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Nation Tips Its Hat to the American Cowboy

SHEILAH KAST, host:

From National Public Radio, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Sheilah Kast.

Anyone who's ever pulled on a pair of cowboy boots or a ten gallon hat may be interested to know that this week cowpokes across the country will be celebrating the National Day of the American Cowboy.

This salute to the American West was created by presidential proclamation in 2005. Jim Kent visited South Dakota's Black Hills and found some cow punchers who say the recognition is long overdue.

JIM KENT reporting:

While it's been said you can't make someone a cowboy with hat, boots and jeans, it seems there are as many different opinions of what it takes to be a cowboy as there are cowboys.

With the well-worn look of a man who's spent much of his life in the saddle, Marv Kammerer is proud of his heritage. His family has ranched in South Dakota since the 1880s. At 69, Kammerer has handed the reigns of his operation over to his son.

He defines a cowboy as someone with a combination of horse-riding and cattle-handling skills, and respect for the land.

Mr. MARV KAMMERER (Cowboy, South Dakota): I grew up riding horses from the time I was able to walk. That's what makes a cowboy, is knowing and appreciating a good horse and the hardship of the plains.

It's a culture that's loved and misunderstood by many. You know, they're looking for the Roy Rogers, Gene Autry. Some of them may have something better. They're looking for the John Wayne.

(Soundbite of film)

Mr. JOHN WAYNE (Actor): (As Character) I'm a man and you're boys. Not cowmen. Not by a damn sight. Nothing but cow boys, just like the word says.

(Soundbite of music)

KENT: Her stylishly cut hair, and attractive, soft features belie Louise Wilson's(ph) image as a rancher's wife. Her husband Jim is a renowned rodeo rider.

Louise says there's much more to cowboys than meets the eye.

Ms. LOUISE WILSON (Cowboy's Wife, South Dakota): I think they come in all styles, shapes and sizes. And, you know, some of those really crusty old boys are the ones with marshmallow insides.

Most ranchers, without exception that I know well, are - they're caring, they're giving, and they're just pretty much good ol' boys.

KENT: The Western Heritage Center is nestled on a hilltop here in Spearfish, South Dakota. With cowboy music gently playing in the background, visitors can relive the Old West as they tour displays of period costumes, saddles, spurs, and even an original stagecoach. It's the place to go for anyone who wants to know about cowboy lore.

One of the center's most notable attractions is dedicated to female trick riders Rosemarie Seymour(ph) and Fedelia Gilger.

Ms. FEDELIA GILGER (Cowboy Trick Rider): That one on the black horse is me on an upside down. And the next one with the rope in her mouth is Rosemarie.

KENT: The elderly sisters stop by the Western Heritage Center to plan their role in the museum's National Cowboy Day activities. Eighty-six year old Fedelia says it's high time a day was set aside to honor the contributions that cowboys and cowgirls have made to the American West.

Ms. GILGER: We needed those individuals who was willing to come out here. The cowboys paved the way for the homesteader. They came in here with their chuck wagons and bed rolls and so on, and occupied the land. Then the homesteaders came.

KENT: Rosemarie says she's glad her children and grandchildren have continued the families Western traditions, but like others, she worries that the cowboy way of life could soon be a thing of the past.

Western Heritage Center Director Peggy Abels understands that concern. But she thinks the American cowboy has already proven one of his primary traits is resilience.

Ms. PEGGY ABELS (Director, High Plains Western Heritage Center, Spearfish, South Dakota): You know, I think they've survived everything that's been thrown at them for a number of years. And I guess I just have a basic belief that they'll survive again, no matter what it is.

KENT: Peggy Abels plans to ensure that both the myth and the reality of the American cowboy survive.

For NPR News, I'm Jim Kent, in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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