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Badger Clark - The Cowboy Poet
South Dakota is one of those western states which were overrun by gold-hungry whites in the late 19th century after a few brief but spectacular years, settled into respectable domesticity of her neighboring states. Since no whites occupied the Black Hills before the gold of 1876, none of the wild and woolly characters now pushing up daisies on boot hill (Mount Moriah in Deadwood) were actually natives. Most were not even westerners, and none brought their families.
It was the less colorful merchants, ranchers, schoolteachers, preachers - and their descendants - who must be given credit for actually settling the territory. These are the so-called "little people" we give lip-service to while secretly wishing for tales of Calamity Janes' bull whacking days or Jack Langrishe's touring theater troupe.
Yet there were interesting solid citizens among the notorious ones, and many made genuine contributions to the state's cultural growth instead of grist for popular pulps.
Charles Badger Clark, Jr., was the youngest son of a popular Methodist minister of that gold rush era who inherited the rich speaking voice of this father but not the piety. During his lifetime he achieved a degree of recognition as a western poet and earned the title of South Dakota's first poet laureate, but due to his own reluctance to court fame he was largely unknown outside of his home state. The fact that his best-known poem, "A Cowboy's Prayer" was widely reprinted under the sobriquet "Author Unknown" contributed greatly to his anonymity.
Born in Albia, Iowa, on January 1, 1883, Badger moved with his family to Dakota Territory that same year and thereafter followed the good reverend's callings to Huron, Mitchell, Deadwood and Hot Springs. A restless youth, the college classroom couldn't contain Badger, and anyway, his penchant of smoking embarrasses the founding fathers of Dakota Wesleyan University, one of whom was C.B. Clark, the elder.
Next came six adventurous years in Cuba and Arizona, the first an aborted colonizing effort and the second, a popular tuberculosis cure of the time. The dry air worked an immediate improvement on Badger's health, and he proceeded to fall deeply and passionately in love with ranching, cow-punching and what he called "the last of the old, open range". In fact, mere prose failed to adequately express his enthusiasm for the life, so he sent a letter in verse to his stepmother, who submitted it to a magazine and Badger's fate was sealed.
A self-confessed individualist, Badger had theretofore put off the unpleasant task of choosing a career because he refused to "become a slave to whistle, clock or bell", craving the freedom of the open skies.
When his father's ill-health drew him back to South Dakota, Badger's ranching days were over forever, but the "flavor of camp smoke and the bawlin' of the cattle" colored his poetry for the rest of his life, and he never did capitulate to the walled-in lifestyle he so feared.
It soon became apparent however, that the slim output of poetry written between frequent hiking trips and horseback riding was not going to support even his modest needs. Necessity forced Badger to accept speaking engagements, which brought to light a natural speaking style and sharp wit. Although dangerously close to a "real job" the speaking tours where extremely popular and Badger found himself enjoying the diversion. He made friends throughout the state and even made a few cross-country tours before the lure of the Black Hills became too strong to resist.
Already a well-known and well-liked character by the mid-thirties, Badger received permission to build a cabin on state-owned land in Custer State Park. The game preserve was a natural for this early conservationist, who despite his cowboy background could never bring himself to hunt or fish. The cabin was five years in the building and became one of the strangest "hermitages" ever divided by man.
Although a lifelong bachelor, Badger Clark was a very social animal and the four-room cabin with a front porch stretching the entire width of the building, was expressly designed for entertaining. And as he had hoped, a steady stream of friends and admirers made the long trek into the wilderness to listen to his adventures in Cuba or tales of his life on the disappearing range.
Though the cabin was large for one person, including an entire wall of bookshelves for his insatiable mind, space was its only luxury. The living room was heated by a stone fireplace, the kitchen by a wood cook stove, and the bedrooms, not at all. There was no running water and kerosene lamps lit Badger's typewriter.
"The Badger Hole" became Badger's first permanent home and remains today, a South Dakota Historic Landmark, just as he left it for his final trip to the hospital in September of 1957.
Badger Clark lived a long and productive life that should not be appraised by literary output alone. The poems are good on the whole; one or two perhaps will be judged by time to be great. As a body, they invoked a time and a way of life in the great West which is lost to us forever and which he had the great good fortune to experience firsthand. There are three volumes of poetry (one printed posthumously), a novel, and numerous articles and pamphlets - not an impressive sum for an entire lifetime. But to condemn Badger Clark for his apparent lack of industry would be a mistake. He was far less interested in writing than in studying and caring for his tame deer, cultivating his many close friendships and, most importantly, enjoying the great out-of-doors.
His lectures kept him alive but were unimportant to him other than the attendant social intercourse. Notwithstanding his own attitude, the influence his speeches, especially commencement addresses, had on the state’s young people were inestimable. His message was often serious but tempered with his unflagging good humor, and always couched in common sense terms and logic. The Old West had taught him the values of self-reliance and the virtues of nature, and he passed this experience on to his eager young audiences.
It is this influence, far more than his rich western poetry, which has placed Badger Clark in the forefront of western personalities whose contributions have made the West a better place to live.
Want to read more? Enjoy this article, "Saddle Up With Badger Clark, America’s Forgotten Cowboy Poet," in the Smithsonian magazine.