Fort Worth’s most noted cowhands took a break between their daily cattle drives last week for a trip to the library and a history lesson.
These drovers, who are part of the Fort Worth Herd, usually interact with tourists before and after their twice-a-day cattle drive down East Exchange Avenue in the Stockyards.
On a recent Saturday morning I watched them as they posed for pictures and talked with curious, awe-struck visitors about their horses, riding equipment and a bit of the cowboy lore that is so much a part of Fort Worth’s and Texas’ culture.
But how much did they know about the origins of the cowboy — about the beginnings of the traditions that they still keep alive?
Their trip to the Central Branch Library on Tuesday was designed to help them gain knowledge and connect with the Spanish traditions that were the forerunners of the American cowboy.
As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, the library is hosting an exhibition, “Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy,” presented by Texas State University and Humanities Texas.
Running through Oct. 20, it includes magnificent photos taken by Bill Wittliff in the early 1970s on a northern Mexico ranch where the vaqueros carried out their duties much like their ancestors did centuries ago.
Also on display is an exquisite array of artifacts — hand-tooled saddles, antique spurs, reatas (braided leather rope), clothing, sombreros, tools — from the collection of historian Doug Harmon.
Harmon, who came to Fort Worth as city manager in 1985 and spent 16 years as head of the convention and visitor’s bureau, was the tour guide and docent for the cowboys and cowgirl who came to view the exhibit.
He explained the hacienda system and the difference between the charro (upper-class horseman) and the vaquero (those who actually tended the cattle).
Harmon pointed out the detail in the style of clothing, belt buckles, chaps, antique spurs and stirrups, as well as offering lessons about the role of women riders during the revolution and in exhibitions, charreria.
The visitors from The Herd listened intently like a group of students on a field trip. They asked questions and compared their hats, clothing and riding gear to those of the vaqueros in the display cases.
Kenneth Sansom, who has been a drover with The Herd for three years, knew a lot of the history, he said, but learned much more during the library visit.
Riding horses since the age of 3, Samson said he always wanted to be a cowboy, an idea that made some people laugh when he was a child growing up in the Lake Como neighborhood.
Dewayne Waldrup, who grew up in North Carolina, is one of the newest members to the team, joining up about two and a half months ago. He, too, said he’s been riding horses all his life.
“I knew that Mexicans and blacks were the first cowboys, but I didn’t know all the details,” said drover Tim Goodwin, who was raised on a farm in Ohio and has been with The Herd for eight months.
When the Fort Worth Herd was first proposed, it did not have universal support. Aside from the cost of staging a cattle drive, even seasonally, some thought it was just plain corny.
Fifteen years later, it is hard to imagine the Stockyards without the daily attractions, and the drovers have become some of the city’s best ambassadors for the tourists who line the brick-covered streets of the historic area.
Now, armed with new knowledge about the origins of the Texas cowboy, these wranglers will be able to tell even more compelling stories to those coming to explore the state’s “Texasmost city.”