Growing up in Payson during the 1940s and 1950s I was on a first-name basis with lots of the old cowboys of that era and I wouldn’t class any one of them as a liberal. To a man they minded their own affairs, took care of their cattle or their boss’ cattle and resented interference or even uninvited help from anyone else including the government. On more than one occasion some of the ranchers told the government exactly where to go.
In 1934, during the Great Depression, there came a government directive for the Tonto ranchers to kill their cattle. The idea was that cattle prices were too low, therefore beef must be too plentiful. The government decided the ranchers needed to get rid of the cattle so the price would rise again due to short supply. Floyd Pyle, who owned the Myrtle Ranch at the time, replied that he didn’t claim to know much about economic theory, but he did know that when tramps were walking the country eager to work for a meal, the solution was not to eliminate the food supply. Several other ranchers, including Dick Taylor and George Cline, concurred and refused to take part in the slaughter of their cattle or to allow anyone else to abuse their stock in that manner.
These old-timers were strong-minded, independent, and valued common sense over nonsense. Their very nature made them conservatives. They liked their lifestyle, therefore they resisted change.
This doesn’t mean that the old-time cowboys or conservatives were completely against change. It means they tended to put trust in things that had been tried and proven. It is not that they were against building a better mouse trap. They just wanted proof of its superiority before they would trash their old ones. This thought dominated every decision that involved any change to their way of life.
The old Mountain Cowboy often lived miles from town and was self-reliant by necessity. He was glad for the opportunity to extend a helping hand to a neighbor or to receive the same. He was just as quick to extend that same hand to a stranger, but considerably slower to accept assistance from an unproven source. Help from someone, who doesn’t know how to handle range cattle in rough country, can cause a lot more trouble than it’s worth.
One of the sayings I learned to appreciate was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If it was broken they would see what they could do about it.
For instance, let’s say some old Mountain Cowboy has a pickup and wants to go to the dance on Saturday night. The pickup has a depleted gas line that has been partially clogged for some time and causes the pickup to stall when he cranks the engine up too high. As long as he takes his time and doesn’t crowd the engine, it does fine.
The cowboy knows he can take the gas line loose, blow it out and remedy the situation, but the connecting parts are corroded and might break or strip out if he tries to take the line off and he has nothing at the ranch to fix it if that happens. The cowboy isn’t worried about how fast he can make the 20-mile trip to town. He’ll take the conservative approach, nurse the old pickup into town and fix it when he can get some new parts if he needs them. The liberal approach would be to pull the gas line off at the ranch and damn the consequences. Missing a few Saturday night dances can cause a man to re-evaluate his philosophy. If a Mountain Cowboy wasn’t a conservative, he pretty soon learned to be one.
In a few cases the cowboy’s basic conservative beliefs didn’t cross over into politics. Some of them voted a straight Democratic ticket “Just ’cause my daddy did.” Of course, the Democratic Party was a lot more conservative before FDR got his rope on it and it took some cowboys a little time to figure out that it was no longer the party of the working man.
This reminds me of the story about the politician that came to town. He jumped up on a stump and told the crowd, “The two biggest problems we have in this country are ignorance and apathy.”
One cowboy turned to the other and asked, “What the blazes did he say?”
The other retorted, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
When questioned on basic issues though, a cowboy’s answer was usually considerably right of center. A student of nature, he was a believer in natural law and most always a believer in God though his religion was often a little rough around the edges. As for me:
I was born to cattle culture ’neath an Arizona sun
When cattle had horns and a cowboy wore a gun
And I learned everything that I really care to know
From those Arizona Cowboys a long time ago
Como Siempré, Jinx