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October 1, 2011
Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum

Most little boys and some girls, at one time or another wanted to be a cowboy. Central to the reality of the West were the cowboys. A cowboy's life was hard and usually revolved around a spring and fall round-up, the cattle drives to market, and his time off in cattle towns, spending his hard earned money on food, clothing, gambling and prostitution. During the winter months, many cowboys hired themselves out to ranches near cattle towns, where they repaired and maintained buildings and equipment.

Before cattle drive a cowboys duty included riding out on the range and bringing together the scattered cattle. The best cattle would be selected, roped, and branded. Most were also castrated. They also needed to be dehorned and examined and treated for infections.

On long drives, the cattle had to be watched day and night as they were prone to stampedes and straying. Work days often lasted fourteen hours or longer. It was grueling, hot, dusty work with very little relaxation time.

On the trail, drinking, gambling, brawling and even cursing were often prohibited and the cowboy could be fined for such behavior. The drive was monotonous and boring work. Food consisted mainly of bacon, beans, bread, coffee, dried fruit and potatoes.

On average cowboys earned between thirty and forty dollars per month. Because of the physical and emotional toll it would have been unusual for a cowboy to spend more than seven years on the range. As open range ranches and the long drives gave way to fenced in ranches, the glory days of the cowboy came to an end, and the myths of the free living cowboy began to emerge.

Many cowboys were veterans of the Civil War, particularly from the Confederacy, who returned to ruined hometowns, found no future, so they went looking for opportunities. And they went West. Nearly all were in their twenties or teens. Cowboys ending up in Texas learned their trade, adapted their clothing and took their jargon from the Mexican Vaqueros.

All of the distinct clothing of the cowboy boots, saddles, hats, pants, chaps, slickers, bandanas, gloves and collar-less shirts were all practical and adapted, designed for comfort and protection. The most enduring fashion adapted from the American cowboy stands today as wildly popular and that is the blue jeans, but it was the cowboy hat that identified him. The hat quickly caught on and showed anyone looking that he was from the West. It came to symbolize all that there was about the American cowboy, and the American West.



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