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Our History

The History of the Gathering

Elko, Not the First Cowboy Poetry Gathering
By Hal Cannon, Founding Director

Some people say the Cowboy Poetry Gathering was born in January 1985. Now called the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it was decreed thus by the U.S. Senate and all the crown heads of Europe. However, most people just call it "Elko." When it started, people described it as a parting of the sea, a gathering of tribes, a "Class A" drunk in a long series of various-classed drunks. Some journalists say it's the most honest and open-hearted festival in America. Ranchers say these few days contain the highest concentration of lies in any one place at any one time. Twenty years ago, Glamour Magazine said it was one of the best ten places in America for a woman to find a real catch. All of this makes a sensible person wonder.

The fact is that what we think of as the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko was hardly the first. The old Pioneer Hotel still echoes from a hundred years of poems, lies and lost dreams. There was a little arts and crafts festival in the 1970s that says it was the first cowboy poetry gathering. The fact is that the first cowboy poetry event in Elko where polite society was invited took place April 3, 1926 when Badger Clark came to Elko and entertained a large crowd at the Elko High School Gymnasium. The local paper said of Clark: "There is the naturalness of the westerner about him and about his writing which proves that his heart not only was in the west but has beaten in tune with it ever since it began its human labors. He is not an easterner come west - - he is a westerner who never goes east - - unless he must do so in the line of duty."

Produced by the Western Folklife Center, the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was started in 1985 by a small group of folklorists and poets, and has become an annual ritual for thousands of people who value and practice the artistic traditions of the region and are concerned about the present and future of the West. Hundreds of cowboy poetry gatherings have since taken hold across the West and the nation over the last 25 years, as the Elko Gathering has reinvigorated a tradition that never ceased to be a part of the lives of cowboys, ranchers and rural westerners. In 2000, the U.S. Senate recognized the cultural value of this tradition and the event responsible for its renaissance when it passed a resolution naming the Elko Gathering the “National” Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Read "On The Trail of Cowboy Poetry," an essay by Dave Stanley about the history of cowboy poetry as a traditional art form, excerpted from our 2004 Gathering Program Book. (PDF format)
Read "The Cowboy Poetry Gathering, A Personal View" an essay by Founding Director Hal Cannon, excerpted from our 2004 Gathering Program Book. (PDF format)

Banner image: Jessica Brandi Lifland