Arthur Chapman’s iconic 1912 poem “Out Where the West Begins” still resonates today.

In the mid 1890s, as the West and its horseback culture began to give way to the automobile and other revolutionary changes that would soon appear; the cowboy and his ways still carried their own share of romantic cultural weight.

A young, fresh-from-school Arthur Chapman (1873 – 1935) joined the Chicago Daily News as a reporter. He was studied in many aspects of American culture including the West. He understood that country and respected Westerners, understanding how they felt and presented themselves. He loved their spirit and what was quickly becoming, the old West. He had an engaging writing style and in addition to his weekly stories on the city and its growing skyscrapers, he also contributed poems and romantic verse to the paper. He thrived at the Daily News, yet the West maintained its pull on him and several years later took a job as a literary editor and columnist for the Denver Republican where he also continued to provide poems and verse from time to time.

Journalist and poet Arthur Chapman poses with a burro.
A promotional photo taken for the Argentine Central Railway Company by Louis Charles McClure, circa 1913, showing the “celebrated” poet Chapman posing with a burro foal. Photo courtesy Denver Public Library

The writing of his famous poem came about quite accidentally in 1912 due to a publicized argument amongst a number of Western states governors about just exactly where the region of “the West” began, each wanting their state to be its place of origin. Ironically, Chapman read each of the governors’ prideful disagreements in his own paper and figured he could help diffuse the argument. Calling on his poetic skills, he wrote “Out Where The West Begins” in one sitting for his weekly “Center Shots” column in the Denver Republican.

The paper’s readers loved it. And although Chapman was happy with the poem’s calming tone and purposefully, non-specific location, he wasn’t prepared for the level of popularity the poem received. At first he considered it too unimportant to even copyright, but the poem went on to be one of the most beloved poems of the region and was quoted and printed worldwide. It was even put to music. Chapman finally copyrighted the poem almost four years later in a book of his Western verse.

“Out Where The West Begins”

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
   That’s where the West begins;
Out where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter,
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter,
   That’s where the West begins.

Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Out where friendship’s a little truer,
   That’s where the West begins;
Out where a fresher breeze is blowing,
Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
Where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing,
   That’s where the West begins;

Out where the world is in the making,
Where fewer hearts in despair are aching,
   That’s where the West begins;
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying,
   That’s where the West begins.

The poem Out Where the West Begins was printed on postcards.
In the early 1900s, the poem was featured on what would become a popular postcard. Photo courtesy of Bill Reynolds

In 1916, he published Out Where the West Begins, and Other Small Songs of a Big Country, a 15-page pamphlet issued by Denver publisher Carson-Harper. The book was an immediate commercial success, bringing the likes of publisher Houghton­ Mifflin with an offer to publish a larger collection. Out Where the West Begins, and Other Western Verses, as it was renamed, appeared in 1917 in a larger volume with 58 poems. By then, the title poem had taken on a life of its own and became a merchandising phenomena widely reprinted on promotional postcards and plaques becoming symbolic of a growing romantic nostalgia for the region. In 1920, Estelle Philleo, a prolific writer of Western tunes that Chapman met through a Denver radio station, set the poem to music.

His newfound fame enabled him to write several Western themed novels including Mystery Ranch, a book of murder and intrigue on an Indian reservation. Promoting their author, the publisher placed a reminder of his previous work on the book’s dust jacket, saying “‘Out Where The West Begins’ is perhaps the best-known bit of verse in America. It hangs framed in the office of the Secretary of the Interior at Washington. It has been quoted in Congress, and printed as campaign material for at least two governors.” That same year, he published what would be an equally popular collection of Western poetry, Cactus Center: Poems of an Arizona Town, containing 30 poems that was well received by readers and critics alike. One described his style as that of a “transplanted Rudyard Kipling.”

Estelle Philleo wrote sheet music of the Western poem.
Chapman’s Denver colleague, Estelle Philleo (illustrated by Harold Bell Wright), wrote sheet music of the popular Chapman poem. Photo courtesy University Maine of Library

In 1919, Chapman moved east and took a job as a staff writer for the New York Tribune, which he held until his retirement in 1925. He continued to publish with his second novel, John Crews released in 1926, an adventure-romance of frontier life that sold well enough for a second edition.

Arthur Chapman died – not in his beloved, adopted West – but at his home on East 57th Street in New York City. He was a successful writer and newspaper journalist his entire professional life but his beloved little poem about the origin of the West’s beginnings enables his name to live on in the minds of everyone who loves the West as much as he did.

Author

Bill Reynolds is a writer/publisher having worked in the Western lifestyle industry for more than 30 years. He has written five books and published several award winning magazines. He is principal at Alamar Media and oldcowdogs.com.

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