Texas Trails

Clay Coppedge, Southern LIvestock Standard

December 13, 2023

The Poet Ranchman of Texas

One cold December night in either 1885 or 1887, a traveling salesman and freelance newspaper reporter from New Jersey named William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden found himself in the tiny West Texas town of Anson. He was a guest at the Star Hotel where a Christmas dance honoring the area’s ranchers and cowboys was the only thing happening for miles around. 

Chittenden was in Texas to look over some land in Jones County that his family owned. He had borrowed $50 and paid his way by selling dry goods and writing dispatches of his travels for New York newspapers. Exactly which year, or years, he attended the dance we do not know but we do know that the couples dancing the Virginia Reel, various polkas and square dances moved him to write a poem about the experience called “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.” 

Chittenden returned to New England briefly but soon returned to Jones County and partnered with his uncle on some land northwest of Anson near Skinout Mountain. When his uncle died in 1889, Chittenden bought the ranching part of his family’s estate and settled down to the life of a West Texas rancher— and poet. 

The Star Hotel burned down in 1890, the same year the Anson Texas Western published ”The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” as part of the town’s effort to preserve the hotel’s history. Though he had dabbled a bit in journalism, Chittenden never showed a real interest in poetry until he moved to Texas. He referred to his poems as “the offspring of solitude—born in idle hours on a Texas ranch.”

The otherwise idle hours paid off big time when E.P Dutton published a collection of his poems titled Ranch Verses in 1893 The book became a national bestseller and the publishers branded Chittenden the “Poet Ranchman of Texas.” Folklorist John A. Lomax included Chittenden’s poem in his 1916 edition of Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads

In the wider world, Larry Chittenden had become kind of a big deal, but back in Anson the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball continued sporadically without any mention of Chittenden or the poem. However, in 1934, Anson schoolteacher and folklorist Leonora Barrett revitalized the event by bringing back the old dance steps and music immortalized in the poem. It became so popular that in 1940 a permanent structure—the Pioneer Hall— was built to accommodate what has become an annual event. Gordon Graham, a cowboy folklorist from Colorado, set the poem to music and performed it at the Anson ball in 1946, where it became a part of the ongoing local tradition. 

Singer Michael Martin Murphey recorded “The Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball” in 1985 and spearheaded an effort to copyright and commemorate the event for the people of Anson, making the song and dance a holiday tradition for new generations. 

As for Chittenden, he left the ranch after 13 years and lived off his royalties in the Bahamas for a while, then moved to Christmas Cove, Maine where he ran a low-key resort that catered especially to Texans. He also financed a public library consisting only of books autographed by their authors and founded the Children’s League, a day nursery and fresh-air and convalescent home for underprivileged children. He continued to publish poetry in newspapers and national magazines. He never married. 

Larry Chittenden died in New Jersey in 1934, the same year the Texas Cowboys’ Christmas Ball became an annual event. (This year’s ball, scheduled for December 14-16  at Pioneer Hall, will be its 89th consecutive year.) Chittenden was a long way and a long time removed from Texas when he died, but the public notices of his passing still identified him “The Poet Ranchman of Texas” and the same words are engraved on his tombstone. 

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