Friday, December 7, 2012

The Poet-Ranchman of Texas

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William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden was born in 1862, in Montclair, New Jersey. In his youth, he worked as a New York newspaper reporter until 1883, when he Larry Chittendenmoved to Texas. From there, he sent articles back to New York newspapers. A few years later he went into partnership with his uncle, a former New York congressman, and founded a ranch near Skinout Mountain, seven miles northwest of Anson in Jones County.

Chittenden soon began to write poetry. His best-known poem, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball," was first published in 1890 in the Anson Texas Western. It was based on Christmas dances the author attended in Anson. A collection of Chittenden's Texas poems, Ranch Verses, was published in 1893 by G.P. Putnam’s sons. The book went through sixteen editions and Chittenden was dubbed the "poet-ranchman of Texas."

At first, Christmas dances were not held on a regular basis in Anson, but in 1934, the event was reenacted under the title Cowboys' Christmas Ball. Held in the high school gymnasium, it became an annual event. Old dance customs, steps, and songs were preserved. Men bowed and women curtsied; the music was slow enough to allow a graceful, unhurried style. Their dances were so unique that the group was invited to perform at the 1937 National Folk Festival in Chicago. At the 1938 festival in Washington D.C., they danced on the White House lawn.

Chittenden’s poem was set to music and sung at the Anson ball in 1946 by folklorist Gordon Graham. The song has been performed before the ball ever since. In recent times, singer Michael Martin Murphey made the ball famous again with his rendition of “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” and played at the event for a number of years. Anson celebrated the ball’s seventy-fifth consecutive year in 2009. The following year, the Christmas Ball and Pioneer Hall, where the event is now held, were named a historical event and site by the Texas Historical Commission, lending credence to Anson’s claim to be the “Home of the Western Dance.”

I hope you enjoy the poet-ranchman’s humorous ode. cowboy gear & holly dividerThe Cowboys' Christmas Ball
To the Ranchmen of Texas

'Way out in Western Texas, where the Clear Fork's waters flow,
Where the cattle are "a-browzin'," an' the Spanish ponies grow;
Where the Northers "come a-whistlin'" from beyond the Neutral Strip;
And the prairie dogs are sneezin', as if they had "The Grip";
Where the cayotes come a-howlin' 'round the ranches after dark,
And the mocking-birds are singin' to the lovely "medder lark";
Where the 'possum and the badger, and rattlesnakes abound,
And the monstrous stars are winkin' o'er a wilderness profound;
Where lonesome, tawny prairies melt into airy streams,
While the Double Mountains slumber, in heavenly kinds of dreams;
Where the antelope is grazin' and the lonely plovers call—
It was there that I attended "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball."

The town was Anson City, old Jones's county seat,
Where they raised Polled Angus cattle, and waving whiskered wheat;
Where the air is soft and "bammy," an' dry an' full of health,
And the prairies is explodin' with agricultural wealth;
Where they print the Texas Western, that Hec. McCann supplies
With news and yarns and stories, uv most amazin' size;
Where Frank Smith "pulls the badger," on knowin' tenderfeet,dancers sm.
And Democracy's triumphant, and might hard to beat;
Where lives that good old hunter, John Milsap, from Lamar,
Who "used to be the Sheriff, back East, in Paris sah!"
'T was there, I say, at Anson with the lovely "widder Wall,"
That I went to that reception, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball."

The boys had left the ranches and come to town in piles;
The ladies—"kinder scatterin'"—had gathered in for miles.
And yet the place was crowded, as I remember well,
'T was got for the occasion, at "The Morning Star Hotel."
The music was a fiddle an' a lively tambourine,
And a "viol came imported," by the stage from Abilene.
The room was togged out gorgeous-with mistletoe and shawls,
And candles flickered frescoes, around the airy walls.
The "wimmin folks" looked lovely-the boys looked kinder treed,
Till their leader commenced yellin': "Whoa! fellers, let's stampede,"
And the music started sighin', an' awailin' through the hall
As a kind of introduction to "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball."

The leader was a feller that came from Swenson's ranch,
They called him "Windy Billy," from "little Deadman's Branch."
His rig was "kinder keerless," big spurs and high-heeled boots;
He had the reputation that comes when "fellers shoots."
His voice was like a bugle upon the mountain's height;
His feet were animated an' a mighty, movin' sight,
When he commenced to holler, "Neow, fellers stake your pen!
"Lock horns ter all them heifers, an' russle 'em like men.
"Saloot yer lovely critters; neow swing an' let 'em go,
"Climb the grape vine 'round 'em—all hands do-ce-do!Cowboy kissing sm.
"You Mavericks, jine the round-up- Jest skip her waterfall,"
Huh! hit wuz gettin' happy, "The Cowboys' Christmas Ball!"

The boys were tolerable skittish, the ladies powerful neat,
That old bass viol's music just got there with both feet!
That wailin', frisky fiddle, I never shall forget;
And Windy kept a-singin'—I think I hear him yet—
"Oh Xes, chase yer squirrels, an' cut 'em to one side;
"Spur Treadwell to the centre, with Cross P Charley's bride;
"Doc. Hollis down the middle, an' twine the ladies' chain;
"Varn Andrews pen the fillies in big T Diamond's train.
"All pull yer freight together, neow swallow fork an' change;
"'Big Boston,' lead the trail herd, through little Pitchfork's range.
"Purr 'round yer gentle pussies, neow rope 'em! Balance all!"
Huh! hit wuz gettin' active—"The Cowboys' Christmas Ball!"

The dust riz fast an' furious; we all jes' galloped 'round,
Till the scenery got so giddy that T Bar Dick was downed.
We buckled to our partners, an' told 'em to hold on,
Then shook our hoofs like lightning, until the early dawn.
Don't tell me 'bout cotillions, or germans. No sire 'ee!
That whirl at Anson City just takes the cake with me.
I'm sick of lazy shufflin's, of them I've had my fill,
Give me a frontier break-down, backed up by Windy Bill.
McAllister ain't nowhar: when Windy leads the show,
I've seen 'em both in harness, and so I sorter know—
Oh, Bill, I sha'n't forget yer, and I'll oftentimes recall,
That lively gaited sworray—"The Cowboys' Christmas Ball."

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No matter how you celebrate this special time of year, love and blessings to you all.

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Caroline Clemmons said...

Lyn, Anson isn't that far from me and it's a lovely town. They have a Fandango each year that I'd love to attend. For a small place, it is very artsy with several museums and art galleries. I loved your post and the poem.

Alison E. Bruce said...

I've never been to Anson,
Not so that I can recall
But I sure would liked to have attended
The Cowboy Christmas Ball

Ellen O'Connell said...

The cowboy poet I'm familiar with is the present day Baxter Black. Nice to know he's following a long tradition, as he's also a humorous guy.

Lyn Horner said...

Caroline, that's good to know. Anson does sound like a fascinating place. I'd love to visit there. The poem tickled me. I'm glad you enjoyed it too.

Lyn Horner said...

Alison, I'd also love to have attended the ball and see all those cowboys for myself. Sigh. :)

Lyn Horner said...

Ellen, I haven't read any of Baxter Black's poetry. I'll have to look for him on the net. If his stuff is as funny as Chittenden's, I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Ciara Gold said...

What a fun post. We have a group of young folks called the Aggie Wranglers who dance all sorts of fancy western moves. So fun to watch. And of course in Girl Scouts, we did a lot of square dancing. I miss those days. Thanks for the walk down memory lane.

Lyn Horner said...

Hi Ciara. Sorry I'm so slow getting back here. It's a hectic time of year. I'm glad you enjoyed the poem and that it brought back treasured memories. I've never square-danced, but I admire those who do. They connect us to our pioneer ancestors.

Thanks for stopping by.