Antelope Island festival celebrates cowboy heritage
Antelope Island • Paul Bliss dreamed of being a cowboy when he was a child in Spanish "Fark," as he pronounces it. In a way, he keeps that dream alive by reciting the traditional poetry of cowpunchers.
It was Cowboy Legends on Antelope Island Saturday, and Bliss steers two mules pulling an old wooden wagon, yelling to them "Gee" as they turn right, hooves clopping in the dust. Soon, parents and youngsters will climb up for a slow ride into the past.
Bliss and the other singers, poetry-reciters and storytellers took to the large stage inside the old barn of the Fielding Garr Ranch, where words and song rang out the glory days of a way of life that's pretty much lost
But Bliss is the real deal. He runs Bliss Cattle Company in Salem, from where he travels for weeks at a time to Nevada, Colorado, Nebraska and even Mexico to buy and sell cattle, which is still a way of life for his family.
"My grandmother had a song or poem for any occasion," Bliss said.
The annual Cowboy Legends Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival is a Memorial Day weekend tradition on the island, where it's a rolling 30-minute drive from park entrance to the 135-year-old ranch, passing herds of buffalo along the way.
It's all run by volunteers, and any money from the festival, such as Bliss' wagon rides and those voting with spare change for the Ugly Hat Contest, goes to the Huntsman Cancer Institute. Last year, the Ugliest Hat was auctioned off, and the contest garnered $500 for the cause.
Eight years ago, Lisa Stubblefield was asked to perform with her Western band, Coyote Moon, for the holiday.
"It was a four-hour show on a Saturday afternoon," Stubblefield said. "It just grew."
Stubblefield and the other performers said they do it for the joy of it, to preserve a part of American and Utah history. For three days, the pace of life is slower, people come closer to the land and the surrounding animals, and perhaps, each other.
Stages throughout the ranch provide the performers a spotlight. JC and Sonja Needham from South Rim, known as the Buckaroo Balladeers, have just returned from a performance in Nashville.
When asked if they perform for a living, JC said, "We wish."
The husband-wife team are a favorite of Jim and Bettie Armstrong from the Ogden area, who perform impromptu theater around the ranch.
It goes something like this: Bettie dances with a stranger, Jim barges in, saying: "Are you dancing with my wife?"
It then gets ugly and the gunslingers get loud.
In the fall, the Armstrongs will help herd the buffalo on the island, which need to be culled to a sustainable 500. The calves are sold at auction.
Bettie Armstrong, who grew up on a ranch in Randolph, said she gets a kick out of performing and sharing her Western heritage.
"I tell everyone June and July is the best time in Utah," she said.
And on the nearby stage, Bliss recites lines from "The Horse Trade," a rambling, rhyming tale.
"I stepped on that horse next mornin'; he began to buck and bawl. That trader maybe hadn't lied none, but he hadn't told it all.
"Because we sure tore up the country, where he throwed that equine fit. And I almost ran out of hand holds, by the time he finally quit."
Cowboy Legends Cowboy Poetry & Western Music Festival
The annual cowboy festival at the Fielding Garr Ranch on Antelope Island continues Sunday (10 a.m. Cowboy church; 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. performers; 6 p.m. Campfire potluck dinner) and Monday (11 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. performers). The event is free, but it costs $9 per car to enter Antelope Island State Park. Info: Cowboylegendsai.com.