Jake Copass: I’ve Tried to be a Cowboy… and I’ve Tried to be a Good One

An Interview with Jake Copass
My students and I had the privilege of interviewing Jake Copass on the campus of Dunn Middle School several years ago.  In his ever-present stetson hat and western boots, he looked like a Hollywood version of a cowboy, and he had played the role in movies and commercials – but he was the real thing. He began working as a wrangler at the Alisal Guest Ranch in Solvang in 1946, and in addition to his ranch skills, he made quite a name for himself as a cowboy poet. He had a kind heart and a great smile, and he possessed the integrity and grace of a man doing what he was meant to do. He died on June 8, 2006 after a brief bout with leukemia. I wish you could hear the words that follow in his own wonderful Texas twang:

“I’ll start out and give you a little history on myself. I was born on a little farm in Texas way out in nowhere, way out in the sticks. There was eight of us kids. In those days, when you had a big family, the oldest kids, they was the boss of the younger ones. When the moms and dads was gone, the oldest kids was supposed to take over, or they thought they was. So they’d kick you around, make you do your chores, and theirs too.”

“I been a cowboy all my life. I was a farm boy, and I grew up in a ranching area, kinda like the Santa Ynez Valley used to be – ’cause we all know they goin’ by the wayside. But like I told you, I started in Texas. And you never know when you’re young what’s gonna happen. I was always an ambitious kid, believe it or not; I wasn’t lazy. I always loved horses and cattle, and bein’ in a ranchin’ area give me exposure to people other than my family. My brother-in-law worked at this big ranch, a big workin’ outfit, and they had this little colt that had lost its mother when it was born, but they didn’t have time to raise it. My brother-in-law asked me if I would be interested in raisin’ that little colt for him, and so naturally I was.”

“About two years later, a guy come by and bought the horse from me. Horses weren’t worth much in those days. This horse was two years old, and he offered me $85 for it. No one had heard of a horse bringin’ that much money, so I sold him, no questions asked. Well, my brother-in-law couldn’t wait to tell the people at the ranch how much I got for the colt! So this colt was responsible for me gettin’ a job at this ranch. Little things can sometimes turn into big things. They said, ‘If he can sell a bum colt for $85, he can come down here where he can work with some good horses.’ So it’s funny how things in life just come around. You don’t go out seekin’ these things, but when they show up at your front door, you gotta recognize them.”

“Later, when I went in the service, I was attached to the calvary, and I was transferred to the veterinary corps. The veterinary corps was responsible for all the food movement in the service; the meat and food had to be passed by the veterinary. They were shippin’ a lot of food over to the front lines that wasn’t eatable. More people was dyin’ of ptomaine poisoning than was gettin’ shot by the enemy. So I learned the veterinary corps business and food inspection and got shipped overseas.”

“I was overseas for two years. There was three guys in our outfit that was gonna get to come back to the states. One guy went AWOL, so I got to replace him and come to the states. This is another one of those circumstantial things… the orders said, ‘Santa Barbara, California’. The only thing I knew about Santa Barbara was a song I’d heard that was written about it after the 1925 earthquake. So they shipped me to Santa Barbara in 1944… and I don’t think you guys can remember that like it was yesterday!”

“Close to where Cutter Motors is now, there was a dairy. They put up some temporary buildings, and they had a hospital for the soldiers. Then they leased an old trottin’ horse stable up on a hill close to the golf course, near the bird refuge, and we had forty head of army horses. I happened to be the first guy come along who could run a stable. So wantin’ to get back in the cattle business, and seein’ where you could grow green grass in the wintertime – I’d never seen that before – well, you guys have been stuck with me ever since.”

“I was in the cattle business for about forty years. I shod horses, made saddles, and did whatever I had to do to make money to get into the cattle business. And if I had to do it all over, I’d probably do the same thing. It’s a lot of work, and there’s no real end over the rainbow when it comes to makin’ money in the cattle business…but it goes back to doin’ what you wanna do.”

“I just turned eighty years old, and a lotta people who turn eighty years old, if they even get to bein’ eighty years old, they can’t even get up in the morning. I’m thankful. I been blessed, ’cause I been healthy. I just had a birthday party at the Alisal. There was over three hundred people showed up. There was twelve people flew all the way from England just for my party, so that makes me feel pretty good. I never done no particular things to make friends. I’m kinda what I am and they have to accept me for what I are. But I’ve made a lot of friends.”

“And I’ll tell you why the people came from England. In the 1940s, when the guest ranch opened, this guy came as a kid, and when he grew up, he ended up in the movie industry, and got acquainted with these people over in England that was in the movie business. They had two kids, an eight-year-old boy and a four-year-old. The eight-year-old boy had leukemia and the doctor gave him four months to live. They asked him, if he had a wish, what would he like to do, and he said he would like to go to America and see real cowboys. So the guy who had come to the guest ranch as a kid wrote to the Alisal and asked if we would consider the family coming and staying there. It’s maybe not the best cowboying outfit in the world, but he figured it’s someplace to start. And at first they turned him down, but I conned them into lettin’ them come. It’s just something that kinda hits you and gets you thinking about it.”

“So the little boy and his brother and mom and dad, his two grandmas, and one of his grandpas, all come and stayed at the Alisal. He was told that one of the guys in charge was Jake Copass, and he figured if he was gonna fly all the way across the ocean, he was gonna see the best cowboy in America, so I was supposed to be the best. That’s kind of a hard deal to live up to. So we rode in the rain; we roped and reined; we did everything while he was here.”

“The boy lived about the four months that they give him to live. His parents decided if they was gonna sacrifice their child, maybe they could do somethin’ to help other children, so they had a big benefit, and the first time around, they raised 350,000 pounds. Now they have a hospital in England that’s named after this little boy. Not only that, they found out while they was here that his mother was pregnant with a new child. They named him Oliver Jake.”

“It’s just somethin’ I was intended to do, I suppose. Now they’re talkin’ about makin’ a movie about it. Just to know I had a little bitty part of it, I feel good about that. You’re supposed to help somebody if you can. I feel fortunate that I could.”

“The poetry thing kinda changed my whole life. Cowboys had all done poetry at one time or another. There was very little transportation, and when you was there at the ranch, you weren’t gonna go anywhere, and you had to make your own fun. Most of your fun was takin’ pranks on somebody. And maybe once a month or so you’d get to go into town. So a lotta guys would set around and play dominoes, or cards, and a lotta guys’d jest doodle or make pictures, or do leatherwork on their own saddles. Everything was self-supportin’ at the ranch. They fed you, you slept there (but you didn’t get much sleep) and you worked. In the evening you sat around the bunkhouse, and I’ve seen great art that was burnt up because people did it just for pastime and a lot of folks didn’t realize it was great art, and they just burned it when they cleaned up the place. And a lot of folks would tell stories.”

“So about fifteen years ago, cowboy poetry started up in Elko, Nevado. Some friends of mine knew I had written some stuff, and they conned me into goin’ out there, so I signed up. They had a deal they would give you fifteen minutes.”

“When I really started writin’ poetry was in the service. If I knew you before I went into the service, and we’d worked together, and you had an anniversary, or a birthday party, I’d write a little short poem. Instead of writin’ a letter, I’d write some little silly poem. And the most of ’em that I wrote, they probably went in the outhouse.”

“But these people asked me to go up to Elko, and I went, and I was surprised. I was invited to go to Durango, Colorado for a show, and they were gonna pay me for it, and I said, ‘There’s nothin’ to this.'”

“When I went to Durango, they asked me to go talk to some kids in school and do a couple of poems, and Pat Murphy wrote a little thing in the paper– if it’s good for Durango, it oughta be good enough for Solvang, and pretty soon the phones are ringin’ and people are wantin’ me to do poetry at the schools. And through that, I found out that a lotta people, kids like you guys, are wantin’ me to do poetry. So it just give me an incentive to keep doin’ it and tryin’ to encourage kids to do it.”

“You can write things with a pencil that you might not say otherwise. Some of the best poetry I’ve ever heard was written by fifth and sixth graders, and kids are my best audience, believe it or not. We have breakfast rides, and I give them a little bit of history on the ranch. The kids are so much fun.”

“If you decide you want to write something, sometimes it just takes one word, one name, or something at the right time. Me? I wake up 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. That’s when I wake up and have all this stuff running through my head. But I’ve pulled off to the side of the road if somethin’ impressed me, and you can sit down and write a few little words so you can remember what you’re writin’ about before you forgit it. And then go home and start it over again. I wrote two poems one morning in about five minutes along side of the road in Ballard Canyon. I got enough of it down to know what I wanted to talk about, and then when I got home, instead of making one poem, I wrote two.”

“But all the stuff I wrote is just about experiences I’ve had. Before I actually went to work at the ranch, I used to sneak off and go there. In those days, they didn’t have trucks to drive cattle to the railroad, and the railroad was about ten days up the country. So they used to drive these cattle to the railroad. (Cattle used to be drove even from here to San Luis Obispo. It’s hard to visualize to see ’em drive five or six hundred or a thousand head of cattle up 101 to Paso Robles, but that’s what they used to have to do.) Well, they didn’t want to worry about me –I was about ten or eleven years old, and they said I could go but I had to drive the wagon for the cook. We was gone about ten days. You have a little bed roll, and you just roll your bed out on the ground. First time I rolled it out, I didn’t pay no attention, and this poem is the deal that happened to me.”

Did you ever lay down in your ole bed roll?

to get some much needed rest

Just to be woke up in a little while

In the middle of a red ants’ nest?

Bare foot you hobble through the thorns

Pull your bed out to the side

Soon you find out, that don’t help

You just gave those ants a ride.

Then you hear some ole cowboy say,

‘Kid, why don’t you be quiet?

Them damn ants they won’t eat much

You just got them on the fight.’

You think you might as well get up.

It seems your only chance

It don’t take long to figure out

There’s more roosting in your pants.

Now all of you young Waddies

Just remember what I said…

You better do some scouting

Before rolling out your bed.

Now if you think I’m fooling

Go on and take the chance

But don’t be howlin’ out for help

When those red ants are in your pants!

“We got a lotta turmoil in the world today, everybody fightin’ everybody else over one thing or another. They can’t even agree on who they wanna vote in, and they’re havin’ a big fight over that now, ’cause somebody goofed up. It’ll be up to you kids to run the country one of these days – all these other people, they done it – and they never gonna make it any better. We gotta rely on you guys to make it better. So if I do nothin’ else today, maybe I can make you understand that you can do anything that you want to if you make up your mind.”

“When I was young, I wanted to be a cowboy. If that’s what I wanted to do, my mom and dad supported me. And it’s up to you to make up your mind what you want to do when you grow up, but if you get kinda deviated off this way and off that way, don’t worry about it. They got all kinds of school systems that tells people what they should or shouldn’t do and a lot of people tellin’ you what to do that don’t know any better than you do. It’s up to you to set your own destiny, let your heart be your guide, and do what you wanna do. It don’t make any difference what anybody else thinks as long as you do it and show respect to your fellow man. And that’s the bottom line, as far as I’m concerned. You don’t run over anybody to do what you wanna do, but when you set your target to go someplace, don’t let anybody tell you to change your direction. If you do something you don’t really have your heart in, you’re not gonna be very good at it. So do what you wanna do, and do the best you know how without runnin’ over anybody else, and people will respect you.”

“I’ve tried to be a cowboy, and I’ve tried to be a good one.”

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