MCHF & WHC HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE:
Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering and Western Music Rendezvous (Est. 1986)
The first Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held in Big Timber, Montana in 1986. The Gathering was organized by poet and author Gwen Petersen. Petersen returned from the inaugural National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada in 1985. Petersen was a poet representative from Montana for the Elko gathering, and focused on the cowgirl aspect. She felt that Montana could benefit from hosting its own cowboy poetry gathering. Petersen enlisted the support and participation of other notable Montana cowboy poets including Wallace McCrae of Rosebud, Montana; Henry "Hank" Real Bird of Garryowen, Montana; and Mike Korn of Helena, Montana. At the time, Mike Korn was the folklorist for Montana. The focus remained similar to the Elko gathering and the mission was to preserve the legacy, history, heritage and way of life through poems and songs of the cowboys and cowgirls who had settled this western region.
The founding members chose the third week of August in Big Timber, Montana for the show, hoping to squeeze it in between first and second hay cuttings. Some of the early poets other than Petersen, McCrae, Real Bird and Korn included Mike Logan, Paul Zarzyski, Betty Lynn Grue McCarthy, Afton Bloxham, Jim Hamilton, Sandy Seaton Sallee, Stan Howe, Wild Horse Cunningham, Lloyd McKenna, Gordon Eastman and others. The Gathering was held in Big Timber continuously for five years in August until it outgrew the facilities and amenities.
From Big Timber, the Gathering moved to Lewistown, Montana. The organizers continued to do the show in the same format, which was holding the Gathering over two and a half days. There were two days of poetry sessions separated into blocks of time, two night shows and the Gatherings finished up Sunday mornings with Cowboy Church. The Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce produced Montana Cowboy Poetry for the next ten years under the enthusiastic leadership of Chamber Director, J.R. Strand. J.R. was a singer/songwriter himself and immersed himself in the production of the growing event. When J.R. Strand moved from Lewistown in 2000, the gathering was turned over to the Lewistown Art Center where Nancy Hedrick, Art Center Director, took the reins. The Art Center, influenced by the Montana Arts Council, Montana Office of Tourism and Museum/Art Gallery Director’s Association, further developed the gathering with an aggressive marketing and promotional campaign. In 2010 the American Bus Association recognized Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering as one of the TOP 100 travel experiences in the country.
In 2004, Nancy Hedrick and her husband retired and moved from Lewistown. Karen Kuhlmann, the new Director of the Lewistown Art Center, replaced Hedrick and continued nurturing Montana Cowboy Poetry. Kuhlmann put together a group of dedicated volunteers to be hands-on at the gatherings and help with advanced planning. In 2010, the Gathering was moved under the Lewistown Area Chamber of Commerce. This only commenced for one year and the Gathering then became entirely independent with 501-c-3 status. The Gatherings from 2011-2015, have been produced annually by an all-volunteer board that works twelve months a year to put the Gathering together. A chairman, vice-chair, secretary and treasurer are elected each year, and Kuhlmann has continued to serve as the Gathering Coordinator. The Gathering is completely self-funded and self-supporting.
Throughout its tenure the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering has offered many unique exhibits, workshops and activities. The focus continues to be on providing the authentic depictions of Montana’s western lifestyle. The core of the Gathering is the over 50 hourly sessions of cowboy poetry and western music. Complementing the day sessions are dances, living history exhibits, special workshops, the Charlie Russell dinner train, the Western Art & Gear Vendor Show and Cowboy Church. The Saturday night Grand Stage Show features nationally known headliners and introduces many new individuals to cowboy poetry. Attendance has grown annually, and recent Gatherings have seen over 100 poets and pickers, many volunteers, and over 2,000 people in attendance throughout the weekend.
2015, will mark the 30th Year Anniversary of the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The current Board of Directors is publishing a collection of original poetry and song lyrics from over 80 cowboy poets and western singer/songwriters who have performed throughout the years. The book, “A Rhyme Runs Through It” is an anthology including the work of several performers who have passed over the Big Divide.
With 30 years under their belt, the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering continues to be committed to carrying on its tradition many years into the future. The Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering will continue to hail the American cowboy and cowgirl and their embodiment of the very best of the American spirit, courage, independence and stamina. It is with poetry and song lyrics that we honor and celebrate the heritage of the open range and all that it brought to our nation. The history, heritage and values of the upper Rocky Mountain cowboy are integral to our way of life today, worth preserving and of great interest to the rest of the world for many generations to come.
Kuhlmann, Karen. Interview via E-mail. April 22, 2015.
Montana Cowboy Poetry and Western Music Rendezvous. West Wind Web Solutions. N.d.
Electronicsource.April21, 2015. http://www.montanacowboypoetrygathering.com/.
Petersen, Gwen. Interview via E-mail. April 21, 2015.