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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.

sign for the headquarters of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko

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 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko
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.

young Elko vocalist performing at the gathering
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 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
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.

exterior and interior views of the Cottonwood Guest Ranch
An exterior and interior of the 36,000-acre, Smith family, Cottonwood Guest Ranch. They have hosted George Clooney among other celebrities.

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 Pine.

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.

horse saddles on display, Elko
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 Star Hotel and Restaurant on Silver Street, 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.

stagecoach display at the Northeastern Nevada Museum
The award-winning Northeastern Nevada Museum features Ansel Adams, a Pony Express cabin and stagecoach, and the California Trail Interpretive Center.

figure of a fiddler at the Northeastern Nevada Museum

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;;;; (888) 269-2022.

Related Articles:
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Let Richard know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Paris

In Paris would love a tour of Hemingway’s haunts.

--- Roy Curnow, New Jersey

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A very well written and empathetic article about literary Paris. I am visiting again with my husband in early November and having re-read 'Moveable Feast' in my 60's following reading all Hemingway during my 20's and subsequently again ever since, and – honeymooned for a weekend in Paris in 2004 – cannot wait to retrace Hemingway's steps from the book (as we walk) this time. Also heard great Radio 4 cover of Shakespeareand Company so will be making a visit there without fail.

--- Caroline Timmis, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, UK

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Enjoy getting your Traveling Boy newsletter. Just read the article about Paris. Brought back many fond memories of my year there. I frequented all the haunts mentioned esp. on the Left Bank.

--- P. Sammer, Hawai'i

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We loved your story...we love Woody's new movie and we love all the spots in Paris you outlined. Next time I go there I'm taking your story with us so we can prowl around Hemingway's hot spots. Thanks for letting us know about the story. Merci beaucoup! mon ami...

--- Joseph Rosendo, Topanga, CA

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I just finished reading your piece. Traveling with you must be like enjoying the past, present, and sometimes the future. You bring a place to life. Thanks for sharing. The photos were also excellent.

--- Maxine, Salt Lake City, UT

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A fantastic story, Richard. It's so evocative and seductive that after reading it, one could easily be tempted to buy that one-way ticket to Paris. I read Paris Wife, but after reading your story, Paris and the Paris Walks are definitely in our future.

--- Maris Somerville, Los Angeles, CA

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Richard, thanks for sharing the link to this wonderful article. Helina's pictures are a great complement to your writing. Best regards,

--- Mitchell Lane, Shadow Hills, Los Angeles, CA

Feedback for Las Alamandas

Dear Amigo Richard,

What a beautiful and well written article well your photos and illustrations are amazing!!! Thanks for been such a good friend and promoter of Mexico.

--- Jorge Gamboa, Los Angeles, CA

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Richard's beautifully written and illustrated story brought back many magic memories of my visits to lovely Las Alamandas! I can't wait to return.

--- Marian Gerlich, Los Angeles, CA

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I thank you, it looks like a great place to relax. Maybe... someday who knows?

--- Mel Carroll, Bountiful City, UT

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Nice piece. I missed the rates.

--- Harry Basch, Los Angeles, CA

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This is my favorite of all your pieces I've read. The pictures are lovely. Halina looks like she's in heaven. I would love to visit there.

--- Maxine, Salt Lake City, UT

Feedback for Playa del Carmen

Great photos!! Can't wait to see these sites myself - these pics alone got me even more excited! Any other places you'd recommend in the Yucatan!?

--- Kyle Goes Global

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Man, you draw the tough assignments. You must have been a good boy when you were young (perhaps an earlier incarnation?)!

--- Mel Caroll, Bountiful

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