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The Denver Post - Cheyenne Frontier Days keeps cowboy legend kickin'

Cheyenne Frontier Days keeps cowboy legend kickin'

Jack A. Weil, the wizened, 106-year-old CEO of ROCKMOUNT RANCH WEAR, once said "There's no Westerner like an Easterner."

By John Wenzel

Denver Post staff writer

July 20, 2007

 

Shawn Basinger of Galeton, CO gets down and dirty in the steer wrestling event of the rodeo at the Cheyenne Frontier Days 2006 in Cheyenne Wyoming. (the Post | John Leyba)

Listen up, pardner, because the truth in that cannot be overstated.

LoDo-based Rockmount, founded by Weil in 1946, helped popularize Western wear around the world, allowing buttoned-down types to don hats, spurs and all manner of polished leather in an attempt to become cowboys and cowgirls for a day.

In the modern West, is there any other type?

Just as studded Harley-Davidson gear replaces business suits for many on the weekends, Temporary Cowboy Syndrome is a fixture of our region. And just as anyone can be Irish on St. Patrick's Day, any city slicker can transform into a cowpoke during Cheyenne Frontier Days.

The world's largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration (a.k.a. "The Daddy of 'Em All") is the epicenter of Temporary Cowboy Syndrome. Kicking off today and marking its 111th mounting, the event combines world-class cattle roping with parades, pancake breakfasts and arena-sized concerts from Bon Jovi, Reba McEntire, Big & Rich, Def Leppard and others.

"People get to live somewhat of a fantasy at Cheyenne Frontier Days," said president Charlie West. "It's like going to Disneyland for the first time. You walk through that gate and you just forget about everything else.

"You want to be a piece of everything around you. You want to stand up and scream and holler."

Explosive population growth and industrialization have been realities in the West for more than a century, but our collective myths about the region - eternal abundance, lawless adventure, untamed wilderness - sustain and reinforce a national dream of rugged individualism.

"In 1890 the U.S. Census declared that the American frontier was gone," said Michael Kassel, exhibits curator at Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum. "That signaled the disappearance of natives wandering the plains, the open range and big cattle drives. That same year, Cheyenne became the capital of Wyoming, and people there were acutely aware of how quickly the West was disappearing."

At a stop in Cheyenne, Fredrick Angier, a passenger agent for the Union Pacific Railroad, witnessed two men trying to wrestle a horse into a boxcar. An idea struck him, and in 1897 he joined with Cheyenne Daily Sun-Leader publisher Col. E.A. Slack to found Cheyenne Frontier Days to commemorate the Old West's passing.

In the 21st century, the basics of that rodeo celebration remain largely unchanged - except now it attracts half a million people from every corner of the globe.

"Frontier Days has a strong role in keeping the myth of the West alive," Kassel said. "The breaking of horses, the corralling of livestock ... a lot of things you see in rodeo today are the skills that cowboys and ranchers used to survive."

Paying to live the dream

These days, most people can get close to that lifestyle only by paying for it. Cowboy schools and adventure weeks preserve a certain version of the West that people like to think they live in, even though most of us dwell in urban centers such as Denver, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Salt Lake City.

"Our clients grew up with the cowboy dream," said Penny Persson, owner of Colorado Cattle Co. and Guest Ranch. "They watched 'Bonanza' or 'Big Valley' on TV, but they turned away from it when they got a job, got married and moved to suburbia. At one point they woke up, looked around and said, 'Well, I miss that dream.'"

Persson's working ranch, two hours northeast of Denver in New Raymer, hosts 350 to 400 guests each year at $1,650 a head for a week of authentic ranching and rodeo skills.

"People have a romanticized version of the West, riding the range and working cattle," Persson said. "I believe it takes a special facility to give them the experience that meets their dream."

At Persson's hands-on operation, guests brand cattle in the spring, help vaccinate and care for sick animals, and drive herds to market alongside the ranch's real cowboys. Many clients come from as far as Italy, France and Sweden for the experience.

The icon of the cowboy is more appealing to Europeans than the American flag, Persson said, because the latter implies our political standing, and the former is universal.

"They see the cowboy as a symbol of freedom that's unchanging and unyielding because people are concerned they're losing the West," she said. "It's changing and evolving our land as society and technology encroaches."

People may love the universality of the cowboy image, but it's easy to overdo it. Saddling up in Western wear doesn't need to be a once-yearly costume timed to such events as Cheyenne Frontier Days or the National Western Stock Show.

A slice of stylish rebellion

"We're all about lifestyle, and the beauty of Western (wear) is its immense breadth," said Steve Weil, president of Rockmount Ranch Wear and the grandson of its founder. "It's a wide spectrum of styles, colors and looks, everything from flamboyant to conservative."

Weil said that Rockmount, a manufacturer that sells to retailers around the world, resists the idea of Western wear as a uniform. The company offers 200 varieties of shirts, for example, spanning denim, linen, plaids, stripes and checks.

"If you're not wearing this stuff already, then you shouldn't jump into the whole thing at once, because you'll feel like Howdy Doody," Weil said. "You want to build it gradually so you'll be comfortable. I can wear a Western shirt and penny loafers, or a pair of boots and a suit.

"That's the beauty of Western - it's very individual. The whole point of it was a rebellion against conformity."

For the hundreds of thousands that will swarm Cheyenne over the next 10 days, it's also a sweet, collective dream.

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