Gwen Petersen, Founder of MT Cowboy Poetry, “Closes the Gate”
February 21, 1928 – February 16, 2022
Tribute to Gwen Petersen, Founder of Montana Cowboy Poetry and Western Music Rendezvous (Founded in 1986).
Written and submitted by: Karen Kuhlmann, Trail Boss Since 2004, MT Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Western Music Rendezvous.
Even back in the 1980’s Gwen Petersen was tagged as “….they don’t make ‘em like her anymore!” Gwen, a consummate cowgirl and Montana history buff, made many a mark in the memory of others during her 94 years of life, through her sassy repartee, quick wit, high-energy and ‘big idea’ creativity. She was a pistol: high-spirited and a trail blazer!
Gwen, and a handful of other Montana poets (the late Mike Logan, Great Falls, and Wally McRae, Rosebud Creek) were invited to Elko, Nevada in 1985 for the first ever National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. During their train ride home to Montana, they huddled together, resulting in the birth of the 1st Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Big Timber, in 1986.
Gwen championed Montana Cowboy Poetry and is accredited with being its founder. John Drivdahl, (now of Denton and still an active poet at the annual August Gathering in Lewistown), was the Mayor of Big Timber in 1986. Drivdahl was instrumental in helping Gwen obtain a federal grant that provided seed money to jump-start Montana Cowboy Poetry. Cowboy poets including Wally McRae, Mike Logan, Lloyd McKenna/Lewistown, Dale Mailand/Harlem, Owen Badgett/Ingomar, Margaret Wilhelm/White Sulphur Springs, Sandy Seaton Salee/Paradise Valley, Steven Ray Hughes/Lewistown, Paul Zarzyski/Great Falls and others all flocked to Gwen’s Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
The Gathering was produced in Big Timber for five years. Gwen ram-rodded the Gathering attracting more and more cowboy poets and Western musicians every year. She was a colorful cow woman and local celebrity.
When attendance and participation at the Gathering outgrew Big Timber’s hospitality capabilities, Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering was re-located to Lewistown, a bigger town in the geographical center of the State. John Drivdahl described Lewistown as always being a “foot forward” town.
Gwen was a prolific writer, entertainer, enthusiast for ranching life and event organizer/promoter. When Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering re-located to Lewistown, Gwen organized a new event in Big Timber, Winter Encampment. Gwen had to have action….there was no stopping her! Gwen served as a Director on the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering Board even after the move to Lewistown and served until her death as an Advisor to the Board.
In 1976, Gwen published “The Ranch Women’s Manual,” followed by “Greenhorn’s Guide to the Wooly West,” “Everything I Know I Learned From My Horse,” and “How to Shovel Manure.” Gwen was writing a book when she died, entitled, “Closing the Gate.”
Gwen produced the “Toot, Hoot and Snoot Show,” numerous skits and vignettes. Gwen was a long-time contributor to Range Magazine and The Fence Post. Her limericks were often biting and risqué, but always funny!
In addition to writing many books, Gwen wanted to engage youth in Cowboy Poetry in order to perpetuate the genre. In 2004, Gwen collaborated with several outstanding Montana cowboy poets and created “Spurrin’ the Words,” a youth guide for 4-H underwritten in part by a grant from the Montana Arts Council, an agency of the state government. The popular text was reprinted in 2011 and is still in use today.
Gwen and her rancher husband, Martin, raised cattle, horses, miniature horses, pigs, sheep, dogs and cats. Gwen could always see the humor in daily mundane ranching tasks and made people laugh with abandoned. Gwen was a guest on “Johnny Carson” early on where she left Johnny free-falling!
So now, we bid good-bye to Gwen, the little English girl born in Decatur, Illinois, who as a teen, boarded a train for Montana and fulfilled her destiny as the consummate Montana cow-chix. Like they’ve said all along, “….they don’t make ‘em like her anymore!….”.
Memorials to Gwen Petersen have been suggested to the Big Timber Carnegie Library, 314 McLeod St., Big Timber, MT 59011.
Thanks for the great ride, Gwen…..we’ll catch up to you up the trail. As Gwen always said, “….onward into the fog…..”