ELKO — From its humble beginnings as a grassroots project to its current status as an internationally esteemed festival, Elko’s “National Poetry Gathering” is viewed by many as a crown jewel of the West.
A group of local individuals have partnered with the Western Folklife Center to ensure that the jewel remains polished and sparkles even brighter. The Nevada Taskforce was recently re-established to help evolve and expand the mission of the organization and increase local participation and enrichment.
In 1985 a roughly hewn schedule for a laid-back event was created and managed by a few locals, along with Hal Cannon. A National Endowment for the Arts grant helped aid the early fieldwork that was done around the West.
“We launched a letter-to-the-editor campaign in rural papers across the West, asking for information on cowboy poetry and those who practiced it,” said Cannon. “The more we looked for cowboy boots, the more we found.”
A couple dozen poets were selected from around the region to come to Elko to perform. Many of them were skeptical. Sponsors were even more dubious. Fortunately, the Nevada Arts and Humanities Councils, the National Endowment for the Arts, and billionaire rancher George Gund came through. After five years of planning, the Gathering was launched.
“I remember working at the college and giving my students assignments so they would come to the Gathering,” said Cyd McMullen, retired Great Basin College professor and longtime poetry volunteer.
McMullen talked about how frantic the early years were when she and others would work their normal day jobs, spend the evenings and weekend running the event, and take cowboys to the train at 3 a.m. to return home.
“By Saturday night you were getting along on very little sleep,” McMullen said. “I remember sitting at breakfast one morning with Baxter Black and being so tired that even though Baxter is so funny I was nodding off.”
The first Gathering also brought the press in droves, including a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
“The Tonight Show called and asked me to send cowboy poets,” said Cannon. “What a surprise. We had never intended to do any more than hold a one-time event.”
After the first season Elko business people and civic leaders invited the organizers to a town meeting where everyone raved about the commercial success they had seen over the usually slow winter week. A local casino owner said he would pay for a full-time coordinator.
“We were off and running,” said Cannon.
In his narrative “The Western Folklife Center: A Personal View” Cannon said the annual event brings in about $7 million into local economy. The first event cost roughly $50,000 to put on, while the current budget is in excess of $500,000.
When McMullen was chairman of the board in 1991 she got a call on Dec. 31 telling her that a key had been procured for the Pioneer Building with money from George Gund. She and brother Russ McMullen walked into the building, which then had a stage in the middle for strippers.
“We heard water running and saw it pouring down the wall,” said McMullen.
The place was extremely rough and dirty. It was decided that a group of volunteers would get together to clean it up and the building along with its hotel rooms would be used to house the performers, thus freeing up more local hotel space for visitors to the event. Seventy-five people showed up and cleaned top to bottom.
“Arthur Glaser said, ‘You know, I never thought there would come a day when George Morley and I, the pharmacists at Dupont’s, would be cleaning toilets at the Pioneer Hotel,” McMullen said.
Jump 32 years ahead of its modest start and the 33rd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is only about eight months away. Big things are in store for the next boot stompin’ good time. In the meantime, a local taskforce, much like the original volunteers who helped make the Gathering what it is today, has formed and is working hard to make more of the institution on a yearly basis.
“People want this to be in Elko,” said McMullen, who added that the vision was always to keep the event here where cowboys feel comfortable in a small town setting. “Elko should not take this for granted. The 300 volunteers we have during the event are immensely important, but what we need now is for the Western Folklife Center to be more integral to the Elko community.”
She talked about all of the offerings the center provides for locals and that there can be even more.
“We have a national board but what Elko people can do is be involved in the day-to-day, year-round activities. That is the idea of our Nevada Taskforce,” McMullen said.
Volunteers are needed for many activities and the Nevada Taskforce will be managing them. The staff is much smaller than it was in the past and with all of their duties none of them is able to take on this task. The taskforce is seeking individuals who can come forth to help in a variety of ways, both large and small. People can contact Carolyn Trainer at the Western Folklife Center at 738-7508 or firstname.lastname@example.org. They can also call McMullen at 744-2706 or email email@example.com.
“One of my fondest memories of the Gathering came from a guy early on who said, ‘You know, this is like a family reunion with family you never knew you had,’” said McMullen, who has met many friends along the way.
(The annual budget, Pioneer Building date and identity of Alan Glaser have been corrected from the earlier version of this story.)