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About Vern Mortensen
Poems
A Request
Books

Special thanks to Annie M. Culley, granddaughter of Vern Mortensen, for her help with this feature.

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About Vern Mortensen

Vern Mortensen of Parowan, Utah, was invited to the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering at Elko.  He told an interviewer that he had been writing "too long to remember how long...I just sort of developed a feel for it. It seems natural to set my feelings to verse."  He published a book of poetry, Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust, and a novel, The Making of a Cowboy.  Vern Mortensen died in September, 1994 at age 89.

Following are excerpts from Vern Mortensen's 18-page article, "From Kittyhawk to the Moon," written in 1972.

Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first heavier than air machine at Kitty Hawk Hill Dec. 17th, 1903.

That's my life span.  I was born June 18, 1906.  I have seen more changes in that period of time than has taken place in all the recorded history of man...My childhood and early adolescence was spent on the family farm, two miles west of Parowan, the lane, it was the main road west and south...

...I started school at the age of six.  Luella Adams was my teacher.  Our school was the little white building standing alone where the Elementary and High School building was built in 1918 and 1919, I think.  The first four years of my schooling we rode in the "school wagon."  This was a regular wagon box covered with a white wagon cover.  It had benches along the sides and a tiny box stove was used for heat.  There was a door in the back with two steps.

                                                                                                                                                   continued below...

 

 

Poems

The West That Was

Range Cow in Winter

Badger

 

The West That Was

This was the west that used to be, 
     ranges that stretched afar,
Of drought and blizzard and searing heat, 
     and rain and the morning star;

New green grass in the early spring, 
     of dust and the smell of leather;
The weary days of the long trail drives 
     in the best or worst of weather;

The spooky herd when the wind was high, 
     the lightning's crash and thunder
Of the blue black skies, 
     the twinkling stars to watch and dream and wonder;

The feel of a horse between the knees 
     as the rider "sits tall" in the saddle,
The plaintive moan of thirsty cows, 
     the sounds and the smell of cattle;

Of the beef and beans off the old tail gate,
     coffee and "dough gods" for eating;
The banter and fun and the brutal days 
     when rider and horse take a beating.

This was the West that used to be
     and will never be again,
unfenced ranges, roundup fires, 
     horses, cattle and men.

Vern Mortensen, from Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust
 This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.

 

 

Range Cow in Winter

Have you listened still on a desert hill
     At the close of a bitter day,
When the orange sun in wispy clouds
     Was set in a greenish haze?
In a cold white world of deepening drifts
     That cover the land like a pall
Then the plaintive bawl of a hungry cow
     Is the loneliest sound of all!

Have you listened still on a desert hill
     When the world was cold and drear,
When the tinkling bells of a herd of sheep
     Was the nearest sound you'd hear,
The haunting notes of a lone coyote whose
     Evening's hunting howl
Rose wild and clear in the cold blue night
     And the answering hoot of an owl?
When the scanty grass lies covered deep
     By the snow that lies like a pall,
Then the plaintive bawl of a hungry cow
     Is the loneliest sound of all!

Vern Mortensen, from Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust
 This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without written permission.

This poem also appeared in Cowboy Poetry, A Gathering, edited by Hal Cannon

 

Badger

Homp and I rode into Rush Lake
     one sunny April day,
I really don't remember,
     it might have been in May.

We'd been out about a week
     now on a lazy riding shift
Gathering up the wanderers
    we called the "Winter Drift."

There are cows that's like some humans,
     not contented anywhere
The grass is always better 
     if it's somewhere "over there,"

Or they drift before a blizzard 
     that howls across the range
and drives them helter-skelter
     to places far and strange.

So when the winter's over
     and the grass is coming through
The strays are being "rode fur"
     before the calves are due.

We'd been down on the desert
     and gathered up some there
And clear up south to Iron Springs,
     in fact 'most everywhere.

Came up from Lone Trees' water hole
    then circled to the Pass
Cut back to "noon" at rush Lake
     and checked the Bracken Pasture grass.

There was a shearing crew set up
     to run but something had broke down
The boss had climbed into his truck 
     and lit out fast for town
To find the parts he needed 
     to make it roll again.

And there around the horse corral 
     was at least a dozen men
A watchin' what was goin' on
     for lack of something else to do,
So Homp and I rode up to them
     to take a gander, too.

They was speculatin' on a mule,
     a well-grown "Zebra Dun"
And 'lowed the guy that stayed on him
     would be ridin' some

Then a feller I had rode with
     looked at me, "Hey you top him off,
We'll pass the hat for money that
     can be a good payoff!"

Well I was young and chesty, 
    but hesitated some
Cause I was kind of leery of
     that line-backed "Zebra Dun."

That country's washed and gullied
     and covered with a million rock,
With a dozen miles of rock fences
     with barb wire 'long the tops.

And if I'd had my "druthers" 
     it ain't the place I'd choose
To climb onto a rough one 
     and have someone turn him loose.

But I was plenty foolish
     as well as chesty then
So we got my saddle on him
     and pulled him from that pen.

To lean him across the yard corral
     thru the rock fence gate
To the only flat place round there
     not much bigger than a plate.

Ernie climbed up on my pony, bareback,
     I called him "Tiger Jim,"
He was fast and reined so easy,
     nothin' ever got past him.

Homp rode a big bay geldin'.
     He called him "Switch tail Dick."
That was good to rope and "snub" on
     He was steady, strong and quick.

They would haze him in a circle,
     try and keep him from 
The wire, rocks and gullies that might
    throw him and take me to "Kingdom come."

I tightened up my cinch.
     My knees were shakin' some,
Then I climbed into the middle
     of that big-eared "Zebra Dun."

He bogged his head and bellered
     Just like a wounded bear,
he bucked and kept on bawlin'
     in a way to curl your hair!

Every jump he "cow-kicked," 
     his hind feet caught my heels
While "reachin' for my stirrups,"
     he kicked the rowells of my "steels."

And nearly pulled me off him but
     the spur strap broke or tore
And I got back my balance. 
     I was "ridin' high" for sure!

He kept tryin to get into the saddle
     but there wasn't room for two
But he clawed me from heel to knees,
     they'd soon be turnin' blue.

All at once he stopped his buckin'
     And lit out into a run
Then I knew I'd won the battle
     With that line-backed "Zebra Dun."

Well Homp "picked up" old Badger
     Ernie took the other side
And we cut out through the sage and greasewood
     then took him for a ride.

Took him on a circle 
     at least two miles or more
When we got back to "startin' place"
his "buck" was gone for sure.

Those shearers all was laughin'
     as I stepped off to the ground
Someone pulled his hat off
     and quickly passed it 'round.

Every one of them there threw money in it;
     some twelve or fifteen bucks
It totaled all together
     when it was counted up.

They bragged on me and slapped me on the shoulder
     I was puffed up some
But earned every penny ridin'
     Badger, that line-backed Zebra Dun!"

Vern Mortensen, from Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust
 This poem may not be reprinted or reposted without  written permission.

This poem also appeared in Cowboy Poetry from Utah, edited by Carole A. Edison, 1985 

A Request

In April, 2004 we received a special request from Annie M. Culley, granddaughter of Vern C. Mortensen, who kindly gathered the material used in this feature.

Annie hopes to find a recording of her grandfather reciting his poetry. If you can help, please contact Annie by email

Books

Tumbleweeds and Corral Dust

From the back cover:

"Vern C. Mortensen was born June 18, 1906 and grew up on a stock farm. During his lifetime, he has had many jobs, including working cattle, farming and herding sheep.  In his younger days, he liked to rodeo and could ride almost anything.  

The author married Meta Bastian and they had five children.  They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in July of 1983."

 Includes:

The West That Was
A Wish, Not a Prayer
Valerie
Water Proof Soap
Prayer
Talkin' in My Sleep
There Ain't No Place Like Home
Winter
Fall
The Golden Years?
Winter Nights on the Range
Badger
Ride the Rocky Ridges
Range Cow in Winter
The Desert Shall Bloom as the Rose
Outlaw
It Matters Not
Weep Not for Me
The Fisherman
Booze and Views, 1930
Rain
Dirty Dhirt Jake
Dylan
Naked I Came
Wander Lust
When Spring Work is Finished
Bareback Bronc
The Anchor
A Prayer to Claire
Freedom?
Compliment
To Metta
Our Little Neighbor, Knell
In the Family Circle
Bull Rider
Clair
To Elva
Would You Believe?
The Hell You Say
The Mark of the Beast
Requiem

Stories:
Water Wagon
Good-Bye Bill
I Shoulda Stood in Bed
I Shoulda #2
Looking Back

Published in 1986 by Homestead Publishers, Hurricane, Utah
This book is out of print and hard to find

 


 

The Making of a Cowboy

From booksellers' descriptions: "Sammy becomes involved in the cowboy way of life when his favorite aunt marries a cowboy. Through this cowboy, Sammy learns the ropes and becomes a cowboy himself."

Published in 1985 by Vantage Press, New York and other locations
This book is out of print, though it is in libraries and is often available through used-book sources

 

About Vern Mortensen continued from above

Orville and Wilbur Wright flew the first heavier than air machine at Kirry Hawk hill Dec. 17th, 1903.

That's my life span.  I was born June 18, 1906.  I have seen more changes in that period of time than has taken place in all the recorded history of man...My childhood and early adolescence was spent on the family farm, two miles west of Parowan, the lane, it was the main road west and south...

I started school at the age of six.  Luella Adams was my teacher.  Our school was the little white building standing alone where the Elementary and High School building was built in 1918 and 1919, I think.  The first four years of my schooling we rode in the "school wagon."  This was a regular wagon box covered with a white wagon cover.  It had benches along the sides and a tiny box stove was used for heat.  There was a door in the back with two steps.


Vern Mortensen, third from left, with three of his six brothers

William Pendleton lived one half mile south of "the Lane" in the fields.  He owned and drove this wagon.  The team used was Dick and Robin, one white and one bay with white markings.  The wagon was crude, rough and slow but we surely missed it when we had to walk from then on.

During the years that followed I saw freight teams to and from the mining camps in Nevada, Pioche, Bullionville, and Delamar.  They were loaded with oats, cured pork, butter, cheese, potatoes, apples, and lumber....I saw wood teams ... I saw mail rigs, one each day to and from Cedar City, usually a white or black top buggy, drawn by a team of light buggy horses, that traveled at a good clip and made about six miles an hour.  Occasionally there were passengers going south to Cedar City, Kanarra, or as far as St. George.

I saw trail herds of cattle.  Some of them came out of the Strip, that portion of Arizona that is north of the Colorado River.  Others were from the west end of Iron County and parts of Washington County, being bought whenever possible by roving buyers.  These were mixed herds, mostly setters, some old 'mossy horns,' five and six years old that had been missed on earlier roundups, old cows and yearlings, some bulls.

Some of these herds went up north into the state and were fed out.  Some went up Little Creek Canyon and on to Colorado.  Grand Junction was the usual destination.  Some of these old steers and cows were mean and waspy, all colors--spotted, brindles, roans, and whites. There was always a rider out in front, who warned people, mostly kids, back away from the fences along the way.  

I saw the "Dixie Peddlers," men who came out of Washington County, with fruit ....I saw large herds of sheep trailing to and from the summer ranges in the high country to the winter ranges, out west.  Some came down the lane, others back of the fields to the south, but all stopped at the dipping vat to be dipped for ticks and scabies, and to be gone through for strays by the stray puller, who held all sheep to be picked up by their owners at some later time.  The puller got a fixed fee for this service, per head.  Walt Stubbs was "stray man" for eastern Iron. Co.  He was a walking brand and mark dictionary, and when asked about a certain a certain combination, "Well by God!" Just give me a minute, "He'd half close his eyes then; "Joe Blank, Panguitch," or wherever.  If he was ever at a loss the brand book was searched.  It seldom happened.  Any unclaimed sheep were auctioned off the last ten days after the last "Pull."

I saw the coal teams...I saw the threshing machines in the fall, one was a "horse power." It ran for years and was powered by 12 horses and in teams 6 pan, that were hitched and traveled in a circle around the great box....I saw the new fangled "Steamer,"...I saw the coal wagon....

...I saw the telephone come to the Lane.  We were the last one the line.  Our ring was two longs; Lowes, three longs; Bentley's, one long and one short; and Burtons, four rings...I saw the water system come to Parowan...I saw the whole town participate in rabbit drives...A rabbit dance always followed, nearly everyone went, usually a supper first, then the dance, at the Opera House ... I saw huge bands of Indians ...I saw the earliest automobiles that traveled the lane road...

...I saw the horse traders, nomads who traveled all over "from Dan to Beersheba."  They would work if necessity forced them into it and the wages were high enough.  There were always more kinds and dogs than you would believe.  They had good horses, ringers, and counterfeits.  If you got a good horse on a trade you were lucky and it cost plenty ...

...That was the year I burned the barn and sheds.  It was in September and all the crops were in.  They all went but the grain bin.  So did two fat pigs, one wagon, and Dad's favorite black hat.  I think that was in 1911...

...I saw the time come when war broke out in Europe, and later when the boys left for the service in that war. I lived through the flue epidemic, which raged through the country. It was a terrible time...

...I saw my father "go bust" when he lost 700 prime ewes in 1922 to loco weed.  That spring we had 400 ewes and took 17 lambs on the mountain.  I saw the end of my formal schooling that year, six weeks in High School.

After that, for more years than I care to remember, I saw the rear ends of many cattle and thousands of sheep.  I herded sheep when I had to and punched cows when I could.  I broke horses and farmed.  Always in season I sheared sheep. I was good for a "half pint," and sheared sheep in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana.  The last year I went on the raod I sheared 5,000 sheep with blades, April to July.

When I was in my late teens and herding sheep in Dry Lakes for my father, we neighbored with Wm. C. Mitchells, Karl and Albert.  We were all horse lovers.  We played horse games, best of of all were the potato races.  We build a corral in Third House Flat with a "shot gun chute" and rode anything we got into it, cows mostly.  Each took his turn and no one wanted to be thrown off because of the rocks.

About that time I saw the inner workings of a Rodeo Arena.  I rode in several at different times, Cedar City, Enterprise, and Pioche, to name some.  I always rode "mount money."  I never contested but I had the same thrill, the same applause for a good ride that the pros did....I saw the firl who was later to be wife in September of 1931.  I had known her for many years, but casually...I was depression times all over.  There was a Bad drought on...I teamed when I could, some road jobs, but hauled many loads of wood...I saw California...I saw Tijuauna...

...I herded sheep.  I froze in cold weather.  Thirsted in dry, and sweltered in hot. I went without sleep and rode continually. I rode horses, leg weary, and used dogs till they were sore-footed and lame, in the spring when the grass was starting, not enough to satisfy, but enough to chase, before daylight and after dark.

Lambing was almost as bad only there was more help.  Still there was beauty in all of it.  new grass, the soft new growth of sage and green of greasewood.  Did you ever smell the rain on new sage?  Feel a warm May breeze and hear the sound of bells on a contented sheep or the cold beauty of new snow?...

...I saw cattle prices fall to $20 per head, lambs to 3 1/2 cents, if there was a buyer, wool at 13 cents...

Excerpts from Vern Mortensen's 18-page article, "From Kittyhawk to the Moon," written in 1972

 


Vern and Metta Mortensen about 1948


Vern and Metta Mortensen about 1991

 

 

 

Special thanks to Annie M. Culley, granddaughter of Vern Mortensen, for her help with this feature.

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