It’s no coincidence that one of the most popular special events in Elko is held at the end of January.
The 31st Elko National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which kicks off today and runs through Saturday, draws between 7,000 to 8,000 people to venues across town, including Elko Convention Center, Western Folklife Center, Flag View Intermediate School, Elko High School and the Great Basin College theater. Western-themed movies also are shown at the Crystal Theater.
Though many Cowboy Poetry attendees are locals, roughly half are estimated to come from out of town, says Darcy Minter, communications director for Western Folklife Center in Elko, which produces the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
And while the event is hardly Elko’s largest special event, it importance to tourism revenue in Elko County can’t be overstated since it takes place during one of the slowest months of the year.
Minter says the late January date has always been in place and was chosen because it’s one of the only months of the year that ranchers can find a bit of free time.
“It’s a quiet time for ranchers — they are not calving and can just find someone to feed them and come here,” Minter says. “Calving starts in February and March, then comes haying. This is time of year when it’s most flexible for them.”
Elko has grown quite a bit from the festival’s early days when there weren’t enough hotel and motel rooms to house all the out-of-town participants and cowboys often slept in their trucks during the dead of winter, Minter adds. Elko now has more than 1,700 hotel rooms to accommodate guests, including two new properties under development by Nevada Investments: a 90-room Holiday Inn Express and an 83-room Candlewood Suites.
The annual gathering that celebrates ranching and rural western lifestyle through poetry, music and exhibits fills the majority of those hotel and motel rooms, as well as the town’s restaurants and retail stores.
“The restaurants are packed, retail businesses do great business that week, and lodging is pretty full,” Minter says. “In the old days there weren’t enough hotels and motels, but now we have plenty of rooms; it is a big week for everybody.”
As the event has grown, so too have the number of exhibitors selling everything from western gear, saddles, cowboy hats, silversmithing goods and western-themed art. Casinos in town also feature entertainment connected to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
This year, 55 performers are scheduled to perform at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, including poets, singer-songwriters and musical groups. The event also brings together people concerned about preserving western traditions and the rural ranching lifestyle.
“We have a lot of people conducting workshops and participating in discussions with people who live in West and deal with water uses,” Minter says. “We try to problem solve, and we look at models of good stewardship. There is a lot of depth to it. Our goal is to preserve cultural traditions and make sure the culture that spawns them is healthy.”