Book Remarks — Cowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, by Cathie Draine

Draine Book coverCowboy Life: the Letters of George Philip, edited and with an introduction by Cathie Draine; afterword by Richard W. Slatta; illustrations by Mick B. Harrison. South Dakota State Historical Society Press, (Pierre, S.D.) 2007.

George Philip was a cowhand, and as my uncle Harold might have said, clearly a “helluva hand.” But he was also a lawyer whose writing is strikingly literate and well organized, making this book a rare treasure of Western lore. During the 1930s, Philip wrote to his grandchildren, explaining thoroughly and with sly humor the arduous labor required by a big ranch in western South Dakota as the century turned at the end of the open range era.

He records the facts clearly and with vivid details, and no romanticism at all, destroying fantasies that have shaped many perceptions of cowboys in literature and the movies. No, cowhands did not usually carry six-shooters, and most were lousy shots; and yes, most of them loved gambling, tobacco and alcohol.

Draine book cowboy photo with textDeftly, Philip shoots down every myth about cowboys, insisting on a realistic view of the work done. “Although it now seems to be part of the blood lust of the spectators in their demands on the performers at the rodeos,” he writes on August 16, 1940, “it was no part of a cowhand’s business to ride cattle of any sort.” Cattle are supposed to make money for their owner, and riding them wears off fat and makes them wild. Philip’s point about care for the cattle made, he proceeds to recall an occasion when a collection of wild range steers tossed on their ears cowboys who later became respectable citizens, all of whom he names.

Anyone who wants to write an authentic western novel should include this book as research material. The deceptively simple title really tells the story: you’ll find here everything you might want to know about the real life of a cowboy. Unnerving as it is, I’d be delighted to read a novel that includes Philip’s explanation of how to take care of a saddle sore, or boil.

Clearly, the cowhands he describes respected the dozens of horses that they rode in the course of their work, but “Some one had to be boss and it better not be the horse,” declares Philip. A cowhand’s horse was a tool, part of his working outfit and many of those he rode remained in his memory. Shorty, he says, “like some horses and most humans, had some unreasoning idiosyncrasies and was disposed to indulge them.” He mentions that Cub, “in addition to whirling, sunfishing, and all the other things that a broke horse like him should not do, began turning himself inside out twice each jump. At that my poise left, and so did I.” Of Dave, he says, “He never hurt me, and no other L-7 man ever rode him. It was small loss when he left.” And then there was Mouse, the horse that “threw me splashing into the edge of the stream.” You’ll especially appreciate the chapters on horses if you, like Cathie Draine and I, know the pleasure of a good horse’s nicker of greeting and the way they rub their velvet noses against you.

What he said to horses that were being uncooperative, Philip explains, “must be considered in the nature of a privileged communication, although it could hardly be said to be confidential, for anyone within four miles could have heard it if sulphur and brimstone did not affect his hearing.” Laughing, I remembered the first time I swore at a bunch of cattle that were giving me trouble on a winter’s day. When I caught up with my father, he mentioned quietly how well sound carried on the prairie.

Though a modest man, Philip was clearly proud of his prowess as a cowhand as he outlines the distinction between a cowhand and a ranch hand, making clear what cowhands did, and did not, do:

The cowhand was one hired to work on the roundups. . . and to do any work that related to the handling of cattle and horses. A ranch hand was one hired to work around the ranch. He would put up some hay, feed any poor cattle taken into the ranch, do whatever riding was needed. . . build and maintain a fence. . . and do any of the thousand and one things that might show up to be done around the ranch.

Again and again, Philip tells how cowhands were sent on horseback, perhaps with only a bedroll, maybe a slicker, and little or no food, into the rolling prairie to find a particular ranch or roundup. Without hesitation, these men found work on isolated ranches in mile after mile of grassland between the Cheyenne and White rivers, a landscape that is now Stanley and Lyman counties. He and men like him regularly rode from eastern Pennington County to the Missouri River, a distance of more than a hundred fifty miles.

Draine book photo of George PhilipCathie Draine, who edited this book so brilliantly, is the granddaughter of the letters’ author, George Philip; her astonishing grandfather would be proud of her. A retired teacher and freelance writer, she often writes for the Rapid City Journal. She provided the staff of the South Dakota Historical Society Press with notes from her voluminous research that helped them create almost fifty pages of chapter notes that are among the most useful I’ve ever seen, defining terms, providing further resources, and furnishing explanations.

Here’s an example: Concluding her introduction, she notes that the Rapid City Daily Journal eulogized George Philip as “Scottish immigrant, western cowboy, forthright citizen, an eminent lawyer [and] a friend of man. . . . Whether on the range or in the court room or by the fireside, here was a man to tie to.” The phrase “a man to tie to,” explains the chapter note, was first uttered during World War I by Captain Charles E. Stanton at Lafayette’s gravesite in the cemetery at Picpus in Paris, France, on 4 July 1917.

An Appendix includes the plan for the 1901 spring roundup, including instructions for two months of gathering livestock for West River cowhands. No. 16, for example, reads “Box Elder Roundup. Will commence May 15th, at head of Box Elder, working down the creek to the mouth; thence up the Little Missouri to the Holben ranch, including Willow and Thompson creeks. Al. Taddiken, Foreman.”

One sure measure of a book’s usefulness as research material is always the index; many a fine book has been dishonored with a skimpy, inexact index. The 15-page index of Cowboy Life is detailed, and includes chapter and note information as well.

Richard W. Slatta, professor of history at North Carolina State University, provides a useful Afterword to the book. He is author of numerous books and articles on cowboys and the American West, including Cowboy: The Illustrated History, and Cowboys of America. He puts in perspective George Philip’s experience as a young cowhand during the nation’s last open-range cattle boom in the West River country of South Dakota by reviewing the history of ranching in Dakota Territory, with particular attention to the opening of Indian lands.

Draine book illustration

Mick B. Harrison, professional artist and painter, was raised on the South Dakota prairie and often illustrates western and prairie subjects using his own experiences as background. His lively pen and ink drawings add vividly to the experience of this book. The cowboys he portrays don’t look like movie stars, with nicely-shaped hats and leather vests, but like real cowhands, with shapeless chapeaus and rolled-up pants as they struggle to brand a bawling calf. He is a member of the Artists of the Black Hills and paints from his studio in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. MickHarrison.com

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Unable to Forward

Unable to ForwardI’ve just had the sad experience of reading a cheery Christmas card I sent last year to a good friend with whom I’ve been corresponding for about 15 years. Though our meeting was brief, at a conference where we were both speakers, we bonded instantly and immediately began exchanging holiday letters. We wrote only once a year, but our letters were individual, personal and long– about our writing, about our gardens and the things we were cooking. We exchanged recipes and recommendations for books to read.

Last year at this time, I was looking forward to receiving her holiday letter. She was a role model for me. In her 80s, she remained vigorous and curious, working on a long book that depended on her Greek translations. She’d given up a summer place to move full-time into her primary home, but she showed no signs of mental decline. Her most recent book had been about death and dying, based on her experience with her mother. It remains on my shelf, still unread.

In my Christmas card, I asked her how her new book was coming along, and conveyed to her the compliments of a friend who was enjoying a previous book she’d written. I asked about an older book of hers I wanted to locate.

Why am I reading this letter again?

Because her card came back to me marked “UTF”: Unable to Forward.”

My heart told me what that meant, but I spent considerable time online finding her address, mapping the location of her house and looking at a photograph of it, overgrown and neglected.

And then I found her obituary– she had died “after a long illness.” But she had written to me the previous Christmas, filled with good cheer and encouragement. I cried for an hour.

I know this woman had a daughter, though another daughter had died some time before. I know she maintained a hearty correspondence with many people and was beloved by many more who had read her books.

I deeply sympathize with whatever hardships might have accompanied her illness and death. But I can’t help wishing her remaining daughter had turned to my friend’s no doubt meticulously maintained address book and to let her friends know she was ill, or that she had died.

And here’s the purpose of writing about this: If a loved one in your family has died this year, please make that final effort: write to their friends. Even a postcard would do. Think of the people who, like me, are enjoying this season and anticipating that annual letter. Let them know; if you can’t bear to provide all the details of the death, at least give them the fact that it has occurred. Let that be your final gift to your dead loved one.

When my mother died, I found her address book to be fairly confusing, with scribbled-over addresses going back years. But with help from her companion, I went through it and notified everyone whose address I could decipher. In return, I received letters about friendships that extended through fifty, sixty, seventy years, from people saddened by her loss, but grateful to hear from us, glad to know that, as one woman put it, “the song has ended.”

Please, for the sake of those you loved, tell those that they cared about that they are gone. They’d thank you for it if they could.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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Giving Away the Saddles

My father on Zarro and me on Blaze, 1953.
My father on Zarro and me on Blaze, 1953.

Recently I gave away my saddles: my father’s old Duhamel saddle, the saddle made for me when I was twelve by a saddlemaker in Buffalo Gap, and George’s, also an antique. They went to a family in the neighborhood, with two sons and a couple of nieces who may eventually grow into one or more of the saddles. The two boys have been wanting saddles of their own but the cost simply wasn’t possible.

When I showed the high school boy my father’s old-fashioned saddle, his eyes opened wide and he smiled so hard he must have strained a muscle. Suddenly I could see my father on his Tennessee Walking horse Zarro. And I seemed to see him smile at this long-legged kid, as tall at 17 at my father was as an adult.

Then the younger boy took my saddle in his arms– the weight nearly felled him– and with a determined frown hoisted it over his shoulder to carry it outside. He put it down on the ground while his mother opened their car– but he put it down with the sheepskin lining against the ground. Quietly, the older boy corrected him: when you put a saddle down, you tip it over, so the horn rests on the ground, to keep from breaking or straining the tree inside and to keep the sheepskin lining clean.

Riding on the ranch, 1984.
Riding on the ranch, 1984.

After they left, I cried, thinking over long memories of riding with my father and George, but I smiled too, to know those saddles will be ridden and cared for by another family for more generations than I will live.

Later I realized that giving my saddles away is an admission that I am unlikely to ride a horse again. Of course I didn’t ride all the time we lived in Cheyenne but I always had my saddle oiled and ready.

I’d suffer plenty of muscle pain if I rode again but the worst part would be that I’d be riding a horse I didn’t train. Many of the times I’ve done that, I’ve regretted it: no one trained horses the way I learned to do from my gentle father. Horses are intelligent and sensitive and too many of the ones I’ve ridden that were owned by someone else had been treated so that they were untrustworthy. I’ve been kicked in the upper arm, thrown, rolled on.

No, I’m not likely to ride a horse someone else has trained and that means I’ve given up something that was of deep importance to me. The freedom of riding a horse here on the ranch has been unparalleled in my life; the sheer joy of moving in such harmony with a horse’s muscles and mind is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced.

With the saddle in the 1980s.  The stock trailer has been sold as well.
With the saddle in the 1980s. The stock trailer has been sold as well.

I have made this choice many times in the past few years and giving away the saddles was making it again, more permanently. I’m nearly seventy years old but I’m not in bad shape. I could buy a young horse, train it, spend time riding. Or I could buy an older, well-trained horse and enjoy rides all over the pastures I still own. But I have responsibilities to my partner, to my dogs, to my garden and most of all to my writing. The time I devoted to riding would need to be taken from something else and I choose not to shortchange those other elements of my life. Most importantly, I’ve chosen to sit in this office chair and write about the life I lived, hoping to help inspire protection of the prairies and the ranching life so that other youngsters may know the life of freedom I knew on horseback.

When the family asked if they couldn’t pay something for the saddles, the teacher in me arose. In return for the gift, I asked only that the two boys write me their thanks. I reasoned that besides providing them with good practice in writing in general and in expressing gratitude in particular, the exercise would serve as an illustration that generosity is an important part of enjoying a satisfying life.

To prove my confidence was not misplaced, here are the letters I received.

From the high school student:

Linda, I want you to know how awesome it is to have a usable piece of history. Every time I use the saddle, I think about your Dad and the kind of hardworking but interesting person he must have been. Thank you for sharing your history with me!

From the grade school student:

Linda, I like character. The saddle I ride has that. Plus it has a neat story. A South Dakota author grew up having adventures in my saddle. Pretty neat.

From their mother and father:

Linda, Your husband’s saddle has been used by [two nieces who live nearby]. We do cherish the fact that you saw our children and extended family as keepers of your story in any form. We also love that you see them as responsible and caring enough to preserve some very fun saddles that would have stories to tell if they could talk.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

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