Growing up in the Mountain Cowboy ranching culture around Payson, I developed some pretty stiff criteria regarding that question. One of my usual answers used to be: "He wouldn't make a pimple on a cowboy's neck." On some occasions, I championed a lower opinion.
When I started to look at the history of the cattle industry, however, I had occasion to rethink and reevaluate some of my criteria and sometimes my conclusions because cowboy is not -- and has never been -- a constant.
The ranching industry has undergone some pretty stiff changes since Esau punched cows for Isaac and Jacob ran a big ranch for his father-in-law. Those boys must have had considerable cow savvy because they didn't have horses and a cow can sure get away from a man on foot.
I figure the first high-tech tool in the cow business was the introduction of the horse. The second was the stirrup. Even with these tools the cowboy was a far cry from what his image is today.
Vaqueros first wore their spurs on sandals, sometimes on bare feet. They used braided ropes of rawhide, but they hung the loop on the end of a long stick and tried to fish it over the head of a cow. Then someone finally snared one. He had a horse, but no saddle horn, so he lost both the cow and his high-tech rope. This led to the practice of securing the lazy end of the rope to the horse's tail. Before the horse learned the ropes -- so to speak -- this could sure throw an old pony into a tail-spin, but don't laugh too hard. It worked pretty well after horse and rider figured out how to get the right angle to throw the cow. For the horse though, this was a big pain in the ... -- that might be where the term shave tail came from.
A Texas trail drover -- if he could have looked back and seen the first vaqueros -- would have laughed himself barmy.
None-the-less, the vaquero was the forerunner of the cowboy. He invented the manzana (apple, or saddle horn) which was another major technical advance. Finally, he learned to throw a loop. Then someone skinned out a set of cow hocks, pushed the heels of his feet into the bend of the rawhide where the cow's hock had been and laced the hide together up the front to make boots. It was from the vaquero culture, coupled with the necessity of survival that the cow hunters and Texas trail drovers eventually evolved.
On the open range of Texas cow hunts, later called roundups, had been going on since 1836. Before the Civil War, the cattle were driven to the gulf coast or to New Orleans. Here they were butchered. Some of the best cuts of meat were salted and cured in oak barrels, but much of the meat was left to the vultures. The market for hides, horns and tallow was much stronger and space on ships that sailed to Europe was at a premium. Hides were needed for leather, tallow for soap, candles and grease and horns for buttons, mugs, ladles and many items that we make with plastic today.
After the war (1867), Abilene started the cow town business, but the cowboy image was still a little out of focus. The Nov. 6, 1867 issue of the New York Daily Tribune described them: "Every man of them unquestionably was in the Rebel army. Some of them have not yet worn out all their distinctive gray clothing -- keen-looking men, full of reserved force, shaggy with hair, undoubtedly terrible in a fight, yet peaceably great at cattle driving, and not demonstrative in their style of wearing six-shooters."
By 1875, the cowboy image was rounding out pretty well. The northern cattle market had brought some amount of prosperity to the Texas cowboys and they were earning $30 a month. The cowboys had cash to buy the trappings that suited them and they dressed pretty much alike. The things they wore and used had been range-tested and they bought what worked and the best of that. The broad-brimmed felt hat, boots, chaps, spurs, revolver, holster, and bandalero are still familiar today.
The golden era of the cowboy lasted for only about a quarter century. When it started, buffalo and Indians roamed the plains, and Texas was destitute. When it ended, the buffalo were gone, the Indians were on reservations and Texas was doing nicely.
When the cattle drives out of Texas came to an end, many touted it as the end of the cowboy. To be sure it changed his vocation, but he survived and his gear remained pretty much the same.
The next big change was brought about with the advent of another high-tech tool -- barbed wire. The changes may best be explained in the words of an old song: "I'm goin' to leave old Texas now, they've got no use for the Longhorn cow. They've ploughed and fenced all over this range. And the people now, they seem so strange."
Still the regalia remained intact and throughout all the changes in the cow business, the hat and boots are still there. The garb is the same.
So, after all this, we come back to the original question. Izzy a cowboy?
I learned long ago not to try to judge a cowboy by what he might or might not do. As sure as you say a real cowboy would never do something, you'll find one who does or did. About the only sure common trait you will find with cowboys is that they are all individualists of the highest order, and the only constant comes from the Bible -- somewhere in Exodus I think -- "Our cattle we will also take with us."
Having said this, there are some pretty good indicators as to whether a man has made his living with cows and horses. For these men and gals do live in a world apart -- and have since the first herdsman climbed onto the back of a horse. A horse raises a man above all earthbound creatures and he and they know it.
It is easy to recognize these men when you find them in a group. Their hats are stained with sweat unless they are at a cattle growers' convention when some ranchers will break out a new Cattleman's Stetson. The talk runs to wild cattle, bronc peelers, broncs, hell-for-leather punchers, smart and fast horses, good mules (an oxymoron), cow dogs, mean weather, and good cooks.
It is funny to see someone who doesn't fit the culture try to enter the conversation. Often it is a person who is very successful in his own right, but nothing he can say will raise his stature in the presence of these old felt-hatted cowboys.
Wealth? If they cared a whit about money they wouldn't be workin' cows.
Political achievements? They've never seen a politician that could throw a loop in a well.
If you invented heaters for pickups, you might rate a handshake, but none of the usual honors or ambitions matter here in the cow culture.
Whatever exploit one might mention, only innate courtesy will hold their attention. Then the conversation will turn back to the wild stag that roamed the country from Bull Tank Canyon to Mescal Ridge, or the horse Normand Winters was riding when he dropped a loop on that ladino stag.
Finally one of those ol' boys will say something like: "Well, fellers, I'm a goin' t' rim out. I got a barefoot horse and a passell o' chores a waitin'." So there is the lingo too, and if you weren't brought up in the culture, it's hard to emulate.
Still, unlike lawyers and doctors, there is no law against impersonating a cowboy. Anyone can wear boots, Levis or Wranglers, a Western shirt, belt and top it all off with a Stetson or maybe even another good quality cowboy hat. And that is good, because as Ty Chilson told me, "If they are trying to look like us and talk like us, at least we know they are not against us." So, if you want to dress like us, feel free, we can use some friends 'cause we have enough enemies.
NOTE: Look for books by Jayne Peace and Jinx Pyle, owners of Git A Rope! Publishing, Inc., "Looking Through the Smoke," "A Cultural History of the Women of Gila County," "Blue Fox," "History of Gisela," "Mountain Cowboys," and the newly released "Rodeo 101, the history of the Payson Rodeo," at Jackalope Books and Sue Malinski's Art and Antique Corral. If you want a numbered "Rodeo 101" collector's edition book, call Git A Rope! Publishing at (928) 474-0380, Sue Malinski at (928) 472-4677, or Lorraine Cline at (928) 479- 2347. It sells for $100. The soft cover sells for $25. "Rodeo 101" includes the early history of Payson, as well as the history of the Payson Rodeo, which is older than any rodeo in the world. It has 375 photos of pioneers, rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and rodeo queens.