Contract folklorist Douglas Manger has been researching folk and traditional artists in southeastern Oregon for the Oregon Folklife Network’s field survey. Later this spring, Manger will be in Malheur and Harney counties to document a wide variety of occupational, craft, music, dance, and leisure traditions to do with ranching, whip braiding, saddle making, fly fishing, storytelling, cooking, community celebrations, and more.
Cattle raising, sheep raising, and timber have traditionally driven the economy in Harney County (pop. 7,212). Ninety percent of the ranches in the county are family-owned and operated. With cattle and wild horses far outnumbering the folk, ranch and buckaroo folklife traditions abound.
Many highly skilled cowboy gear-makers live in and around Burns (pop. 2800). Merlin Rupp (right), a stand-out with his silver mustache, creates stunning hand-twisted horse hair Macartys, cinches, and rawhide reatas, “each one totally unique, true treasures, made to be used.” (Macarty is a mutation of the Spanish word Mecate).
Billy Mort, one of the area’s go-to craftsmen, handworks reins, under bridles and bosals. Steve McKay at McKay Custom Saddlery and Brad Mastre of Brad Mastre Saddlery fashion custom saddles and buckaroo chinks.
Jessica Hedges, a cowgirl from the get-go, works with her husband, Sam, tending 2,000 head of cattle on the 20,000-acre Island Ranch, 15 miles west of Burns. A seasoned ranch hand not yet 25 years of age, Hedges is also an award-winning traditional poet. Recently featured at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko (NV), Hedges writes whenever she has a free moment. Still, she says, “there’s nothing like saddling a good horse in the early morning. It’s very vast and very daring, and that’s part of the allure of this lifestyle.”
I know it’s not ladylike, but please just let me be
Leave me to my horses and cows in this sagebrush sea
Leave me to my stars and Basin sounds of the night
Leave me to prove I’m capable and a bit gutsy
Leave me to ponder the universe and write
For I am an animal unlike this world has ever known
Driven by something different than the rest of my kind
I carry the spirit of many but stand alone
The spirit of the buckaroo woman, unconfined
Excerpt from Buckaroo Woman, Unconfined,
by Jessica Hedges