Elko's 31st Celebration
Of The Old West
By Richard Carroll
Photography: Halina Kubalski
ay out in the misty west, rag-tag spirits of the past, grasping at timeless
threads of memory, swirl about Elko's sturdy and uncompromising red
brick buildings, touching the town's sparkling casino lights that passionately
blink out a silent refrain to those with Lady Luck riding on their shoulders.
These crusty old spirits, the rock-hard backbone of Elko, are the heartbeat
of Western Americana.
On the horizon are the towering Ruby Mountains, reaching
into the clouds in a powerful display of nature's grandeur, stirring
the imagination, and begging to be explored. This is not John Wayne
country but Wayne might have shown up here before filming one of his
Hollywood flicks to find the real "True Grit," and
meet the folks in northeastern Nevada who know how to honor their history.
Celebrating the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering,
some 7,000 folks popped into town in late January to enjoy four-days
of extraordinary tales of the Old West shared by ranchers, cattle punchers,
rodeo wranglers, cowboys, horsemen, and sagebrush buckaroos. Guests
are swept deep into another world while listening to cowboy poetry portraying
the culture of rural ranching, spring roundups, honky-tonk ladies, the
Silver Dollar Bar and a crooked smile, high meadows with sweet smelling
horses fifty miles from a city street, and songs about a pair of ragged
Levi's and a Quarter Horse with attitude.
Two performers who were featured at the Elko Gathering.
The art form, based on love and friendships, is overflowing
with humor and heart-tugging remembrances, and pairs well with the swingin'
musical groups that also descend on the little town, all within a setting
that appears to be lifted from a movie set. Some 60 poets and musicians
swing into action at the Western Folklife Center, situated in the historic
Pioneer Hotel (1913), and spill over into other venues such as the 913-seat
Elko Convention Center.
In the dead of winter "The Last Real Cowboy Town
in North America" is simply overflowing with buckaroos, cowboys,
wannabes, and western poets and musicians, all wearing the garb, and
talking the talk. The joy of Cowboy Poetry is that it's difficult to
know the difference between tales and the truth, lost fortunes and fortunes
imagined, a gold nugget or a hunk of Fool's Gold, real characters or
those who have been reinvented with a twist of a rough-edged lariat.
A young Elko vocalist performing at the gathering.
Cowboy poets Waddie Mitchell, Paul Zarzyski, 92-year-old
Georgie Sicking, an inductee of the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall
of Fame, and musicians Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys from
Opelousas, Louisiana, the Caleb Klauder Country Band, Gary Haleamau's
Hawaiian Family Band, and a host of others, celebrate the Old West in
a galloping cadence of music and dance, and humorous and touching storytelling
yarns, reinforcing the ranching legacy and displaying a truly genuine
American folk art.
A cowboy at the Elko Gathering.
Appropriately, Elko County is the number one ranching
county in Nevada and third in the nation, home to large spreads such
as the 36,000-acre Cottonwood Guest Ranch, tucked away at the end of
a 35-mile gravel road. The Smith family, long familiar with the Elko
Poetry Gathering, has hosted George Clooney and others at their gorgeous
knotty-pine lodge, offering a trail ride or two across the wide-open
spaces of their spread.
An exterior and interior of the 36,000-acre, Smith
family, Cottonwood Guest Ranch. They have hosted George Clooney among
Elko fell into place in 1868 when the region was the
end of the line for the Central Pacific Railroad. The company's tracklayers
moved on, but a gaggle of small tents and hardy souls hunkered down
and decided to stick it out. The new station was dubbed "Elko"
by the simple expedient of adding an "o" to the word elk,
an animal at one time more populous in the area than the people.
Slowly a town came together until, by 1870, 45 honky-tonk
saloons dominated the community, though for a silver coin or two gents
could relax with a few tumblers of whiskey and enjoy a little culture
in the opera tent maybe a better choice than succumbing to the charms
of the saloons' perfumed ladies with their beckoning feathers and flashing
smiles. Quickly a courthouse and school were constructed, and good thoughts
from above arrived when a Presbyterian Church was built at Sixth and
The incredible mix of humanity that traveled to Elko
in its early days reflected the essence of the West. Ruthless gun fighters
who sometimes had trouble hitting the broad side of a barn, brazen cattle
rustlers, proud Basques from Europe, and slick professional gamblers
with a mesmerizing gift of gab and nicely manicured fingernails, slipped
into town, along with gritty miners in search of gold, many of whom
left a trail of broken hearts.
Elko is cowboy country where horses rule.
Two who perhaps should have moved on were the infamous
Potts, Elizabeth and her husband, Josiah. They were convicted in Elko
of having bumped off Old Man Faucett for financial gain. Later, standing
on the double gallows behind the old courthouse, they enjoyed a passionate
kiss before going to their demise in the summer of 1890. Mrs. Potts
was the last woman hung in Nevada and the first and last for Elko.
The sense of daring adventure moved skyward in 1919
when sagebrush was cleared for a dirt runway and the town's first airfield.
Seven years later Elko became the final destination for the first commercial
airmail flight in the country. Celebrity pilots of the day such as Amelia
Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, flew in for a night on the town.
The town mix includes Native Americans, Chinese Americans
from the railroad days, and Basques who were brought in to manage the
sheep. Once voted "Best Small Town in America," Elko is a
western oasis in the middle of nowhere yet somehow at the center of
it all. Entertainers and celebrities have dropped by over the years
such as famed movie star and crooner Bing Crosby, who discovered Elko
in the 1940s.
He purchased Crumley's North Fork spread, along with
six other ranches, and became an honorary member of the Western Shoshone-Paiute
tribe at Owyhee, near Elko. Bing starred in the movie, "Here
Comes the Groom," and in the summer of 1951 held its world
premier at the Hunter Theater in Elko. The question of the day in Hollywood
and eastward was "Where is Elko?"
The historic family style Star Hotel &
Restaurant in the heart of downtown Elko dates to 1910
The Basques have also etched their rich history and
traditions deep into the Elko psyche with the National Basque Festival
over the July 4th weekend featuring authentic homeland dances, parades,
and Basque contests of strength and skill. Dating to the 1960s, the
Festival turns into a huge downtown bash laced with Elko family gaiety.
The heart of the town's Basque life can be seen at the
historic Star Hotel & Restaurant on Silver Street. The popular room
has been serving family-style Basque cuisine since 1910, while upfront
in the earthy lounge, a friendly clientele appreciates a bartender who
knows how to pour.
The Star, once a boarding house for Basques offering
rooms to the sheepherders for a whopping buck a night, now commands
a more princely sum to house wedding parties and the like. In contrast,
family owned McAdoo's on 5th Street, serves creative cuisine with a
flair, guitars and Stetsons cherished.
Guests can visit the splendid Western Folklife Center,
and the Northeastern Nevada Museum to view the Ansel Adams and Edward
Weston portfolios, a Pony Express cabin and stagecoach (circa 1860),
and 200 full-size, mounted animals, and the California Trail Interpretive
Center, eight miles west of Elko on I-80.
The award-winning Northeastern Nevada Museum features
Ansel Adams, a Pony Express cabin and stagecoach, and the California
Trail Interpretive Center.
For those who need their western attire updated, and
for the serious horse crowd, the J.M. Capriola building is the place.
Noted for renowned saddles and other leather crafts, the tradition dates
to the arrival of Guadalupe S. Garcia in 1896 with his dazzling Spanish-style
bits and spurs. Clients included President Teddy Roosevelt, Douglas
Fairbanks, Will Rodgers, and President Reagan, noted for his superior
taste in saddles and horses.
Whether visiting by horse or car, Elko County has more
than 30 ghost towns some of which can be explored such as Jiggs, Metropolis,
Midas, and Tuscarora, with easy half and full-day scenic driving tours
from Elko. The best little cow town in the West offers more than one
would expect Nevada's gift to those who have a week or so to explore,
and take pleasure in the legendary Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
When You Go
The 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 26-31,
2015. Elko, 225 miles from Salt Lake City and 295 miles from Reno, is
a high desert town at an elevation of 5,060-feet. Elko's weather ranges
from 25-43 degrees in winter with some snow; dry summer months bring
temperatures of 80-90 degrees; fall is impressive with changing colors
and chilly nights. Western Folklife Center; www.westernfolklife.org;
for Adventure On the Mighty Colorado River; Highway
49 Revisited; Forever
Houseboat Vacation On Lake Mohave; Northern
New Mexico Culinary Tour; Santa
Fe, New Mexico; What's
New and Old in Las Vegas