Who would have thought that real cowboy versifying was still around as late as the 1950s? Those years were deep into the Hollywood singing cowboy era, when real cowboy songs got mixed up with Tin Pan Alley approximations. Since Gene and Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers, there has been a spate of contemporary cowboy verse. But it ain’t authentic, as far as I’m concerned.
Some years ago, I learned from John Dawson Pierson, my great uncle Leonard’s son, that his father had written a cowboy poem during the winter of 1952–53. It was described to me as an “epic” in length and scope. This I wanted to see. It took a while for John to find it, but eventually he did and supplied me with a copy.
Leonard Pierson, who was born in 1891, was a real cowpuncher in northeastern and (later) northwestern Colorado. By real, I mean he thought of himself as an original American cowboy and didn’t approve of anything much, say, that happened after the World War. The family story of the Colorado Piersons had been passed along to me by my maternal grandmother, Leonard’s sister. The two great figures in that story were Leonard and his father Chuck.
According to family lore, Chuck was the star of the story. Inasmuch as his grandson John looked closely into his history, a star he genuinely was, a legendary Colorado cowboy from the early days of cattle spreads in northeastern Colorado and Wyoming—Michener’s Centennial country. Chuck was a combination of expert cowpuncher and entrepreneur. (Indeed, he was enough of a self-promoter to get written up in the Police Gazette for shooting up a saloon.) While he worked for A.C. Sterling and other early Eastern Slope Colorado cattle barons, he also kept a string of ponies to allow him to take easterners out hunting where the deer and the antelope play. For a short while, he and his wife even ran a hotel. Chuck was regarded as the best open-range calf roper in those parts, a fact noted in the book Wyoming Cowboy Days, which also included pictures of him roping—upwards of 400 head a day, it was said.
Leonard’s story was different. Although he was his father’s son and as skilled at cowpunching, he was not of a disposition to be a “character” and sell his services by dint of charm. Leonard, however, married well: that is to say, into the Dawson family, the biggest cattle people in northwestern Colorado. He ended up with his own spread, which his father never did.
The greater Pierson family was especially taken with Leonard’s wife, the former Geraldine Dawson. Where Leonard was crusty and dusty and as “old-timey” as they came, Geral was “a real modern lady” with a head on her shoulders. Somehow, she got sent off to Oberlin College, but chose to come back to marry Leonard (who, if we’re to believe him, dropped out school after the second grade) and live in a ranch house without electricity, using a hand-pump to raise water into the kitchen and cooking on a wood stove. This was in the vicinity of Hayden, Colorado, on the Western Slope of the Rockies.
Now, there were a few more events of Leonard’s life we know about. He was a soldier in World War I, serving somewhere “back East”, so his every moment wasn’t spent punching cows and braiding rawhide. Sometime after his children were grown and gone, emphysema, and perhaps the local economy, drove him out of ranching. With Geral in tow, he wandered first to Oregon and eventually into southern California, where his life ended. Rumor has it that, along the way, he played polo with Will Rogers and taught him how to twirl a rope.
Before going on, probably something should be said about the broader Pierson family. Leonard and Chuck were members of what my clever (very distant) cousin Tad Friend (of the New Yorker; his mother was a Pierson) dubbed the “outdoor” branch of the family. Both indoor and outdoor Piersons descended from folk who came to the Connecticut Colony in the early 17th century. Abraham Pierson the elder was a preacher who founded parishes that grew into what are now Southampton, Long Island, and Newark, New Jersey. His son, also Abraham, was one of the founders of Yale and its first rector.
While the indoor Piersons stayed in civilized parts and repaired to Wall Street eventually, the outdoor branch moved on to Shelburne, Vermont, just south of Burlington. In March 1778, Moses Pierson, who had a blockhouse of sorts on Lake Champlain, defeated a group of Indians and Canadians who had skated down the lake to make raids against the rebellious colonists to their south. The story is not of a major Revolutionary War encounter but of the fact that three barrels of good ale were used to put out the fire to the blockhouse that the attackers had set. There’s a marker to that effect at the Shelburne public beach.
Moses’s progeny lost their land in Vermont at some point and went West. In this case, “West” was, first of all, Milwaukee. After possibly leaving some offspring in Wisconsin and Illinois, they continued on to Colorado in the late 1840s. The outdoor Piersons became like most Coloradans before, during, and after the Civil War. They had a mining claim, (eventually) a land grant, and a long career as farmers…and cowpunchers. They lived close enough to disaster to sign up when Colorado’s Governor created hundred-day paid militias to fight Indians. And yes, there was a Pierson involved in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre.
Despite their preference for relatively primitive outdoor life, they carried with them their family heritage replete with highly accurate understandings of the history their ancestors lived through in New England. Their progeny were duly educated in these things. As my mother’s and my generation have discovered, there wasn’t a single family story or description of events that was even an exaggeration of the absolute truth. There was both understanding and pride in the family’s and America’s past.
Winters in a primitive ranch house in time became just too much for Geral and her two children. Accordingly, they repaired to Dawson digs in town (not Hayden, but Craig, Colorado) and left Leonard to winter in place and feed the stock. The story has it that Leonard spent a great deal of time at the kitchen table, presumably close to the wood-burning cook stove. He had a habit of laying out his favorite things in front of him. They included his revolver, his father’s and his own rawhide work, a pair of Chinese handcuffs, and his fiddle.
During the winter of 1952–53, when he was in his early 60s, Leonard decided to write a poem. I reproduce it below unedited (warts and all) and follow it with some notes. My initial impression of what this “epic” would turn out to be had to do with the story of how fifteen-year-old Leonard and his father Chuck decided (in 1906) to leave northeastern Colorado and cross the Rockies on horseback for less populous parts west of Steamboat Springs. While this is mentioned, the rigors of such a crossing unfortunately go untold.
The “color” in the poem is really quite remarkable. It takes one from the 1890s into the 1950s out on the high plains and intermountain West and demonstrates that even the old-timers paid attention to the rest of the world. Whoever moved from wherever to wherever else brought things with them. Just because the first cattlemen of Colorado came up from Texas and New Mexico didn’t mean that the place was bereft of other sorts until the Colorado part of the Sunbelt became a fashionable relocation place for Midwesterners. And the early newcomers, like the Piersons, brought much of the rest of America and the wider world with them. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the poem.
By Leonard Pierson
Well, he (1) told about the present days
And tales of long ago
And how he had to walk to school
A-wading through the snow.
It was ten miles or twelve miles
As down the trail he went
His lunch was seven pancakes (2)
He knew his Ma had sent.
He made first grade and second grade
And then he hit the fence
He figured third would be tougher
And he didn’t have the sense.
So he saddled up old Banner F (3)
And then he lit a shuck (4)
He headed for the sand hills (5)
To punch the cows with Chuck.
Now Chuck Pierson was a cow-man
And a raw-hide man of fame (7)
So he thought he’d just go out with Dad
And try to learn the game.
He worked with all the roundups
From Cheyenne down the Platte (8)
‘Til he began to think he thought he knew
Where everything was at.
Then there was buffalo grass and cactus
And rattlesnakes and rains
It was a cowboy’s Heaven then
Way down upon the plains.
He said we always ate our neighbor’s beef
It always seemed the best
So he let it rock along like that
He never run a test.
He said we always ate good beef steak
And sourdough biscuits on the side
He had a roping horse and a cutting horse
That was a cowboy’s pride.
He rode an old Mex saddle, (9)
With rawhide rope and reins
That seemed to be the custom then
Way down upon the plains.
He said the cowboys then wore O K spurs (10)
And bridle bits were spades (11)
He said we had some range wars
And then we made some trades.
Then a steer was worth five cents a pound
No one was in the red
You could figure on a good night’s sleep
When you finally got to bed.
Now all this was way back in childhood days
[It was before the tax]
[It was before the income man began to grind his axe.]
Now this country that I talk about
Was velvet ’round and ’round.
’Til the nesters and the mole board plow
Began to spoil the ground
So they fenced us in and fenced us out
Then nature took her course.
So we seen the writing on the wall and saddled up a horse
Then we headed for the mountains, we knew it was a must (12)
For any fool could plainly see,
That all they’d raise was dust. (13)
Well, we rode due west for thirty days
Then we camped down on the Bear (14)
The people seemed real friendly
So we knew we’d settle there.
There were deer and elk up in the mountains
The creeks were full of trout
So we pulled the saddles from our horses
And settled down in Routt. (15)
Now the people there were mostly white (16)
Cow-outfits was their game
So I turned around and looked at Dad
He said “I’m glad we came.”
Well, there we punched the cows again
For twenty years or more
‘Til depression hit the country
And broke the cowmen by the score.
Then the Banks took on a dying look
Just like an old sick cow
And the ranches and [the] cowmen
Began to wonder how
With taxes, bills and notes to pay
It was the dealer’s choice
So the ranchers lost their ranches
And the cowmen lost their voice
Now, say, a hundred miles right west of there (17)
When things were going fine
The cowmen established what was known
As the old Winchester line.
Then if a band of sheep were sighted
The news soon got around
For everyone to bring a gun
And try to hold the ground.
Well, the cowmen took a beating
And were pretty much asleep
Then here come the Mormons, Greeks, and Jews and dogs (18)
With about a million sheep.
The forest rangers met ’em
It seems with open Arms
Then the sheepmen grazed the forest
And bought up most of the farms.
Now with this Taylor Grazing Act and long permits (19)
It don’t look good to me
It looks like the top soil of Colorado
Is a-going to the sea.
The watershed is ruined
And the rivers are all mud
Then the beetles took the forests
And you’d hear an awful thud
When the great big pines begin to fall
It will be an awful mess
And now when lightning starts the fire
Is anybody’s guess.
Now I bellyached because I am mad
So let’s get up to date
Let’s glance around and try to see
What Ike’s got on his slate.
From what I get on the radio
And from what I read and smell
It seems to me that Washington
Is going straight to Hell.
Well, we voted for Ike to take this job
And pull us from the ruts
Now I for one do still believe
That Ike has got the guts.
From the very start I believed in Ike
And it’s still my fondest hope
That he will scrub the White House out
With granulated soap.
Now here’s a tip I’ll slip old Ike
We won’t allow for duds
“Tide is the finest soap in town
Tide makes the finest suds.”
Now when Ike grabs his mop and broom
And the dust begins to fly
He’ll probably find a spot or two
Where he’ll have to use some lye.
It seems the communists are in his face
The Russian Bear at his back
And a lot of disgruntled Democrats
A-coming round the track.
If I were Ike, I believe I’d buy
A single-action Colt
And when I’d laid the hammer back
I’d see who’d take the jolts.
Now this Malenkov, an aggravating person
And talks like he is tough
I’d wrap a pistol barrel around his neck (20)
And try to call his bluff.
And while this Russian Bear is growling
And putting out the sass
I’d head him north from going south
Then kick him in the “pants.”
Then I’d saddle up my walking horse
And never crack a grin
And at the first false move a Russian made
I’d start a-moving in.
We rode a lot of country
And some of it was rough
But I never met a yammering man (21)
I thought was very tough.
Well, this story has no moral
And it seems to have no end
It seems to be an old man’s gripe
About the if & but and when.
Now if I had been a learned man
I might have been of great renown
So now I’ll saddle up my unicorn (22)
And lope him out of town.
Notes to Leonard Pierson’s Untitled Poem
I need to express my appreciation to Leonard’s son, John Dawson Pierson, for the retrieval and use of the poem and explanations that made some of these notes possible. No doubt, were John writing this, he would make different sorts of comments and observations. Nonetheless, I’ve tried to report faithfully all the things he’s told me. Similarly, I’m indebted to my grandmother, Lora Hannah Pierson Joseph, for a great deal of the “lore” that has informed my reading of the poem.
- “He” here means the poet—namely, himself. “He” in the eighth verse and forward may be his father, but this is neither clear nor much worth worrying about.
- Leo’s father had a nasty habit of telling his wife Gertrude to stop making pancakes in the morning when he’d had his fill. She apparently paid no attention to him and made at least 21 more: there were three children who took seven pancakes each to school. I understand that she rolled leftovers up in the pancakes and that the kids ate them like hotdogs.
- Banner F was the name of a cattle brand. It may have been the family’s but, more likely, it was the name of some other cowman’s brand. Leo’s father never had his own spread. Somehow Leo got himself a horse named after the brand.
- The meaning of “lit a shuck” is obvious, but its use is curious. The expression was commonly used as in the following: “Can you stay for dinner or did you just come to light a shuck?” “Light a shuck” here means something like “on an errand.” A “shuck” is a dried corn cob, which the old timers sometimes used as a torch to light their way or as a way of borrowing fire from someone to light a dead fire of their own. If one were doing either, he’d have to move fast: shucks burn pretty quickly.
- Which sand hills are referred to here is anyone’s guess. They could have been almost anywhere in northeastern Colorado. Probably they were in a triangle with Denver, Fort Collins, and Sterling as its vertexes. Leo appears to have been seven or eight at the time. Inasmuch as he was born in 1891, this would mean that he left school and commenced cowpunching in ’98 or ’99. Whether he really started punching cows as, say, an eight-year-old, remains unknown.
- Leo’s father, Chuck Pierson, was a notable cowpuncher in his day. Before 1906, he had made a name for himself in northeastern Colorado and Wyoming as a premier open-range calf roper, snagging as many as 400 a day on open ranges. He’s briefly immortalized, complete with pictures of him roping, in a book called Wyoming Cowboy Days. Chuck also had a string of horses and took “dudes” into the country to hunt. We know that he made it at least as far as Omaha doing cattle business (one of his children was born there), but little else about his peregrinations aside from those in Colorado. (His siblings seemed to have been all over the place. For example, his brother Bert was a noted horse trainer and breeder in Alberta.) The family assumption is that Chuck went from one cattle spread to another in Colorado and Wyoming as a drover. His first child (my grandmother) was born in a sod house on a 140-acre land grant belonging to her mother’s family near Barr Lake (present-day Brighton) Colorado in 1888. Part of her childhood was spent on the A.C. Sterling Ranch. Sometime before 1906, the family had settled in Kersey, near Greeley, Colorado. Chuck was apparently a mean fiddler, and so was Leo.
- Leo refers here to his father’s skill at rawhide work—that is, largely braiding. If one were skilled, one could make a thirty-foot rawhide rope out of one old, sick cow, with each of its strands continuous. Chuck taught Leo the craft, and extant examples of their efforts are indeed impressive works of design, utility, and patience.
- The Platte, here, is the river, of course. Given that the Platte runs into the Missouri, they may have gone far afield, indeed.
- The kind of “rig” mentioned here apparently was widely popular. Very likely, Mexican saddle designs had made their way up from Texas and New Mexico as the cattle business moved north after the Civil War. Leo himself favored a Mexican saddle horn. This was much larger in diameter than those on regular western saddles. While one probably could still tie a rope off on one, they were designed to wrap the rope around a couple of times for friction. A big cow (or, for that matter, a buffalo, which Leo once roped to his regret) could easily pull a horse over if the rope were tied off.
- Leonard in Hayden with his “Mex” saddle
- O K spurs are hard to describe. Let’s just say that they were (are) offset, vertically, and leave it at that. Leo had a strong prejudice against riders who used sharp-pointed spurs: it indicated a weakness in their riding skills.
- “Spades” refer to the bits of bridles, the bits being inside the horse’s mouth. This sort of bit would only be used by expert riders with experienced horses. It makes possible controlling the horse by the bridle and reins alone. Tough on a horse’s mouth if not properly used, Leo’s use of this bit was another indication that he preferred finesse to force when it came to handling horses.
- In 1906, Chuck and Leo decided to leave northeastern Colorado for the Western Slope. Whether this was because farmers had pushed the cow-outfits out, or because cowpunching was no longer quite as primitive (that is, open-range) as previously according to their purist tastes, is not known. What is known is that Leo’s two siblings and his mother took off for California at some point. Whether this was before or after the trek across the mountains that Leo describes is unknown. Whichever, the family was breaking up. Chuck and Leo, and a string of horses, took a month to go from Kersey to the area west of Steamboat Springs. No tales are told of the crossing. It would likely have been routine rather than heroic work for them.
- The mention of dust here is doubly ironic. For one thing, the farmers in Weld County, Colorado (in which Kersey and Greeley are situated) managed to turn the place into one of the wealthiest agricultural counties in the U.S. Clearly, they raised more soybeans than dust. Leo ran from farmers and tried to stay a cow-man. He ended up growing wheat in Hayden, Colorado, before he gave up working the land altogether. (But he didn’t like doing it one little bit.) And, of course, cowpunching is dusty enough in its own right: Leo ended up with emphysema.
- The Bear here is the Bear River, in northwestern Colorado.
- The Bear was in Routt County, home to places like Hayden, where Leo and Chuck ended up, and Craig. One of the big cattle ranchers in the Routt was the Dawson family, into which Leo would eventually marry, thereby acquiring a ranch of his own.
- The use of “white” here is a simple description of the color of the people there. Leo had his prejudices, as we’ll see. But certainly the use of the term was not intended to draw a contrast between the Routt and the place from which he and Chuck had come.
- A hundred miles west of the Routt would have been the area east of Vernal, Utah. The land between Salt Lake City and the Colorado Rockies filled up from a number of directions. The Dawsons came up from Texas to New Mexico, and then to the Routt. Others came from the east (“way east”—the Mediterranean—in some cases) and west, as we see further along.
- This unpleasant reference to kinds of people had less to do with what they were as it did with what they raised—sheep. Mormons from Utah and further west in Colorado used to bring their flocks into the Routt at the end of the growing season to graze on farmers’ stubble and in the National Forest. Leo was known to do business with them, but he wasn’t fond of them because they were sheep-men. As far as the others are concerned, Leo’s reference to Greeks and Jews was made on the basis of knowing about (not apparently knowing) one Greek sheep-man named Maniotis and one Jewish cow-man turned sheep-man named Isadore Bolton. There was no influx of Greeks and Jews, but, along with the Mormons and plain old sheep-men, they were clearly dirty dogs in Leo’s estimation.
- The mention of the Taylor Grazing Act here makes the time frame Leo is talking about the 1930s. The Act was passed by Congress in 1934. “Long permits” refers to permits to graze sheep in the National Forest. Another of the poem’s ironies is that Leo ended up running sheep himself before the end.
- Leo’s reference to wrapping a pistol barrel around Malenkov’s neck expressed a longstanding prejudice of his that, when pistol-whipping someone, you use the barrel of the gun, not the butt. He figured that doing it the other way was an invitation to shooting oneself by accident. To the end of his life in southern California, Leo carried a .38 revolver, which we know he used at least once to pistol-whip some young punk in an elevator. This gun had a singular feature: one of its grips was Lucite and contained a picture of a well-endowed woman with breast(s) caught in a washing-machine ringer.
- In this verse, Leo is not taking time out to take a shot at blowhards in general. “Yammering men” were to him cowboys who thought well of themselves because they knew how to rope on foot in corrals. To him, you weren’t a real cowpuncher unless you had to chase calves on horseback on open range, through trees, under bushes, etc.
- There is some debate in the family as to what Leo was doing by injecting a unicorn into the proceedings. His son John Pierson suggests that it may have been to irritate Leo’s wife, Geral, who’d gone to college at Oberlin and may have thought Leo’s versifying was not literarily up to snuff. I once thought that Leo was claiming a storyteller’s right to a fanciful steed: he may have thought, I figured, that since he could write a poem, he had as much claim to speak of unicorns as anyone else. But the real reason for it, probably, is that (Don Quixote-like) Leo was tilting at the windmills of a present he didn’t like. A unicorn would be as good a mount as any as attached to the past as he was.
When he left it, Leonard’s ranch was purchased by Farrington Carpenter, himself a legend in those parts and one of the subjects of a charming April 2009 New Yorker piece, well worth the read. “Ferry”, as he was called, was a greenhorn who came out from Evanston, Illinois (and after graduating from Princeton), to follow his dream of ranching. He’s famous for starting a school district where there hadn’t been one, and his efforts to lure young single women from the East out to Colorado to teach. He had an ulterior motive, however: he wanted more “stock” from which ranch hands could lasso wives. I’ve always been pleased that Ferry got an honorary doctorate from the University of Colorado on the same day I got my ordinary one in 1975.