I see advertisements all the time for “authentic Western home decor” that features matching leather living room furniture sets with polished brass rivets. But in an actual working cowboy’s home, the only genuine leather seating option is usually a brand-new saddle perched on a saddle stand in front of the TV.
Everyone knows the best way to break in a custom saddle is to crack open a cold one and watch a John Wayne movie in your underwear. Wait, not everyone knows this? Is this just another lie my husband has been telling me for years, along with, “Come help me get this cow in, it won’t take but a second,” and “No, that silver bit did not cost more than our mortgage”?
In any case, here are a few things I do know about authentic cowboy decor. It’s less hair-on-cowhide and more horse-hair-everywhere. Forget about solid oak anything and think, “What could I make myself using old particle board and a hand saw?”
Here are a few more examples of what you’ll find inside a real cowboy’s home.
Milk crate bookshelves
Forget solid wood anything — those things cost cash money, something a genuine cowboy family is chronically short of. Instead, they’re more likely to stack plastic milk crates against a wall and fill them with paperbacks by Will James, Elmer Kelton, Zane Grey and J.P.S. Brown. It’s not the appearance of the display but what’s inside that counts.
Every cowboy family since blue jeans were invented in the 1890s by good ol’ Levi Strauss himself has used quilts made from pants worn out by Dad and sewn by Mom. Ranch families don’t go throwing away perfectly good unwearable jeans; everyone knows you throw ‘em in the back of the closet until the stack is big enough for Mom to bust out the Singer.
Some denim quilt tops are made of square patches and others are comprised of long strips, but all are a mashup of fade marks and cotton worn soft from countless hours of use. A store-bought piece of fabric for the back is a splurge; a faded bed sheet keeps the finished piece authentic.
Hay twine clothesline
Up north, these are typically strung down the hallway of the single wide trailer the ranch uses for a bunkhouse. This way, the crew can dry their white pearl-snap shirts and Levi 501s even when it’s snowing outside. If the twine hangs over or near the furnace, this low-tech system also serves as a handy way to dry meat for homemade jerky.
At least, that’s the way it was 13 years ago when I first arrived in Elko County, Nevada, and 23 years ago when my husband was first hired on at Squaw Valley. The current crop of twentysomethings are likely unfamiliar with such quaint practices, but maybe they’ll read this and either learn a history lesson or glean tips on what to try out next winter.
When the barnwood style for home decor first took off, ranch wives across the nation rejoiced. Finally — a decorating trend we could embrace! I gathered up scraps from the old falling-down homesteads near the ranch we lived on at the time and painted signs to hang on our walls and give as Christmas gifts. The hangers were made from baling wire, of course. I sourced rust-free pieces for the fancy ones.
My favorite phrase to paint was “Happiness is a choice.” Because whether you scrounged the wood from the ranch dump or shelled out cash for it at a San Francisco boutique, it remains true.