Robin and I went to Baker for an event unique even here in Nevada where one-of-a-kind is the general rule.
It is the bittersweet Old Sheepherders’ Party, the 7th annual tribute to the tough and hardy men who trailed the sheep bands through this Utah-Nevada country in years past; bitter because these old fellows are dying away as the American sheep industry itself is dying, sweet because the heartfelt show of appreciation for their years of hard labor, the good food and the fun.
Denys Koyle started the event because Elko’s famous Cowboy Poetry Gathering focused attention on the cattle ranching heritage of the area and she felt the sheepmen deserved attention and appreciation too. It’s held in her recently enlarged Border Inn, long a landmark on Highways US50/6 at the Utah line, a lonely bright spot in those wide open spaces and already famous for its New Years Eve celebrations (multimedia presentation here.) Denys operates it with her son Gary Perea.
We went with the sense we were participating in a pageant that began promptly at 5 pm. on Friday afternoon with a feast. At the tables older men in overalls, big hats and boots ate lamb stew with their wives, grown children (and fast-growing grandchildren) and fellow sheep men. The conversations were animated and friendly, and there was a lot of laughter.
And yet always hovering in the background, the awareness of shared difficulties, endless decline and market losses.
The sheep business is drying up in America, and in this part of the country, that hurts.
After dinner there was a parade of speakers and performers, introduced and put through their paces by the highly entertaining Master of Ceremonies Hank Vogler. Melanie Heckethorn sang; she is a 6th generation Snake Valley girl, and she sang beautifully, to enthusiastic applause. Bill Rountree reminisced about a barnstorming crew of New Zealand sheep shearers who came through Baker in 1987 and whose exploits were reported in the New York Times. As Denys recalled in the article, “One of the guys took off his boots, set them on the counter and asked me to fill them up with beer. So I did. There was stuff floating around in there, but it didn’t seem to matter. They all sat there and drank it anyway.”
The hilarity toned down considerably when Paul Frishnecht, a Utah attorney active in the higher branches of the American sheep industry ticked off statistics pointing up the attrition in the business. At the time of the Korean War there were 50 million sheep in bands all across the American west. There are only 8 million now, just five packing plants in the whole country and no friends in Congress. New Zealand has 40 million sheep now, and China has 300 million.
There it was. The once-powerful industry that sustains these people in the life that they love is still losing ground.
And then the fun began again: Sourdough Slim took the stage.
Slim grew up his grandfather’s northern California cattle ranch, in the long-ago days when his name was just Rick Crowder. He grew up listening to granddad’s 78 rpm records, taught himself how to play music, and then played in a couple of bands. In his middle thirties he drove a UPS truck, which is when he decided to see if he could make a success out of being a vaudeville cowboy.
“I played on the streets of San Francisco for a few weeks when I first started in 1988,” he told me. “Trying to learn how to play the accordion — my first gig, so to speak. I faked my way through a variety of shows at retirement homes, school bazaars, opening act gigs and craft festivals before I first went to Elko in January of 1990 for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I was very well received at the open mike and upstairs jam sessions at The Stockmen’s, and that opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me which led to a main stage show at the Gathering in ’91.”
Sourdough Slim’s Academy of Yodeling, Strawberry Music Festival, with Robert Armstrong playing slide guitar.
After that he turned in his brown uniform and his keys for good and transmogrified full time into a big-hatted accordion-playing yodeling cowboy movie sidekick, but without the movie. He might have stepped out of one of those black-and-white horse operas they don’t make any more, after the hero inexplicably rode off on his beautiful big palomino, leaving Slim standing there alone on the stage, suddenly in technicolor, looking out at us with a smile on his face and an accordion on his chest — just about the way he looked when he played Carnegie Hall at the 1994 Folk Festival, and performed before a sold-out house on that fabled stage.
He sang to us about “Yodeling Bill”, in the process giving us a yodeling demonstration so spellbinding that at the end of it no-one thought to clap. But he reminded us, and we did, and from then on it was one classic western song after another.
Sourdough Slim, yodeling in the Grand Ballroom of the Border Inn.
And he confided to us how he’d been affected by the economic calamity and had to take a Christmas job as a bell-ringer outside a supermarket. “To tell you the truth it didn’t pay much of anything, but the tips were outstanding!”
And then the accordion burst into music and led him into the rollicking choruses of “The Musket Came Down From the Door”. He sang “Barnacle Bill”! He sang “Take My Boots Off When I Die”. He let us in on the secret that he wants to be the last man on earth, just to see if all those women were lying to him or not.
He did another show the next afternoon and after he had everyone tapping our feet with big grins on our faces, he tried to teach the roomful of sheepmen and their families how to yodel. The welkin rang loud with our efforts — but we were a world away from the Alps; even the Alabama Hills were well out of range.
|Slim achieved what even the great Will Rogers could not: he danced, played the accordion, twirled his lariat and yodeled — simultaneously!|
In “Wahoo!” he made a jazzy little “trumpet” riff with his lips, which he credited to Bix Beiderbecke. “Yes, I was channeling the great Bix Beiderbecke, the kid from Davenport Iowa who played in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, in a tuxedo and a nice black bow tie”, Slim said. “Imagine his surprise — coming back as an accordion-playing yodeling cowboy in Baker Nevada!” He closed with “Home On The Range” and once again the room was filled with singing voices as everyone joined in. A lamb/beef banquet followed, and then The Sheepherder’s Ball, with music enthusiastically provided late into the night by the Silver Sage Family Band.
This was what we had come for, to experience the simple sweet pleasure of laughing out loud together, and singing out loud together, sharing a taste of an America that seems to be vanishing even faster than the sheep.
There is an interesting variety of things to see in Baker, starting with Great Basin National Park. The small Visitor’s Center at the edge of town is open and well worth a visit any time. There’s also a nearby archaeological dig with a self-guided tour hinting at the nature of village life in the stone age. And there’s a fish hatchery about eight miles south of town, that’s pretty cool if you missed the grammar school field trip.
Beyond that, there’s Baker itself.
Baker is a ghost town in midwinter. What had been an engaging little community of creative and energetic souls is . . . empty, dark and still. The Silver Jack Inn, once Bill Rountree’s domain and famous all over Snake Valley for its Imelda Marcos suite, is now a sophisticated bistro, but closed from November through April.
The rocket ship Bill made out of a vacuum cleaner and a chandelier is long gone from the roofline, and there’s a ‘For Sale’ sign in the front window. T&D’s across the street is closed and for sale. At the Whispering Elms Motel where we stayed only three of the rooms were rentable and none of the RV hookups were occupied. Doc Sherman is in his grave, the few remaining artworks that he and his acolytes installed on the road up to the Park are badly weathered or gone altogether. There hasn’t been a street bowling tournament in years, and Baker’s joi d’vivre is nowhere to be seen. I’ll come back in a warmer season before I write the little town’s obituary — maybe like a living thing, it dies back in winter, and comes bursting back to life again in the spring. . . .