Historian and cowboy poet recounts good ol' days of cattle drives on B.C. trail

B.C. author, poet and historian Ken Mather can be seen at the historic O'Keefe Ranch in Vernon every weekend, telling tales of old cowboys and ancient trails through rhyme.

'It was one of the first great cattle-drive routes in North America'

Left to right: Ken Mather, Rob Dinwoodie, Dixon Zalit and Kevin Bader treat O'Keefe Ranch to some cowboy history, poetry and music. (Dixon Zalit)

The B.C. Interior was the Wild West in the 1880s.

Cowboys and ranchers wrangled cattle and worked the land. They drove their herds along an ancient trail established by Indigenous people and fur traders.

B.C. historian, author and cowboy poet Ken Mather recounts this history through stories and poetry at weekly events at the historic O'Keefe Ranch in Vernon.

The ranch was established in 1867. Back then, it was poised along the ancient trail that ran up the west side of Okanagan Lake. The trail went all the way up to Barkerville, which sat in the heart of the Cariboo goldfields.

"It was was hugely significant," Mather told On the Coast guest host Angela Sterritt.

For four decades, Ken Mather has been involved in writing, researching and interpreting western Canadian heritage. (Dixon Zalit)

"The Fraser Canyon was impassable. So the new colony of British Columbia couldn't get supplies easily up to the miners in the Cariboo. But of course the old fur traders knew there was a back door into British Columbia, and that was this brigade trail that they had used to move these furs and their trade goods."

Ranchers throughout the Pacific Northwest realized that this was the best way to get their cattle to market, said Mather.  

"It was one of the first great cattle-drive routes in North America," Mather said.

Cattle were driven from as far away as the Sacramento Valley in California. It was an 1,290-kilometre trek.

Drovers, as the cowboys were called, had to swim the Columbia River and work their way through mostly unchartered territory on their way to the Cariboo goldfields, Mather explained.

On these long trips, cowboys who worked the night shift would make up rhymes and songs to make sure their cows heard them in the dark.

Left to right: Dixon Zalit, Rob Dinwoodie and Ken Mather share cowboy history through song at O'Keefe Ranch. (Submitted by Ken Mather)

"You would kind of sing it and kind of work on it while you were working your shift. And then go back to the campfire and share it.

"So cowboy poetry found its origins way back in those early cattle drives."

Carrying on the tradition, Mather co-hosts the Cowboy Dinner Show at O'Keefe Ranch on Friday nights. The heritage site is a throwback to the days of the old Okanagan trail. And it has a log house that dates back to the 1870s.

The Cowboy Dinner Show features music, history, cowboy poetry and a campfire experience.

"It's a really interesting cross-section of entertainment, information and just a good time," said Mather.

Listen to the full interview here, as well as a poem from Ken Mather:

Author, poet and historian Ken Mather tells CBC's Angela Sterritt about B.C.'s ancient Okanagan trail and the origin of cowboy poetry. 8:47

With files from On the Coast