Out West

Gift of a Viejo


Ernie Morris’ stories and art preserve the traditions of the California vaquero culture.

By William Reynolds

ErnieHorsebackErnie Morris horseback at 87. Photo by William Reynolds.

I am a believer in the protecting of important Western, cultural traditions, and as I get older I find myself thinking about how traditions continue. In a recent NY Times piece, a museum archivist from one of the southern states wrote of the importance of continuing to teach cursive writing in schools, as he was fearful we would become a society able to only communicate via a “hand-held devise”—and he didn’t mean a #2 pencil. And while I support his thesis that we need to continue to teach this basic skill, what it brought home was the concept of thoughtful written words that are put down on paper to illustrate and celebrate skills and traditions that could otherwise disappear.

In the world of the classic vaquero culture, at 90-years young, Ernie Morris is one of our last viejos—meaning a knowledgeable “old one.” He has dedicated his life as an artist and storyteller to help spread the word of the competencies and capabilities of the California vaquero to new generations who have realized the benefit of learning those horseback skills. Ernie has written five books on the subject and all without the help of a keyboard. I had the pleasure of helping him with his recent book, Vaquero Heritage, which he swears is his last book. Don’t bet on it.

CookFireThis color illustration by Morris is titled Stories at the Cook Fire.

When I would visit him at home during the process, his studio in Templeton, California, was neat as a pin, but on his work table were stacks of yellow legal pads and sheets of paper all perfectly organized but covered top-to-bottom with his handwritten notes and thoughts and story lines gleaned from a lifetime of experience.

We would sit for hours, as Ernie would re-tell the stories of the men and horses he had known and the ranches and places he had seen.

“It’s very different today,” he said. “Today, fellas load their horses into gooseneck trailers and ride in air conditioning to the works. We had to long trot to get there and sometimes it was pretty hot. Warmed the horses up, though. Not like that now.”

Ernie Morris finished that sentence looking out the window of his studio—a sturdy little building built low to the ground—kind of like Ernie. This fifth book from Ernie is very personal and centers on the ways and lives of the California vaquero, told by one of the last real ones. His previous books dealt with the same subject and about his art and braided work. They include El Vaquero, El Buckaroo, California Cowboy Illustrations, and Reata Men. All are still in print and available direct from Ernie through his website www.elvaquero.com, run by his stepson, Ralph Pavey. There are all sorts of wonderful stories and insights, as well photos of Ernie and his family there. Ernie’s is a legacy of giving, keeping the information and memories safe for the rest of us about a life unique to California. A life he loved and lived well.

BridleHorseThis pen and ink by Morris is titled Bridle Horse.

Nowadays, Ernie and his wife, Blanche, live comfortably on their little ranch. Folks come and go to see them and to hear the stories of those “days of the long trot” and of the people who inhabit Ernie’s memories. Without the effort and hard work Ernie has put into his books, we would miss forever a part of the history of California’s unique horseback era as told by one who lived it. Without Ernie Morris himself, our horseback world would be missing something very dear and enduring. Ernie has written it all down—by hand. He is a throwback, a true original, and for his efforts to help us all keep the traditions of the vaquero alive, we are way better off having the privilege of his presence.


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