Fay E. Ward might just be the most unjustifiably obscure member of the American cowboy pantheon. He was born in 1887 and, in his own words, “worked as a horse wrangler, cowhand, bronc breaker, and roughstring rider for cow outfits in Canada, and for outfits extending from there to the border of Mexico for a period of over forty years.”
While that’s not notable in itself—many cowboys of his generation did the same—it served as the foundation for the creation of the greatest cowboy reference book ever published: The Cowboy At Work: All About His Job and How He Does It.
A partial explanation for Ward’s obscurity is the lack of biographical information available. What we do know is he was born in Ackley, Iowa, to a family that traveled the rodeo circuit with a Roman riding act. Originally published in 1958, Western author John R. Erickson penned the foreword for the paperback edition of The Cowboy At Work in 1987. His research shows that Ward was placed in an orphanage in Des Moines, was adopted by a pioneer rancher, but at the age of 14 ran away to work the ranges as a cowboy.
According to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, which holds Ward’s archives, he “tried his hand at writing and illustrating. He discovered a passion and talent that would become the focus of the rest of his life. In 1927 he attended the Chicago Art Institute to improve his illustrating skills.”
Sometime during the next 30 years, he created The Cowboy At Work. With 32 chapters and more than 600 original drawings, this tome is the undisputed resource for anyone interested in the cowboy way of life post-cattle drives and pre-mechanization.
Topics range from the evolution of the cowboy to how a branding crew works and from how to hitch a bedroll to trapping wild horses and cattle. Detailed drawings of how knots are tied and how certain loops are thrown are incredibly useful and instructive. He also covers the typical cowboy tack and garb, including chapters on cinches and cowboy jewelry. There is no pre-1950 stone unturned in his examination of the cowboy.
He developed several other manuscripts, one on rodeo called “Rodeo and How,” and an anthology titled “Cowboy Verse and Song.” These works, as well as other letters, photographs, and original drafts of Ward’s articles and unpublished books are among the NCWHM’s collection. In 1975, Ward was honored as the man of the year by the NCWHM and three years later the museum recognized him for his rodeo history expertise. He died in 1979 at the age of 92.
Perhaps the best description of The Cowboy At Work comes from Erickson, in the foreword, “I think it would be safe to say no one has ever compiled more good raw information on the working cowboy than Fay Ward. A more worldly author would have rationed out the experiences of a lifetime and stretched them into three or four books. Ward put them all in one.”