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November 8, 2009

Innerviews: Ex-cowboy rides out unemployment gap

Charleston Gazette Article

By Sandy Wells Staff writer

Former cowboy and mine worker Roy Smyth helps with the youth boxing program at the King Recreation Center. His contributions included building the practice ring. Unemployed since the Samples surface mine closed in July, he's biding his time as a handyman until a full-time job comes along.

Innerviews: Ex-cowboy rides out unemployment gap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a cowboy, the real deal.

In the mid-1980s, Roy Smyth herded cattle on the open range in British Columbia, just him, his dog, two horses and 250 cows out in the middle of nowhere. Crouched by the fire each night, awed by the vast, star-studded sky, he experienced a sense of serenity that nourishes his soul to this day.

An Illinois farm boy, he always had a way with horses. When he lost his job as a heavy-equipment operator at an Illinois coal mine, he saddled up for the solitary life of a Canadian cowboy.

He returned eventually to Illinois and signed on with Arch Coal. In 1994, the company lured him to West Virginia.

Arch Coal closed the surface mine at Samples in July. Now he does odd jobs, helps with a local boxing program and waits for the next door to open. It's just a matter of time. God always opens another door, he said.

He's 52.

"I had the best childhood. I was born in 1957 in a small town, Sparta, Ill. I was raised on a farm. Dad worked in the coal mines to subsidize farming. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a rancher, but it never panned out.

"Dad always had horses because he worked the cows with them. We had a team of workhorses, Molly and Dolly. Dad wouldn't even put lines on these horses. They would go to the cornfield and stop right where they left off. They knew their job. I rode Dad's horses and Molly and Dolly all the time.

"One day, my great uncle took me to Murphysboro, Ill., and he had bought me and my brother a horse. I was 7. My first horse's name was Cindy. It was a hackney pony, more spirited than what I was used to. You know how you have these little girls you want to impress? Well, I went to town one day, and I got off the horse and showed this girl how I could jump up from behind and get on saddle. I walked around Cindy and patted her on the rump, and she kicked me right in the chest and knocked me down. I wasn't going to cry, but it hurt like everything.

"I left home when I was 17, graduated from high school a year early and went to trade school in St. Louis and took welding and pipefitting and worked construction. I ended up back in the coal mines in southern Illinois. Just like here, coal mines play out. So I wanted to make a career change.

"They were offering a two-week equine science program in Black River Falls, Wis. I went up there to learn how to break horses without being a cowboy and just bucking them. Ray Hunt, an old man out of Arizona, and Jack Brainer from Gainesville, Texas, met up there and brought in a bunch of mustangs that hadn't been handled by anyone and used them for the training program.

"I would get on them because everyone else was scared to death. There was some buck in them, but I just rode the horse, just flowed with it. They liked the way I rode the horses. Jack tried to talk me into coming to Gainesville to ride his horses. He had 750 brood mares.

"I did take a trip down there and rode a bunch of his colts just to see what he wanted me to do. I would get on one horse's back and ride for 15 minutes. Somebody would catch another horse and bring it to me, and I would step out of one saddle and onto the next horse, and my feet wouldn't touch the ground. I rode horses until I couldn't move. I was just putting time on their backs so the trainers could work with them. That was too much. I couldn't go that route.

"A friend of Jack's was looking to buy some stallions to take to British Columbia. He invited me up to help. To work in Canada, you have to have a sponsor. Don and Marg were responsible for me. Don was working for a rancher, like a contract cowboy. We went hunting. While we were out, we were moving these cows around, probably 250 cows.

"After we got done, I got a call saying they had shut down the mine. So I stayed. He told me to take over where he'd left off with these cows. There are so many bulls for so many cows. Bulls are like men. They want to keep their women away from other bulls. Your job is to keep them together, so you can move them.

"It wasn't like a big cattle drive like you see on TV. It was just grazing, all on government land, open ranges, no fences. We were just out of Williams Lake, British Columbia, about 250 miles straight north of Vancouver.

"You always had two horses. You are by yourself out there. You take good care of your horses because they get you where you need to go. Sometimes I was 250 miles out in the bush. If it rained, I would make a lean-to out of a tarp. There were always pine needles to make a nice bed. I was out four months the first time and about six months the second time.

"They have what they call 'cash boxes' out in the middle of nowhere -- a deepfreeze with a chain around it to keep the bears out. The rancher you worked for brought out food for you and oats for horses. The packhorse would have wooden boxes on each side. You would fill them with grain for the horses. Instead of having a cooler, you would put your eggs down in the oats. Bacon would keep for a long time. If they left you meat, they would wrap it in newspaper and freeze it and stick it in the oats and that would insulate it.

"You'd eat your beef the first part of the week, and bacon and eggs the later part of week. And always, always rice. And beans.

"You do get lonesome, but that was a time in my life where I felt I needed to be alone. You worry about different things out there. You realize what is important in your life besides material things. You sit and look at the stars and wonder if people you know are looking at them. I get teary when I talk about it. The northern lights, the lights bouncing off the glaciers, it's like you can hear it. And you think, by the grace of God, I am here. It was a great time.

"They don't pay well, about $500 a month, but you don't need anything. You had food and your horses. You are like a shepherd watching over your flock. You take care of those cows like they're your kids. You knew which ones were going to bolt and run and which ones were going to stay with you. Oh, and something people don't realize is, you don't recognize a cow by its face. You are always moving it. It's always going away from you.

"At night, you keep one horse tied up. You put hobbles on the front feet of the other one and a cowbell around its neck so you can hear it grazing. When it comes back to get more oats, you tie it up and turn the other one loose. When you are sleeping, you hear this cowbell. When you don't hear it, you wake up, and you whistle for the horse, because if they leave you, you are in trouble.

"One thing I learned is, when you are out in the middle of nowhere and you see someone walking, you know the first question they are going to ask: 'Have you seen my horse?'

"In the fall of '85, I met them at the cash box and said I was ready to leave. In a matter of hours, I sold my horses and flew into Vancouver. After you are out like that and see all these people at an airport, you have such anxiety. You've been in the middle of nowhere for six months and you step into life as we know it, and it's overwhelming. But it's not something you can't get over.

"I had a small farm in southern Illinois and went back there. All the farmers would leave their machinery in my yard for welding and that's how I made a living for a while. And then I went back to the mines.

"In 1994, they shut down the mine in southern Illinois. I worked for Arch Coal, running heavy equipment. The human-resources man asked if I wanted to come to West Virginia and work. The third time he called, I said I would take the job.

"I worked at the Samples mine until the middle of July. I was in South Dakota prairie-dog hunting, and they called and said the mine had shut down. We love it here. I just wish there was work. It's just another open door. Something good will come out of it. The Lord has always opened doors for me.

"Good things happened to me because I was willing to work, and I wasn't afraid to talk to people, and I was truthful and could look people in the eye and wouldn't steal from them.

"I boxed a little when I was a kid. We have two young boys and they wanted to start boxing. I found Gary Toney, and he said to come down to the Charleston rec center. After about a year, Gary and Tommy Davenport asked if I would stay and help coach and train.

"We do Hooks for Books to expose high school kids to boxing. The high schools compete against each other at the Civic Center. Any profits go to honor a special teacher or to buy books or to a small scholarship.

"My dream is to set up a bed and breakfast, a retreat where Carol can teach people to quilt, and I'd have a hunting lodge, and in the spring and summer, I could farm. I would definitely have horses. I miss that part of my life. I've moved on, but it would be very easy to go back to that."