Among the papers I was given by my grandmother, was an old scrapbook kept by by great-grandmother Mabel. She married William in 1900 and before that, when they were courting, she pasted all manner of items into the album. I have since then past the Album back to my cousin Julia who still lives in the wonderful family home where Mabel grew up in the 1880s.
One item in the scrapbook attracted my attention. A report on a talk that William gave in 1897 to the Cosmopolitan Society in Mold. He actually gave two talks over two weeks which, generously, were reported in two papers. So there was a lot of material. To make it an easier read, I have edited the articles into one.
Life in Western America
Mr Hugh Cooke, son of Colonel Cooke, Colomendy, gave a description of life in Western America at the weekly meeting of the Cosmopolitan Society on Tuesday last week. Mr Edwin Roberts was in the chair and said that what they would hear that night was not something taken out of a book but would be the experiences of a man who had spent some years on the cattle ranches of America.
Mr Cooke, who spoke extempore, dealt with his experiences in the cattle trade on the prairies of America, extending over a period of ten years. He went out in 1883 and returned about four years ago.
When he arrived there the business was brisk, but on account of land being taken up largely by settlers the trade was gradually declining, and it was probably that in time this vast country would be covered with farms and cultivated. As yet, the country was in a primitive state, and instead of currency the settlers in many parts exchanged articles of produce.
Dealing cursorily with the outward bound voyage, Mr Cooke proceeded directly to talk about the methods and difficulties of cattle driving and the extent to which the exercise of discretion in the driving affecting the selling price of a herd. There were times when they had to remain two or three days in the saddle. Mr Cooke spoke of the journeys that are undertaken when taking cattle from the plains to railway, and thence to the stockyards of Chicago. An outfit, he stated, would on average consist of ten waggons, with ten men to each waggon. The cattle, numbering sometimes 800 to 1000 in one herd, were allowed to pursue the journey without any driving, the object being to get them in the best of condition by allowing them to graze on the way. When the cattle were put on the train the journey was made by alternate runs of 24 hours, and 24 hours stoppage for rest and refreshment.
Mr Cooke gave a genial and entertaining account of life on the cattle ranches and detailed an exciting episode he encountered on one occasion when caught in a blizzard when, in October 1887, he crossed the Rockie Mountains in a blizzard. During this time they subsisted for three days on black coffee and a small piece of biscuit, his personal legacy from the experience being that both his feet were frost-bitten, and he still felt the effects of it.
After dealing with the terrors of a stampede at night - three of which the lecturer had experienced - he explained at length the characteristics of the 'bona-fide cowboy as distinguished from the bogus cow-puncher', whose conduct too often cast discredit upon the genuine article. He spoke of the horsemanship of the cowboy, and after a description of the 'bucking-horse' he referred to the steady extinction of the original cowboy, due to the inroads of civilisation.
For a real cowboy, no day was too long. He had four or five men who stuck to him, as the leader of a party of which he was in charge and would not leave him on any account. Their ideas of life were very hospitable, and it frequently happened, when on a long journey, that the traveller would enter somebody’s hut. If there happened to be nobody in, the traveller would set to and cook what he required, merely leaving a note saying he was much obliged (laughter).
He had a good deal of experience of men on the prairies, and he had every respect for the original type of cowboy. When a man wished to leave the service of his master in the cattle trade on the prairies, there was no notice given. The man merely said, "I guess I'll quit", and off he would go, perhaps two hundred miles further away.
Speaking about cowboys, he rarely saw anything civilising, but he thought it was hard lines they should be put down as a rough lot. It was not every day they met people, and they did often indulge in recreation of a lively kind. Without any hesitation he could say that as men to employ and men to work with, there were no better men in the world. They were not men for a sunshiny day, but they would stick to one through hardship and difficulties. Though their lives were a little bit rough, they never did a mean action.
Imagining that Mold was one of the towns they might pass through, the cowboys would not think of doing anything more serious than putting the gas lamps or smashing a few windows (laughter), but when morning came they would ask for a bill of the damages, and would willingly pay the same if it came to twenty pounds. If they committed any damage, they would always pay for it. The rows in the West of America which one frequently heard about were not caused by cowboys, but by men who lay along the towns indulging in gambling, etc., and who were not to be mentioned in the same relation with cowboys. In another generation they would not see many cowboys. He supposed that in another ten years their day would be over. But the cowboy was a good fellow all round, and he was glad that he had seen him (applause). Wild as the life was in the West, there were many features in connection with it which civilisation would not bear the light.
Mr Cooke caused much amusement by describing how men were taken into custody there. The officers did not do as in England - put their hands on a man's shoulder - but a "Six-shooter" was produced, and the captive told to throw up his hands. Sometimes the culprit would exclaim, "I wish I'd known you were coming".
In the course of his excellent description of life on the prairies, Mr Cooke made it clear that there were many hardships and dangers to encounter, but there were also, he said, times of enjoyment; and in an interesting manner he told how hours of leisure were spent in feats of horsemanship, purses being subscribed for the best performed.
Mr Cooke further enhanced the pleasure of the evening by the humorous and instructive way in which he spoke. His opinion was that cattle would probably be able to smell water ten miles away; that the method of conveying cattle by rail was far superior to that adopted in this country, the trucks running with the smoothness of a pullman car; that the age at which most work could be got out of a horse on the plains was about eight; and his description of the mode of killing animals at Chicago, were all delivered in a chatty and pleasant way; and without doubt the talk by Mr Cooke will be remembered as amongst the most agreeable items that have ever graced the syllabus of a society of this character.
Mr Cooke concluded by bearing testimony to the hospitable treatment he received on the frontier of America during the ten years of his sojourn there, and by expressing the hope that in the near future he would be enabled to pay a return visit to the scene of his former exploits.