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Cowboy necessities

July 15, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

Two essentials for an American western cowboy were his paycheck and his rope. A trail boss in the old west could earn up to $125 a month on average. An old west cowboy drew $25-40 a month.

The rope was a critical piece of equipment for any cowboy and could be made from the Mexican maguey plant sisal (a form of the agave plant), rawhide, or Russian hemp.

Cowboys travelled light and stored what little they had in a war bag. Inside was usually everything he owned, an extra set of clothes, extra ammunition, spare parts for equipment, playing cards, bill of sale for his horse and possibly a harmonica.

Chaps, or cowboy leggings were intended to protect the legs of cowboys from daily hazards experienced in working cattle, horses, and other livestock. They also protected rider's legs from injury when riding through bushy terrain.

The cowboy kerchief, or bandana, was one thing a cowboy could not be without. The bandana had many uses, most notably as a dust mask while driving cattle kicking up dirt.

It could also be used as earmuffs in cold weather, as protection from sunburn on the neck, as a pot holder for hot pots, or branding irons, as prevention against snow blindness in winter, as a tourniquet or sling, or a nifty mask if you were planning a robbery! Red was the color of choice. It could be made of cotton, linen, or silk. Generally folded into a triangle, it was tied around the neck, but the knot was in the back.

Part of a cowboy's job during a cattle drive was to identify the Judas steer. Once at the end of the trail drive, the Judas steer could simply lead the other cattle to slaughter with no hassle. If a particularly good Judas was found, he was spared the meat hook and used again.

When not on the trail, western cowboys lived together in the communal bunkhouse on ranches. The standard bunkhouse was a barracks style building with a large open room with narrow beds for each individual. It offered little privacy. It was usually heated by a wood stove and personal needs were attended to in an outhouse.

Modern bunkhouses still exist, mostly on large ranches that are too far from town for a daily commute. They're now equipped with electricity, central heat and indoor plumbing!



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