I am a Westerner in more ways than one. I live in the West and am devoted to its history. But I also belong to an organization called Westerners, International, a foundation to stimulate interest and research in frontier history, according to its website.
This is a club like no other that I know of. Instead of chapters we have “corrals” or “posses”; there are no presidents or other such officers. The designated leader of each corral is the “Sheriff” and the other officers are “Deputy Sheriff”, “Keeper of the Chips”, “Recorder of the Marks and Brands’, and so on. We begin each gathering with a ritual salute: “Hello Joe, you old buffalo!” addressed to some depiction of a buffalo skull (ours is painted on a leather scroll), the origin of which is lost to the mists of time.
You may have guessed by now that the organization was started by a few homesick souls from the western part of the country who found themselves, for various reasons, stranded on the shores of Lake Michigan in decidedly mid-western Chicago, and wanting to maintain their birthright, founded the club in 1946 on a lark. Two of these, Leland Case and Troy Parker, had roots in South Dakota, and it wasn’t long before groups around the country started asking permission to establish their own corrals. Corral Number 8 (founded in 1953) is the Black Hills Corral which I have belonged to since the mid-seventies, even serving a stint as Deputy Sheriff, which inevitably led to Sheriff (although I never did receive my past-Sheriff’s badge and frankly, I’m still a little sore about it).
Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed the monthly get-togethers to learn about various – and often obscure – aspects of western history. I have even on occasion, visited other corrals during my travels when their meeting time happens to coincide with my visit, and am always, of course, welcomed with typical western hospitality.
Some corrals have websites, some even publish, but most are much more informal. The Black Hills Corral videotapes every historic presentation which are then archived at the Leland D. Case Library at Black Hills State University. Ironically some of the largest and most active corrals are located outside of the United States.
Westerners, International enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the Western History Association, a much more conventional organization of professional historians, which sponsors a fairly substantial annual history conference at rotating locations throughout the West. Westerners traditionally sponsors a breakfast at the conference where members from across the country get a chance to salute Old Joe together and compare notes. This tradition has carried over to other, more regional history conferences, including our own West River History Conference in Rapid City, SD, whose Westerners Breakfast is sponsored by our local Black Hills Corral # 8.
Eventually the founding fathers scattered and the headquarters landed in Tucson, where Leland Case had retired, for many years. Today it is headquartered – appropriately – in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
In 1983, South Dakota celebrated a year-long commemoration of the 100th birthday of its first poet laureate Badger Clark – a card-carrying Westerner himself. I wrote what I titled “a personal reminiscence”, presented it as part of my contribution to the occasion, and somehow it was entered in the annual Westerners, International Awards competition, winning the Philip A. Danielson Award for Best Program of the year. It remains my only national award, and I’ve been feasting on it ever since! [Read article]
But back to the Westerners. If you are interested in perpetuating both the myth and the reality of the Old West you may want to locate a corral near you and join up. There is very little demanded of members other than extremely modest annual dues, and the obligation to participate occasionally in the western hospitality of monthly meetings where you are sure to know more after attending than you did going in.
It also just might whet your appetite for traveling the Great American West, where history happened. If so, I know where you can find some really unique and enjoyable tour programs.
This month’s Trail Talk is sponsored by
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to travel trade magazines. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.