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A big reason why some enthusiasts will celebrate “National Day of the Cowboy” on Saturday is the idea that “cowboy culture” needs preserving.
And it turns out that’s not a new feeling. Nearly seven decades ago, that same idea — that a particular Western lifestyle would not survive much longer on its own — was already looming.
When LIFE profiled a cowboy for the Aug. 22, 1949, issue, with photographs by Leonard McCombe, the land on which the cowboy once slept was already dotted with new ranch houses, and office jobs were looking more and more attractive as the post-war economy boomed. “Like the frontiersman and the forty-niner, the traditional cowboy is a peculiarly American type, now following them into an honorable extinction,” the story noted. “He is being replaced by feebler men, who refuse to work grueling hours, to go wifeless and broke to the end of their days.”
In fact, the story was billed as a “last look” at the “oldtime cowboy.”
The man at the center of that tale was Clarence Hailey “C.H.” Long, a 20-year Texan veteran of the profession who found freedom in a life of solitude and physical hardship. He personally trained all 13 of the horses he used to do his job, and his home on the range looked “exactly as a moviegover would expect.”
But in that fact, LIFE acknowledged, lay one of the more subtle truths about the past and future of the cowboy lifestyle.
Even as C.H. Long was a living embodiment of a beloved, but endangered culture, he was already part of a myth forged by Hollywood and dime-store novels, not reality. He knew that the cowboy image that the the world celebrated was sometimes more appealing than even the most rewarding liberties of life on the cattle trail.
And on his rare trips into town, he picked up magazines full of Western stories, which he dismissed as “claptrap”, but loved nonetheless, “forgetting his adventurous life to search for adventure in lurid accounts of wild affairs that never happened.”