The Making of the Poem-Film “Homesteaders, Poor and Dry”

By Chris Simon, Filmmaker

The Western Folklife Center has been working on a series of four poem-films that powerfully communicate contemporary rural issues, ideas and insight—particularly the subject of water in the West. Titled Moving Rural Verse, these films are produced in collaboration with respected Western poets and experienced video artists, and will premiere at the upcoming National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 30-February 4, in Elko. Filmmaker Chris Simon worked with poet Linda Hussa and Reno filmmaker Jerry Dugan to produce a film of Linda’s poem “Homesteaders, Poor and Dry.”

John Hussa, Rylee Dickson and Linda Hussa.

John Hussa, Rylee Dickson and Linda Hussa

When Meg Glaser, Artistic Director at the Western Folklife Center, told me about her new project, Moving Rural Verse—four poems on water in the West made into films—I was intrigued. When she asked, “Would you like to do a poem by Linda Hussa?” I was thrilled.

Then Meg said, “It’s ‘Homesteaders, Poor and Dry’.”

“Isn’t that about drought?” I probe, gazing out my window at the pouring rain. “That’s right!” Meg says brightly.

“And don’t they have to kill a cow and drop a little girl down a well so that the baby won’t die?”

“Can’t you get creative? And no blood.” She hangs up fast.

“Homesteaders, Poor and Dry” is an incredibly powerful poem about the hard emotional impact of drought on a family. It is told from the perspective of the young daughter. It would not be an easy film to make.

I wrote out a scenario for how I’d like to interpret Linda’s poem. Getting from what was on paper to film… well, that was a problem. I’m a documentary filmmaker. I usually film what is there, not create it. Dropping a camera down a well to show a little girl’s point of view is not in my skill set. I decided to collaborate with Reno filmmaker Jerry Dugan who made Buck Ramsey’s poem “Anthem” into a film for the Nevada Museum of Art. As a commercial and extreme sports filmmaker, Jerry could bring the technical skills needed plus additional creative perspective. We arrange to film at the Hussa Ranch at the northeastern tip of California. Linda and her husband John start combing the country looking for a hand-dug well. Their milk cow, Blossom, is offered a starring role. Fortunately, it has stopped raining.

Linda Hussa and Jerry Dugan

Linda Hussa and Jerry Dugan

Jerry and I rendezvous in Reno. I generally work with only a sound recordist (if I’m lucky); Jerry brings a crew of six. That’s seven including me. What can they all do?

The next day it becomes clear. Everyone has a job and everyone is busy. Jerry is on camera assisted by Ryan. Mike does stop-action camera. Trent and Keaton are in charge of MoVi. They will rig the camera down the well. Canyon operates the jib, a complicated apparatus that will give us overhead shots. In truth, everyone does whatever is needed.

Rylee and the rig.

The jib, in position at the well

 A sleepy Rylee Dickson, nine years old, arrives with her mother to play the girl. They had to get up at 4:00 am to make the three-hour drive from Reno. We dress her up in overalls and braid her hair. Keaton is drafted to play the dad and he gets overalls, too. With some dirt smudges they can pass for 1930s ranchers. Blossom is brought into the barn. She looks pretty healthy for a cow that is drought-stricken, but you can’t have everything. Blossom does not like the look of the knife in Dad’s hand. She really doesn’t like the camera being poked in her face. She rolls her eyes and pulls back. This translates well onto film. She goes back to her stall with an extra ration of hay.

The actors: Keaton and Rylee.

The actors: Keaton and Rylee

After shooting all morning at the ranch, we set out for the hand-dug well John Hussa found. It’s half way between the Hussa Ranch and Gerlach, Nevada, out on the sagebrush plains. It is perfect. We pull off the covering boards and when the guys drop a bucket down it comes back with dead scorpions floating in the water. We all take an extra step back.

Lowering the camera into the well.

Lowering the camera into the well

Rylee going down the well is accomplished through the magic of cinema and the technical expertise of Jerry and crew. Then it’s time for her big scene—the one that will make or break the film. Rylee nails it and as Linda, Jerry and I watch the screen, tears come to my eyes. This is even better than I had imagined.

You can see for yourself when “Homesteaders, Poor & Dry” premieres at the upcoming National Cowboy Poetry Gathering as one of the Moving Rural Verse Series.

And, don’t worry, no cows nor children were harmed in the making of this motion picture.

It's a wrap: the end.

It’s a wrap: the end.

See “Homesteaders, Poor & Dry” and three more Moving Rural Verse poem-films on:

Thursday, February 2, 12:15–1:30pm Ruby Mountain Ballroom #1, Elko Conference Center
Friday, February 3, 11:00am–12:15pm, G Three Bar Theater, Western Folklife Center

Moving Rural Verse was produced with major support from the National Endowment for the Arts, ArtPlace America, the Community Foundation of Utah and from Western Folklife Center stakeholders.


Good Optics on Idaho Street

Deon & Trish Reynolds’ “WestStops” Photography Exhibition at Western Folklife Center and Throughout Downtown Elko

By David Roche

Driving west down Idaho Street in Elko, Nevada, and entering the central district at 4th Street, the unsuspecting traveler is suddenly confronted with a grazing trio of horses languidly munching in a rustic corral. Not in the flesh, mind you. A large 7 by 17-foot black and white photo mural, plastered on the plywood siding of a boarded up building puts the driver into instant time warp. Further down the street, in an alley behind the Pioneer Hotel, a calf roping cowboy bears down with lariat flying. Out on 5th Street, a steam engine on the wall of the Western Folklife Center peeks out toward Railroad Avenue where the real trains once ran. What’s going on?


The downtown corridor of Elko has long been subject to the blight of empty storefronts, most recently along Idaho Street. To address the problem with ideas developed through creative placemaking projects and techniques from other similar street artworks, the Western Folklife Center, through the support of the Nevada Energy Foundation and ArtPlace America (and the generous permissions of Pedro Ormaza and Mike Reynolds), commissioned Reynolds Photography to produce these photographic images for outdoor wall installation.trish-reynolds-at-work-meg-glaser-photo

A work-in-progress entirely dependent on weather conditions, wall surface composition and the viscosity of the cream-of-wheat paste used to glue the photo paper to the walls, Reynolds Photography and Western Folklife Center volunteers have been busy attaching and re-attaching images that change the feel of the neighborhood.

Deon and Trish Reynolds, based in Eureka, NV, have been traveling the highways and byways of Nevada for more than 25 years. Deon shoots black and white panoramic images with those disposable plastic Kodak Funsaver cameras once found in drugstores everywhere but utilizing film stock he customizes and installs. Trish shoots her black and white photographs with a 1920s box camera. Both of them have had distinguished gallery showings of photographs and other multimedia works. Trish is a member of the Wild Women Artists group of Nevada and Deon recently stepped down after serving several years as a Nevada Arts Council board member.

deon-trish-celebrate-meg-glaser-photoTitled “WestStops,” a play on words referencing both camera aperture nomenclature and local geography, the large mural-size photographs give instant pause, a momentary visual meditation on time, timelessness and the circling ebb and flow of life, decay and continuity. Like the work of ramshackle structures of the rural South by the late William Christenberry, Reynolds Photography’s dedication to craft inspires an understanding of both the beauty and the poignancy in viewing images that may depict scenes out of place in the center of town but that magnify the current reality of empty storefronts as part of that same natural cycle of appearance and disappearance in the rural West.The patina of age extends to the cameras used and the darkroom techniques.


While ranch traditions of horses and cattle continue to the present, the steam trains are gone and ghost towns of abandoned mining towns dot the Nevada countryside, the latter replaced by major earth-moving operations. The glory days of downtown Elko—when big name bands played the Commercial Casino and the train ran right down the center of town between Commercial and Railroad streets—are past and gone. But the idea of a downtown Renaissance is always a possibility. For us at the Western Folklife Center, we have the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to attract winter audiences and a canvas of brick and plywood on the sides of buildings on which to inscribe some of the visual stories of time and place in the second decade of the 21st century.

For a time-lapse video of the installation process on Deon’s Facebook page, click here.



Real Stories. Straight Up.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” Phillip Pullman

“Real Stories. Straight Up.” That’s the theme of the upcoming National Cowboy Poetry Gathering—our 33rd! As January turns to February, we will be gathered in Elko, sharing first-hand accounts, narratives passed down and around, and undoubtedly a yarn or two. The Gathering presents stories told in verse and melody and prose. To that mix, we are adding personal narratives, told by real people about real occurrences in their lives, in real time.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-4-15-30-pmIn case you haven’t noticed, stories are The Thing these days—there has been a renaissance of storytelling, and these stories have a much broader audience as they are distributed through digital media. We’ve gone from the campfire to the podcast. But stories are best told in person, to a rapt audience, and storytelling has always been at the heart of the Gathering arts. Our participants love to tell a good story and to listen to one. Check out all the Gathering storytelling sessions at Look for the quote box icon and you’ll know there will be stories in that show.

the_mothWe are particularly excited to be hosting The Moth Mainstage at this year’s Gathering, Saturday, February 4, at 8:00 pm in the Elko Convention Center Auditorium. The Moth is a leader in the national resurgence of storytelling performance, and is dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Since launching in 1997, The Moth has presented more than 20,000 stories, told live and without notes, by people from all walks of life to standing-room-only crowds worldwide. It is a dance between documentary and theater, storytelling and performance, everyday people and entertainment. The show features five carefully selected storytellers who develop and shape their stories with The Moth’s directors. Past shows have featured stories by an astronaut, a pickpocket, a hot-dog-eating champion and hundreds more. In addition to the live Mainstage performance, which it presents all over the world, The Moth also produces The Moth Radio Hour, which is presented on more than 450 public radio stations. We listen to it in Elko on Nevada Public Radio, from Las Vegas. The Moth also produces a popular podcast, has open mic competitions, works with high school students on storytelling performance and even helps corporations solve problems through storytelling.


The Moth Mainstage. Photo by Flash Rosenburg.

Their values and their mission are similar to ours:

The Moth is true stories, told live and without notes. The Moth celebrates the ability of stories to honor both the diversity and commonality of human experience, and to satisfy a vital human need for connection. It seeks to present recognized storytellers among established and emerging writers, performers and artists and to encourage storytelling among communities whose stories often go unheard.*Print

And, The Moth’s origins are rural—it was started by a poet(!) and novelist on a back porch in small-town Georgia. The founder, George Dawes Green, “would spend sultry summer evenings swapping spellbinding tales with a small circle of friends. There was a hole in the screen, which let in moths that were attracted to the light, and the group started calling themselves “The Moths.”* Cool, huh?

The Moth produces the Mainstage show with a minimum of extraneous activity or props: like cowboy poetry, it is raw, fresh, and beautifully presented, an intimate conversation between the teller and the listener. Last Sunday’s Moth Radio Hour featured a wonderful narrative told by Melanie Yazzie, a Navajo woman on the faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She told a story about her grandmother, who was an extraordinary rug weaver. Her story hinged on a discovery of one of her grandmother’s rugs being displayed and erroneously identified as being made by “Anonymous.” It is a poignant story about the teller’s life in the contemporary art world, but still so connected to the tribal tradition through her elders. This is the kind of story you will hear in The Moth’s show at the Gathering. Listen to it here:


Melanie Yazzi. Photo by Jessica Taves.

Please join us January 30 to February 4, 2017 for a week of stories, poetry, music, dancing, film, food, conversation and camaraderie! Visit for more information and to get your tickets.


From The Moth website at

The View from the Western Folklife Center’s Wiegand Gallery

By Meg Glaser

Meg Glaser, by Kevin Martini-FullerThose familiar with the Western Folklife Center know that our small staff wear many hats, donning whatever is needed on any given day. As Artistic Director, one of my “hats” is exhibitions curator, envisioning our beautiful Wiegand Gallery as a multi-sensory entry into the American West and our organizational mission.

Some of my favorite exhibitions are those that bring together diverse types of arts—folk art intermingled with contemporary paintings, photography, historical imagery, and increasingly, audio-visual installations. As an organization we embrace the blurriness of cultural lines and the opportunity to draw on a deep pool of creativity in order to represent our culturally complex region out in the world. One of the first exhibitions we produced along these lines remains one of my favorites: Trappings of the Great Basin paired William Matthews’ exquisite watercolor documentation of the Great Basin and its people with the elaborate handcrafted horse gear favored in this region.

William Matthews painting, photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

William Matthews, painting, photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

As he visited and re-visited remote Western ranches and cowboy gatherings to seek visual inspiration, Matthews witnessed the renaissance of gear-making paralleling that of poetry and music. In 1992, with William Matthews’ encouragement, leadership and support, the Western Folklife Center established its Contemporary Gear Fund and Collection to reflect the craftsmanship of some of the West’s most respected artisans.

We extend our gratitude to Willie and the many individuals who have contributed funding and gear to this growing and highly regarded collection.

Exhbition installation, photo by Meg Glaser

In the Wiegand Gallery, September 17, 2016 through May, 2017: Horses of the American West and From the Western Folklife Center Collection.

Visitors can study this unique collection, along with two William Matthews’ paintings, as part of a larger exhibition—Horses of the American West—featured in the Wiegand Gallery through May 2017. The curators for the Nevada Museum of Art’s Horses of the American West drew inspiration from the classic poem “Equus Caballus,” written by our friend and Texas poet Joel Nelson. Filmmaker Paul Moon made an eloquent poem-film of “Equus Caballus” that shares the gallery with a selection of historical and contemporary paintings, photographs and sculptural works drawn from the permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art, along with a few special items from private collections. All those interested in the horse and horse gear will not want to miss this exhibition. Time your visit to coincide with the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering to enjoy gallery tours by art and gear historians Kathleen and Griff Durham, as well as other related talks and demonstrations.

The Crew - John Ditz, Griff Durham, Beth Carpel, Brian Eyler and Chris Martin - photo by Meg Glaser

The installation crew – John Dits, Griff Durham, Beth Carpel, Brian Eyler and Chris Martin – photo by Meg Glaser

In September, we had the pleasure of working side-by-side with Nevada Museum of Art staff members Brian Eyler and Chris Martin as they installed Horses of the American West at the same time our crew were bringing saddles, headstalls and ropes from our collection into the Wiegand Gallery for the current exhibition. The week of being immersed in artwork; working with our generous, skilled and knowledgeable volunteers Beth Carpel, Griff Durham, John Dits and Karen Martin; and working with Nevada Museum of Art staff on site and back in Reno, once again reminded me of how fortunate I am to be wearing this hat.

Art “Placemaking” or Art “Placekeeping” in Downtown Elko?

By David Roche

When the Western Folklife Center was awarded an art “placemaking” grant from ArtPlace America in the fall of 2015, it initiated a creative process already stimulated by Elko’s own plan for redevelopment of the downtown corridor. Bordered by Commercial and Railroad streets between 3rd and 9th, this area was the heartbeat of old Elko. The railroad tracks once ran smack down the middle of town. And not only carrying freight and passengers from the West, the trains delivered entertainers to the Commercial Hotel and Stockmen’s—including, famously, a very chilled Xavier Cugat mambo orchestra one frosty winter night in the late 1940’s. Elko was the casino entertainment capital of Nevada for a time.

Photographer and date unknownPhotographer and date unknown

The arteries of the city branched out from the Pioneer Hotel at 5th and Railroad and along adjacent blocks on Idaho and Silver. But with the tracks removed to the edge of town in the 1970’s, sadly, the area began to wither. Auto and truck traffic along I-80 and the suburban housing developments expanding outward in all directions meant business relocated to shopping malls adjacent to the Interstate entrances and to big box retailers and fast food outlets. Downtown saw more shop closures and boarded storefronts.

By 2014, the greening of the downtown corridor and sprucing up of old buildings had become a focal point for civic redevelopment. Store owners, local citizens and the city’s Planning Department pulled together for group meetings. Two different consulting teams were engaged. Designs were drawn up. Comments were gathered.

WFC Pioneer Hotel , 2009




2009 photo by Steve Green

Pioneer Hotel Building, 2012




2012 staff photo


How to bring more folks back downtown? Was it housing or was it park-like amenities to attract families that could turn the tide? A permanent outdoor performance area? Trees and green hillocks? A water works for a summer splash pad or a skating rink for the winter? Maybe a Ferris wheel? All these ideas and more ended up in a $20-million-dollar plan presented to the city. Ultimately, when put to the vote of the City Council, the plan was scaled back considerably.

CPG2003 Youth Education ProgramsElko County School Children attend an event, photo by Steve Green.

The Western Folklife Center looked at this populist civic activity and decided to try to carve out a productive niche for ourselves, appropriate to the arts and culture footprint we occupy in Elko. How could we best contribute to the redevelopment plan? While the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering had established itself over three decades as a major event in town, what could we do to enhance the quality of life in Elko the rest of the year?

Pioneer at night, by Jessica Brandi Lifland-2011ncpgA night at the Gathering, photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Given our curatorial skills in producing, presenting and exhibiting, what could we do to become more of a year-round arts and culture magnet for Elko, right in the heart of the city—and the heart of the redevelopment efforts? We found a willing investor in ArtPlace America, a consortium agency comprised of 16 funders from around the country who had joined together on a 10-year plan to support thoughtful nonprofit art placemaking projects in every state. We applied and were honored to become the first Nevada recipient.

Deon Reynolds art, wall mock-upWall photo mural project model by Deon Reynolds,
©2016 Reynolds Photography

The renaissance of art placemaking in America (sometimes called “creative placemaking”) is traced to the New Urbanist Movement of post-World War II. Jane Jacobs’ (1961) provocative book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, while centered on large cities and designs for remedying urban decay, provides a basic text for the mindful redevelopment of cities of whatever size. As Jacobs writes, “Designing a dream city is easy. Rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” Art placemaking, then, is the shorthand way of indicating a variety of renovation and redevelopment strategies in which public art becomes a major factor. The artist or curator becomes a significant player at the table along with the city planner and manager, the developer and the neighborhood citizens invested as stakeholders in building better public spaces.

Jam On! May 14, 2014, photo courtesy of Southwind photo fileJam On! Every second Tuesday of the month.
Photo courtesy of Southwind photo file

But it is a second, related concept of public art works that may be more to the point in the case of Elko. “Art placekeeping” is a term favored by community arts activists Jenny Lee and Roberto Bedoya to counter the idea that development is more than creating anew. It is not simply about preserving and renovating old buildings – with the possibility of uncontrolled gentrification – but it is also about keeping the cultural memories attached to a historic district vibrant and real– to continue to tell the personal and community stories, dance the dances, and celebrate the music of the streets and local establishments. Keepin’ it real—la pura vida—rather than bland homogenizing and fakelore.

Dance photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland, 2013Dance photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Our home at the Pioneer Hotel can help. We can be an arts and culture anchor, “placekeeping” the neighborhood. Programs like ”Let’s Dance!” and “Jam On!,” our ongoing dance and music instruction and improvising sessions, have started the ball rolling. For the future, visual arts exhibits, both moving images and static exhibitions, will open up the building, welcoming folks to come inside for workshops and other activities. Our cigarbox guitar-making workshop with Matt Downs—back by popular demand—and Hallowe’en concert this week with “Haunted Windchimes” are just two current examples of bringing the outside inside to experience some hands-on art making at our place. Keeping the Pioneer Hotel as the place to be in the heart of old Elko is a start toward making our contribution to the grand plan. Come join us.

David Roche
Executive Director

Cigar-Box Guitars and Haunted Windchimes

By Katie Aiken

muddybootsrootsrevival-202In October, two musical groups join us at the Western Folklife Center. Both are influenced by American roots music. Both bring an ingenuity and innovation that keeps their sound fresh. And both celebrate the creativity and tradition of making music with family and friends.

On Wednesday, October 26th at 7:00 pm, The Haunted Windchimes play at the G Three Bar Theater – just in time for Halloween. Learn more about them, their Pueblo, CO, beginnings, and their vintage-tinged folk and blues sound here.

This upcoming Saturday, October 22nd, Muddy Boots & the Porch Pounders play the Pioneer Saloon at 7:00 pm. Before they take the stage that evening, Matt Downs (of Muddy Boots) hosts his second annual build-your-own cigar-box guitar workshop at the Western Folklife Center. Matt was kind enough to answer a few questions about the peculiar instrument he has chosen and how (and why) he became obsessed with the cigar-box guitar (from here on out, referred to as the CBG). Be warned: the conversation below is paraphrased… Matt talks fast when talking about his love for the CBG!

Western Folklife Center (WFC): The cigar-box guitar seems like a fairly uncommon instrument, at least around here. How did you first get introduced to the CBG?

Matt Downs (MD): Well, probably the best way to tell it is… I wanted to play guitar as a kid. I took two years of guitar lessons in high school and I learned a lot about the guitar, but I still couldn’t play a lick of it after the two years. In 2009, I had just gotten the internet at home and learned about YouTube. I found a video of a guy playing a CBG and I said, “I think I can do that”… and the very next day, I went to a smoke shop and found a cigar box.


WFC: Did you teach yourself? How did you learn to play?

MD: I didn’t tell anybody that I’d made my first CBG. I made it around Christmas-time and I just wanted to be able to play ONE song at the family Christmas party. There was nobody on YouTube teaching how to play the 3-string CBG, so I had to figure it out for myself. Since I had a different approach than people who play “normally,” it was easier for me (than the guitar lessons had been). Something on the radio would catch my ear and I’d figure out how to play little bits of things until I could piece songs together.

WFC: When did you tell people you were playing the CBG? How did your family react?

MD: I gave away the first CBG I built that Christmas as a white elephant present at a gift exchange. It was kind of a big joke. My life is kind of a series of big jokes, ha. So, my family was expecting something weird. The CBG was a novelty at first. But, I really enjoyed it. The CBG really lends itself to the blues (with its three strings and slide playing). When I first started, I’d tell people, “this is a blues guitar, but I do not have a blue bone in my body.” But, I loved it so much that I started learning, studying blues music, tracing influences back to where the blues started. That’s how I started to understand it and be able to play it. My family probably thinks I’m completely insane, but I’m just having fun!

WFC: What about your band members? How did they react? How did you find people to play with?

3629363MD: Right after I learned how to build a CBG, I decided to do an open mic at a music festival in Ogden to play in front of people. It was a bluegrass festival and I did a terrible job. I had never played standing up before. I had never sung into a microphone! But, everybody was gracious and told me to play something else. I only knew two songs at the time. The whole experience was so encouraging, though, it lit a fire underneath me.

What possessed you to get up on a stage at that point?

MD: Ha! I’ve always been kind of a show-off. From riding motorcycles to yo-yo. (yep, that’s right, yo-yo). And, when I find something I enjoy, I dig in and become a bit obsessive. In fact, I was the yo-yo state champion in Utah when I was younger. I don’t usually put that on my resume. It doesn’t come up in conversation much. (Sorry, Matt, the secret’s out.)

Actually, the jam sessions at the [WFC’s National] Cowboy Poetry Gathering were a major inspiration for me to be able to play with other people. I wanted to do that—to be able to jump in, on the fly, with other musicians and be able not just to follow along, but to actually add something.

I knew that I needed to learn to play with others before I could improve. When I moved to Elko, I put an ad on Craig’s List. Once I told people that I play the CBG, most of them stopped responding. (Luckily, he kept it up and found some like-minded musicians who were open to playing what some might call “weird stuff”one of his current bandmates had even responded to that original Craig’s List ad though they actually met a few years later.)

WFC: How do you describe the style of music that Muddy Boots plays?

MD: That’s always a sticky situation… I’ve sort of coined the term trans-genre music. It’s a little bit of this and little bit of that… roots rock might be the best description. We’re heavily influenced by the blues, folk rock, and roots rock.

WFC: What do you want people to know about the CBG?

MD: It’s really amazing to play an instrument that you made yourself. I used to think instruments were almost magical. Building your own instrument takes a lot of the mystery out of music. I’ve built instruments out of all kinds of things—garbage cans, mailboxes, motorcycle parts. It makes you realize music does not have to be commercialized; music used to be made on your front porch at night, it was homegrown, something you could listen to in your back yard, at home. This is a way of taking music back (out of a commercialized and monetized realm) —you can make whatever style of music you want on any instrument you can make.


The 2015 Cigar Box Guitar class at the Western Folklife Center

Join us on Saturday, October 22 – meet the guys who joined a band led by a cigar-box guitar-playing yo-yo champion. And, maybe you’ll be inspired to demystify the music-making process yourself and strike a tune on the next cigar-box… or coffee can… or haircomb… or spare car part… you stumble across.

Trailing of the Sheep Festival 20 Years Later…

By Diane Josephy Peavey

The Trailing of the Sheep Festival, in Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey, Idaho, starts tomorrow, Wednesday, October 5, and runs through October 9. It is a festival that is celebrating its 20th year of preserving the stories and history of sheep ranchers and herders, celebrating the rich cultures of the past and present, and entertaining and educating children and adults about the production of local food and fiber that have sustained local economies for generations. Sheep rancher Diane Peavey and her husband John founded the festival in an effort to help newcomers to the area understand and appreciate its sheep-ranching history. We asked Diane to write a blog for us to share the story of this special event. Enjoy!


This wonderful, appealing, “who ever thought of this” event called The Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which last year hosted over 25,000 people from 36 states and eight foreign countries, turns 20 this year. But its beginnings were unique.

In the early 1990s our family, now five generations working sheep, reached out to newcomers and not-so-newcomers all angered over the sheep droppings on the new community bike path. Our phone rang off the hook. “Get YOUR sheep off OUR bike path. Their droppings are getting caught in my roller blades and bike tires.”

Sad but true. The path was the pride of the county but unbeknownst to most of its citizenry, the bike path would never have become a reality without the support of sheep ranching families because it was to be built on top of the sheep right of way.

“A bike path across our sheep easement? Sure no problem,” sheepmen said. ‘We’re happy to share.”

But it turned out not everyone was as happy to share, especially those recreationists eager to fly down the new bike path that for a brief time each spring and fall was covered with sheep droppings. Oops.

We thought fast and my husband John—always happy to share what he most loves…his ranching life—invited the community to join us for coffee and a little history about sheep ranching at a local café and then follow us to the bike path and help herd the sheep south keeping them off the asphalt trail. That first year 20 people showed up. The following year there were many more and by the fourth year it was a Valley-wide occasion. We were becoming a community of herders. The controversy faded but not the crowds. Then in 1996 we got a call from the Chamber’s dynamic and creative director who got right to the point. “Let’s talk about your sheepherder walks,” she began, “I think we’ve got a festival here.”


That was 20 years ago. Slowly we created a three-pronged program for the second weekend in October, the time of year when we were moving our sheep from summer mountain pastures to desert winter range. First there would be a sheep parade down Main Street Ketchum, Idaho, of 1,500 whirling and dancing ewes. They were greeted with thunderous applause. No reenactment here. This was living history. We’d be moving the sheep with or without an audience.

Then we’d have a Folklife Fair with music, dance and food, shearing and working dogs that celebrated the cultures of the earliest herders—the Scots, the Basques and today the Peruvians.


And for the third event we were all in agreement. We would have a time for telling stories about sheep ranching and the families that have grazed their animals in the hills around Hailey and Ketchum and throughout the West for over 150 years.

This last program has become our most cherished and our lasting legacy, a time when we listen and record the stories of our families and our history. After the crowds have left and the sheep are miles south of town, the stories, the memories, the personal histories, the reminiscences of place and belonging, the conversations of survivability, of sustainability, the insights into our western landscapes remain.

In 2014, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival began a three-year storytelling adventure called “Celebrating Generations.” That year we honored “the Visionaries,” those first families who found a piece of western land that matched their dreams, made it home, made it their life’s work, cared for it and fed the country from its bounty.

In 2015, we heard the stories of second and third generations, “the Survivors,” who kept the family dream alive against huge odds during the farm depression of the 1980s, years of drought, fires, predation of their lambs, and dramatic growth in imported lamb and wool among other issues. They hung on.

This year our final year of Celebrating Generations, we will listen to the “Next Generation”—those poised to follow the generations of family before them. Will they hold onto the dream of their parents and grandparents or find an easier life for themselves? If they stay, will they lead this timeless profession through dramatic change over the next 20 years into a technological, computerized, genetically guided businesses or gently remold change so it can still exist alongside a band of sheep resting mid-afternoon in a mountain meadow?

This is a pivotal generation. What optimism or commitment will guide those who stay? Can they take up the dream of their great grandfathers and make it their own? There are stories to tell.

Looking back, looking forward at 20 years —The Trailing of the Sheep Festival.