Thanks to Tom Whitaker

The cowboy way of life is alive and well in the Heber Valley

Words are so powerful. They make us laugh, cry and feel emotions so deeply they live with us forever. And cowboy poetry is just that — a collection of powerful words meant to make you feel all ranges of emotion. Whether it is through song, poems or prayers, the words you hear at a cowboy poetry gathering are ones you won’t soon forget.

Our community is lucky to host one of nations top cowboy poetry festivals and this year marks the 25th Anniversary of the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering!

As a tribute to the event that has brought so much to this valley, we look back to its humble beginnings…

It all started with a drive-by conversation, so to speak.

Just a Friendly Little Gathering

Tom Whitaker, one of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering’s founding members, recalls the day he was driving from Midway to Heber and saw two old friends on horseback and pulled over to visit. He sat and talked with Ben Quinters and Kim Cutler, and somehow the conversation turned to cowboy poetry.

“We started talking about the poems we knew, reciting a few we knew by heart,”

Tom remembers.

“We decided it might be a good idea to have a little cowboy poetry gathering, so later that day I went to the Midway Town Hall to reserve a date. I’ll never forget when the posters came back. It said ‘1st Annual Cowboy Poetry Festival’ like we knew this wasn’t a one-time thing, but I don’t think I expected it to go this far.”

They weren’t sure what to expect that first year, but people came — lots of people. The poetry was interspersed with music and Dutch oven cooking, and no one walked away disappointed.

A Quarter Century Down the Road

 “That first symphony show I got a little teary eyed,” Tom admits. “I realized we’ve really got something special. This isn’t just a hometown show.”

He was right all those years ago. The gathering has grown from one night to five days. The event now includes a Buckaroo Fair with Western booths filled with arts, crafts and cowboy gear, a mountain man camp, cowboy church, symphony shows and nonstop, world-famous cowboy poetry and entertainment.

“Poetry may sound boring but it’s so much more than that,” Tom assures. “You’ll hear amazing life lessons, laugh and cry. I’ll watch kids slumped over in their chairs, determined not to enjoy themselves, but by the end they are laughing and having a great time. It’d be a shame if you lived in this valley for any amount of time and never experienced this event.”

The Heber Valley is fortunate to have such an amazing event take place right on our front doorstep. Packed with things the entire family can enjoy, it’s no wonder this humble little gathering continued to grow, year after year.

Cowboy poetry grew from a tradition of cowboys telling stories. It is a living tradition and gives outsiders a glimpse into life on the range. While Tom couldn’t pick just one poem or poet as a favorite, he suggested the old Waddie Mitchell poem “Typical”  for those not sure what to expect.

He was out on the cliff’s edge further than he’d ever been before
He sat with legs a’ danglin’ high above the valley’s floor
He was lost in thought while drinking in the grandeur of it all
When a gust of wind unseated him, and he began to fall
‘Twas a drastic situation and he didn’t dare think slow
For certain death awaited him on those rocky crags below
So he called upon a friend (I guess the only one he could)
The one we all forget about when things are going good
He said, “God, if you will help me now, I’ll quit my sinful ways
I will do the things you’d have me do and work hard all my days
I will quit the booze and cigarettes and help my loving wife
I will spend time with my children and I’ll turn around my life
I will work to help the needy and I’ll promise to repent”
Just then, a tree limb caught his coat and stopped his fast descent
And while hanging from the tree that grew upon that rocky shelf
He looked skyward saying, “Never mind, I handled it myself!”