Western culture.