Cowboy Culture at Nevada’s Western Folklife Center

The Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada, celebrates the songs and stories of the American West.

band performs at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, picture
A band plays the midnight dance at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Jessica Brandi Lifland

Some spots in Elko, Nevada, announce themselves boldly. Stockmen’s Casino appears in a blaze of neon, while J.M. Capriola Co. has a large horse statue mounted on its facade. The Western Folklife Center, down the block, makes a quieter appearance.

Don’t be fooled: The center, a hub for rural culture set in the restored 1913 Pioneer Hotel, is not at all sedate. It’s home to the Pioneer Saloon, where ranch hands still tipple, and a theater where visitors learn the rodeo cha-cha. In the gallery, you might see silver spurs hanging beside saddles hand-carved with intricate designs. Founded in 1980 to preserve the cultural traditions of America’s rangeland, the center has since become the headquarters for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Discover the voices of these western bards on CDs in the gift shop.

The center’s new executive director, Kristin Windbigler, hailing from TED, hopes to use new methods to share these classic stories. “People worldwide are involved with the center,” she says. “We plan to create more ways for them to participate from afar.” To that end, the center is building its online video and poetry archive.

At the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which takes place in January, Elko will be abuzz as thousands of attendees arrive to watch more than 50 poets, musicians, and storytellers perform in venues around town. The globally minded festival has welcomed a variety of herdsmen over the decades, from Louisiana Creole cowboys to Mexican vaqueros. This year, the gathering honors guest bertsolaritza singers from the Pyrenees. In workshops, Dom Flemons will teach old-time banjo tunes, and chefs will reveal Basque culinary secrets.

As Don Newman, executive director of the Elko Convention & Visitors Authority, says: “These experiences have a way of reaching right through you and touching something in your soul.”