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Vaqueros Return to Santa Paula : Traditions: The annual exhibit at The Mill celebrates the workaday world of the Mexican cowboy. A collection of vintage gear is displayed.

July 29, 1990|KIRSTEN LEE SWARTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The old-time ranch hands greet each other with robust chivalry, a hearty handshake and backslap for the men, a tip of the broad-brimmed hat for the ladies. Boleros and kerchiefs around their necks, folded wallets tucked into leather boots, they look and act every inch the cowboy.

They maintain 19th-Century traditions and try to keep alive the history of cattlemen at Vaquero Days, an annual event at The Mill, an 1800s feed store in downtown Santa Paula.

About 40 third- and fourth-generation cowboys set up a maze of their vintage gear Saturday. They swapped stories about silver-studded saddles, hand-woven rawhide ropes and antique bits. The Mill had the musty smell of worn leather and dry hay as people roamed about examining the tools of the workaday vaquero, the Mexican cowboy.

Exhibitors estimated that some of the saddles would sell at auction for $20,000, the ropes for about $500. But the two-day show is intended primarily to preserve the traditions of the vaquero, a revered symbol of California history for these men and women.

"It ain't worth a darn, but it's got a heck of a price on it," 95-year-old Granville Martin said of his hand-woven reata, or rope. "This stuff, when we were kids, it didn't amount to anything. They were just tools we worked with."

Vaqueros, who tended cattle across the state during the 1800s, differed in style from the Hollywood version of the American cowboy, several said. The vaquero's talent could be found in hand-woven whips and ropes and the way he used those tools to herd cattle.

"The vaquero artist was a stylish man in his dress and his style," said Ernie Morris, a 62-year-old artist and third-generation California cattleman. "His horsemanship, his manner far exceeded that of the American cowboy."

The vaquero's finesse fell victim to technology in the early 1900s when many cowboys left the fields and took jobs in industry. Today, many people are taking a nostalgic interest in the roping methods and equipment the vaqueros used, said Morris, who added that he had just completed 10 years of research on a book that details vaquero culture.

The annual exhibit at The Mill began 14 years ago when then-owner Lou Hengehold agreed to let an artist display his wares in the feed store's warehouse and then decided to display the relics of friends. The event has grown to include former ranchers, bit makers and collectors from as far as Oregon and Arizona. Last year it attracted about 350 people.

"He liked the idea that the old-timers could trade a bit or trade a saddle," said Harold Doulton, 64, a San Joaquin ranch hand who helped Hengehold begin the show. Hengehold died two years ago but his wife Polly, son Charlie and friends continue to maintain Hengehold's standards, Doulton said. For example, he said, all participants must display wares for exhibit only, because Hengehold "hated the commercial industry."

Some exhibitors sell a few of their collectors' items, but most are content to trade with old friends and pass on advice to one another, just as the vaqueros did.

"Everybody else learned from those fellows," Martin said. "The early vaquero cowboys. . . . I don't think there was anybody anywhere that had the skill they had."

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