For as long as Hollywood has been making moves and television shows, the image of the American cowboy has been a central figure. The Great Train Robbery and other silent Westerns of the early 1900s started the phenomenon. Actors such as Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Gene Autry carried it forward, becoming household names in the process. Radio and television series such as “The Lone Ranger” and “Bonanza” had widespread appeal. Feature film classics such as Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and more recent movies such as Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, and Maverick have continued the legacy.
Now, the 21st century is ushering in a new era of the American cowboy in mainstream media – that of the reality TV star. Arguably, it all began when Texas’ Ty Murray appeared on Season 8 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” last year, where he was paired with a professional dance partner and competed against other celebrities in a week-by-week dance off watched by millions of viewers. Murray made it to the final four before being shown the door.
More recently, brothers Cord and Jet McCoy, from Oklahoma, appeared on Season 16 of CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” an around-the-world race whose finale aired in May. As reality TV stars, the McCoy brothers – like Murray before them – weren’t just contestants on a show. They were also the poster children for the American West, representing cowboys in mainstream media before a nationwide American audience. It was a role and a responsibility they took seriously.
“We knew, when we left to go on the race, that our conduct and what we did on the race was probably bigger than ourselves,” Jet explains. “We were representing our families, our communities, the Western lifestyle.”
The brothers became known for their honest, fair play, making it to the finale on the merits of their own effort, even as other pairs of competitors took a less honorable win-at-any-cost mentality. “The funny thing about becoming known as fair players,” Jet continues, “was that it came from just being who we are. The principles we tried to adhere to on the race were the same was what we try to do every day. And I like to think that just cowboys in general hold to those same standards.”
In fact, the McCoys credit those standards with getting them to the competition’s finale. “It’s important to remember,” Cord says, “that a lot of what helped us through the race was our drive from the cowboy lifestyle – our hard work ethic; trusting each other. We had to work together. Plenty of times we had the option to give up, but we never backed down from anything, and we’re proud of that.”
But did they regret playing fair, only to lose in the end? Not for a second. “It was disappointing for both of us, sure,” says Jet. “We were in it to win. But it’s funny…on the one hand, we came in second. But on the other hand, we had an opportunity to go on the race, and to be a part of the experience. We came away with so much.” It’s a perspective the brothers gained from rodeo. “A lot of the time, you’ll make your best performance, and still not win first,” Jet continues. “That’s going to happen, whether in The Amazing Race, or rodeo, or life in general.”
Ty Murray, Jet and Cord McCoy, and others like them are showing the American cowboy for who he and she truly is. Honest. Hard-working. Committed. Dedicated to traditional values. Most at home on the ranch among family and horses and cattle. In short, they’re shedding old stereotypes from the movies – the shoot ‘em up gunfights and long-distance cattle drives – and offering an image of the American cowboy that contrasts the modern-day slick rodeo cowboys of the PBR and PRCA.
The American public will get an even more intimate look inside the life of authentic American cowboys with Animal Planet’s upcoming series, “Last American Cowboy,” which debuts June 7 and runs through early August. It follows the real-life stories of three ranching families in Montana. More so than any show that has come before it, “Last American Cowboy” is an honest look at life on the range, warts and all.
“I have a hard time saying we’re cowboys,” says Earline Goettle, who works her father’s Stucky Ranch in western Montana north of Avon. “We’re ranchers mostly. We work with our cattle, and use our horses to get that job accomplished. It’s not an easy life. You have to love it to do it. We’re facing Mother Nature, and she doesn’t always deal you a great hand. We’re working in the elements, no matter if it’s sunny and beautiful, or if it’s a blizzard and twenty below. The cows still have to be fed. People think it’s a wonderful life, but sometimes it’s not.”
The Stucky Ranch raises 1,100 head of cattle on 10,000 acres, and on the show, it’s known as the traditional ranch, one which is fiercely clinging to the “old way” of doing things. Part of that commitment to tradition comes from respecting the history of the land. When Goettle’s parents remodeled the on-property house, they found newspapers used as insulation dating to the year 1888. “They used workhorses instead of tractors. That’s the way they did it here, and we’re still doing it the same way,” Goettle says. “There’s nothing more satisfying than being able to move 100 or 200 cattle with a horse and a couple of dogs. I don’t believe it’s really the hard way. It’s a good way. It worked in the past, and it works for us now.”
It’s a way of life that – if not exactly fading away – is certainly changing in the 21st century. Witness the Galt Ranch, which “Last American Cowboy” positions as the high-tech cowboy lifestyle. Now in its 3rd and 4th generation of ranching, the Galt family manages the immense 100,000-acre Galt Ranch in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, sandwiched between the Big Belt and Little Belt mountains. Unlike the Stucky Ranch, which remains committed to the traditional way of doing things, the Galt Ranch has embraced technology, including a helicopter it uses to manage its herd of cattle.
“We all started out with a horse between our legs as kids,” says Bill Galt. “But someone has to run this ranch, and to do that, we started to mechanize things.”
“There’s no horse in cowboy,” he continues. “Cowboys or cattlemen are first born to take care of cattle, to make money raising them. The horse was a conveyance, and for years, we moved cattle via horseback. But draft horses were replaced by tractors for a reason.”
Galt Ranch doesn’t exactly shy away from horses. They’re still an integral component of ranch life. But the helicopter (and the modern technology it represents) has a place, too. “It takes a balance of each to run a ranch today,” Galt says. “The American cowboy is still here. We still take care of cows and calves.” That much hasn’t changed.
Clearly, though, “Last American Cowboy” – with both its traditional and high-tech ranching families – is a far cry from the earliest silent Westerns. And yet, for all that has changed about the image of the American cowboy in mainstream media over the course of the last century, one thing remains a constant: the cowboy, and the American West, as a constant source of inspiration and admiration.