July 31, 2016—Tri-State Old-Time Cowboys and Cowgirls Association, by Steve Moreland
Yesterday morning, July 30, 2016 was the annual chuck wagon breakfast of the Tri-State Old-Time Cowboys and Cowgirls. It is held each year at the Cowboy Museum in the city park at Gordon, Nebraska on the last Saturday of the Sheridan County Fair and Rodeo. This is always a fun get-together of ranch folks enjoying fine food and entertainment of music, stories, and poetry. It is also a time to remember those who have passed away during the previous year, and a time to honor someone for the annual Hall of Fame award. The 2016 honoree is John Sibbitt, 94 years young, and a great example of someone who exemplifies the cowboy, ranching, and rodeo way of life. He is also a legendary pilot and story-teller. His big grin, enthusiasm, and anecdotes were well-received by the audience. At ten o’clock, the parade began. A hay sled carrying the banner of the Tri-State Cowboys had benches for anyone who wanted to ride along. It was pulled by a well-matched team of roan horses owned by Don Hutchison, who ranches north of Gordon in South Dakota. They were driven by Butch Tinant from Kilgore, Nebraska. I enjoyed riding on this conveyance.
The Tri-State Old-Time Cowboys is an organization that began in 1962. During the Sheridan County Fair that year in Gordon, Frank O’Rourke from Chadron had gotten together a group of 16 old-time cowboys to ride in the parade. “Afterwards, my wife and I talked about how the feature seemed to add to the parade activities and how the old-time cowboys enjoyed taking part,” Frank recounted. He went on to say, “Then she turned to me and asked: “Why can’t we form an association?” “
This was ultimately done, with officers named and O’Rourke serving as secretary-treasurer and “tail-twister” until the late 1970’s. The reunions occur twice a year—at a picnic in June and the chuck-wagon breakfast during the Fair. Both events are held in Gordon, where a museum headquarters log building was erected in the 1970’s. This nice structure was financed by selling wooden plaques showing ranch brands and the names of the owners. The cost was $100 for each brand, and it didn’t take long to get enough money to fund the building of the museum.
Frank O'Rourke was organizing this association of old-time cowboys in the mid 1960’s. I was born in November of 1951, and my only ambition in life was to be a cowboy. Growing up on my dad’s ranch gave me plenty of opportunity to be horseback to fulfill this ambition. At the time, Frank promoted this new group by saying the price of a lifetime membership was one dollar. I eagerly sent off a dollar bill to the O’Rourkes and waited anxiously for confirmation of acceptance into the Old-Time Cowboy Association. We were stacking hay not too far from the house, and Mom had gone to town running errands. She normally would bring iced tea and cookies to the hay field about mid-afternoon for a welcome break. She brought along the mail on this day, and I excitedly opened my letter from Frank O’Rourke. My dollar bill fell out of the envelope, and there was a note explaining that this was for “old-time” cowboys, and that it was for those forty years of age and older. The fact that I was only fifteen or sixteen made me too young to qualify. He did send along the list of all the other members. Looking through the list, I recognized some names that were pretty apt to be younger than forty. To say the least, I was a bit ticked off.
For the next couple days, I rode around the hayfield mowing hay with an International 450 tractor with a mounted double seven-foot Kosch mower. There was certainly no radios to listen to in the hay field in those days, so there was plenty of time to think. The more I thought, the more disgusted I became. Inspiration hit, and I decided to start another group called the Tri-State New-Time Cowboys. It would be for those of us who hadn’t reached the magical age of 40. I was thinking of putting ads in the paper and spreading the word for this marvelous group of guys. We would also ride in the late summer parade, and we would also carry a banner. It would read: “TRI-STATE NEW-TIME COWBOY ASSOCIATION.” In smaller print would be our motto, and it would say: “We do and dream while they reminisce.” As I mulled and stewed over the solution to my aggravating dilemma, Mom showed up for the afternoon tea break. Again she had along the day’s mail. There was another letter addressed to me from Frank O’Rourke. In this letter, he proclaimed that if I wanted to re-send my “frogskin” (cowboy term for a dollar bill), they would allow me to join the organization after all. He wife had convinced him that if young cowboys were not allowed to join, sooner or later there would no longer be any Tri-State Old-Time Cowboys. I happily resubmitted my application, and have been a paid-up proud member ever since.
I graduated from Gordon High School in 1970. The following school term of 1970-1971 I attended Chadron State College. Frank O’Rourke and his wife, Jerene, lived a few miles south of Chadron on the north side of Chadron Creek. The O’Rourke’s had three children, Dennis, Ruth, and Joe. They named their little ranch the RuJoDen in honor of their children. They had some pasture along the creek, so when I went to college, I made arrangements to keep two horses with them for $10 per head per month. Butch Abold had started a young roan saddle mare for my dad, Bob Moreland, and he had started another young sorrel gelding for Dad’s brother, Stan. These horses had thirty days of training, but needed some more miles. Uncle Stan paid my pasture bill, and I rode his horse and ours. There was some real pretty country in which to ride, and I put quite a few miles on those horses during those mild Indian Summer afternoons when my college classes were over. Frank and Jerene became good friends, and I enjoyed several nice visits with them during these times.
Frank O’Rourke spent some of his early life being a cowboy for the old Spade Ranch. It encompassed hundreds of thousands of acres of Sandhills ranch land, and there was a lot of hard riding required to tend the vast herds of cattle. Crews of cowboys, camping out each night and living from round-up wagons, were the most efficient way to handle the cattle. Frank documented much of this way of living in his monthly column written for The Nebraska Cattleman. His remembrances were entitled “Retracing Old Steps.”
Frank never got into ranching for himself, though he cannot help but see an image of himself out on the range—into Wyoming with Ed Ross for a delivery of beef cattle to the Indian reservation, or repping for The Spade. So, it is natural when he speaks of his part in preserving cowboy traditions as “one of the most worthwhile things I ever did,” you know that uniting old-time cowboys has given his “retired life” a real purpose.
I personally have enjoyed many of the cowboy picnics and breakfasts through the years, and have had many historically inspiring conversations with a lot of the old-timers who were involved. Frank and Jerene O’Rourke are to be greatly commended for their part in establishing the Tri-State Old-Time Cowboy Association.