LeRoy Jones lives in the 21st Century, but his spirit thrives in an earlier time
That time is the late 19th Century with determined cowboys driving reluctant Texas cattle over the Great Western Trail north to Dodge City, Kan.
Jones, a native of Mountain View, Okla., writes cowboy poetry. He also writes music, combining the two expressions into western ballads. Jones has written and recorded "The Great Western Trail," a ballad a multi-state organization called The Great Western Trail Society has adopted as its theme song.
Jones, accompanying himself with a guitar, uses his mellow-toned voice to sing the theme. Typical of the ballads describing western ranch life, Jones' contribution begins by describing how brush-popping Texas cowboys chased wild longhorn cattle out of the thorny thickets of southwest Texas, roping and branding them in preparation for the long drive to market at Dodge City, Kan. The ballad continues, telling of the preparations and difficulties the drovers faced moving a large herd of wild cattle more than 600 miles across the uncharted prairie of the Southern Plains.
Creation of the ballad began sometime back when Jones stopped to talk with members of the Society who were erecting a marker on the trail route in southwestern Oklahoma. Inspired by their activity and the story of the cattle trail, rhyming phrases filled his mind as he drove home.
"I started 'rhymin', as they called it, when I was a kid in school," Jones said. "Putting words together so they rhymed was easy for me. As I got older, I started writing poetry for myself and my family. When my wife and I were dating, my letters to her always contained poetry I had written for her."
As he grew up, poetry was not the only interest in Jones' youth, he always wanted to be a cowboy.
"I grew up on our family ranch near Mountain View," he said. "All I ever really wanted to be was a cowboy."
In time, Jones began to attend what was becoming a popular activity in the western states, "cowboy poetry gatherings" or symposiums. Participating in these meetings, Jones' poetry, as well as his original cowboy ballads, became well-known, giving him national recognition at such locations as the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the National Cowboy Symposium and Celebration, Lubbock, Texas, and similar events in Colorado and Nevada and other western states.
Jones has served for the past five years as a judge in the music competition for the Heritage Center's Wrangler Award.
He has published two books containing his poems and one CD featuring him playing the guitar and singing familiar cowboy songs.
Jones is equally enthusiastic about the activities of the Great Western Trail Society. Formed by chapters in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and the Dakotas, members of the Society are busy recording the history of the Great Western Trail, its purpose and the people who started it.
The Society is busy marking the trail route from its origin on both sides of the Rio Grande River in northern Mexico and southwest Texas all the way north to Canada. This purpose is accomplished by the members placing concrete trail markers ever six miles along the entire route.
At a recent Society meeting held in Altus, Okla., the history of the Great Western Trail was explained. After the Chisholm Trail, begun in 1867, ceased to exist due to the settlement of the lands it passed through, herds continued to be driven north on trails farther west.
In 1874, a new trail was created by John Thomas Lytle, a Kerrville, Texas, rancher, who drive 3,500 longhorns north to feed Sioux Indians living on the Red Cloud reservation at Fort Robinson, Neb. Lytle's efforts paid off. The Great Western Trail grew both in length and width. It's use continued until 1893 when the last recorded trail herd traveled over it to Dodge City, Kan.
Fed by numerous, smaller trails in Texas, the Great Western Trail began near Edinburg and passed near the Texas towns of Falfurrias, Alice, Three Rivers, San Antonio, Bandera, Junction, Brady, Abilene, Throckmorton, Seymour and Vernon. Crossing the Red River near Doan's Store where the trail drivers would lay in supplies for the rest of the trip north, the trail continued north between the Salt Fork and North Fork of the Red River near Altus, Okla., and entered Indian Territory at the boundary of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation near Soldier's Peak. Continuing north, it passed near Woodward, Okla., and by Dodge City, Kan.
After leaving southwest Kansas, side trails extended to eastern Colorado, through western Nebraska, on to South and North Dakota, with side trails over to Wyoming and Montana, ending in the Canadian Prairie Provinces.
Historians debate the number of cattle that traveled the Great Western Trail between 1874 and 1893. Conservatively, they estimate between three and five million head of cattle were driven north over the trail.
Called the "interstate of western cattle trails" by modern story tellers, the Great Western Trail was the primary route used not only to fill the cattle pens in Dodge City, Kan., but also to establish the cattle industry in the Great Plains from Oklahoma north to Canada. Reports written down by those who drove the cattle state within two years or so after its beginning, state the country the trail passed through was "one great bare plain," ostensibly eaten down by herds of cattle that had to be held on the prairie sometimes for months because of backups in rail transportation and fluctuations in cattle prices.
Ranchers at the southern end of the trail set up satellite holdings on the open range in Indian Territory, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas. Sometimes paying rent to Indians for grazing rights on their reservations; sometimes just building a dugout in a ravine with a corral and leaving a cowboy crew to ride the boundaries of the territory claimed by the rancher, the cattle and the people who handled them arrived via the Great Western Trail.
In 2004, Society members held a 48 day, 675 mile trail ride, riding from Bandera, Texas, to Dodge City, Kan., to honor the drives that moved cattle to the railroad. Sept. 7 through Oct. 24, Society members will hold another trail ride; only this one will be in reverse. Forty-eight days, 675 miles south from Dodge City, Kan., back to Bandera to celebrate the return trip the cowboys made returning home with the money they were paid for their cattle.
Jones' ballad, written in the simple, forceful style of the original western music, will certainly be heard being sung by the trail riders after they have unsaddled and unhitched their weary animals and gathered by the chuck wagon to eat their evening meal.
Western music and poetry are an important part of LeRoy Jones' life. He is pictured here recording his ballad "The Great Western Trail" in a recording studio at Hobart, Okla. Paul Shields, who owns the studio, is producing Jones' recording session. Jones' ballad has been selected to be the theme song of the Great Western Trail Society. (eventerprise1 photo)