Rawhide Braiding with Doug Groves
by Rebecca Snetselaar, Folklife Specialist, Nevada Arts Council, 2020
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering draws people to Elko, Nevada in late January, when the chances of a blizzard—or black ice on the roads, or frigid temperatures—are significant. Most drive in from somewhere, braving the wintry mix and making it over some pass by the skin of their teeth, with bragging rights. A few of us, less intrepid or coming from a longer distance away, rely upon the airplane that comes from Salt Lake City to get to the Gathering on time.
Many of the folks in Doug Groves’ rawhide braiding workshop appear to be the over-the-road variety, accustomed to surmounting whatever weather is thrown at them. They are Westerners, at home in desolate landscapes of mountains, deserts, and distant horizons. They appear to be quite serious about learning how to work with rawhide to create horse gear—reins, hackamores, romals, bosals, reatas, quirts and the like. They have committed to a four-day learning experience where Doug introduces the entire process, from harvesting the hide to completion of a set of button-studded leather bridle reins with a 12-strand rawhide romal.
Doug is a regular workshop presenter at the annual gathering, passing on the traditional art of turning rawhide into fine horse gear. His son Grant and daughter Kat are there to help, along with master braider Charlie Liesen and workshop “alumni” from past years. It’s great to see the experienced braiders lending a hand to show the novices how it’s done.
Doug Groves was recognized last year with the Nevada Arts Council’s first-ever Folk Arts Fellowship, a $5,000 grant that recognizes outstanding accomplishments in the folk arts by Nevadans. He is a past recipient of the Nevada Heritage Award and the Governor’s Arts Award. He has also completed folklife apprenticeship projects to teach his son Grant techniques for braiding and working with rawhide.
“Many of the old Rawhiders were very guarded in revealing their secrets,” he explained in his fellowship grant application. “If you were lucky enough to find an old Rawhider to teach you, you would learn not only the art, but also the history and folklore that went along with it. In learning to tie a button, you would ask, ‘Who taught you… where did you work with him?’ Soon you would hear cowboy stories and ranch histories. You would discover a rawhide genealogy of who taught who and what ranches they had worked on together: a verbal history known only to those who were blessed to work with the old time Rawhiders.
“I’ve been braiding rawhide for 40 years,” he explained. “In 1979 Frank Hansen from Lakeview, Oregon helped me get started. Frank and I worked on the MC ranch at Adel, Oregon. Rawhide braiding is an occupational art practiced on ranches throughout the Great Basin and Nevada. While working on many of these large ranches, I sought out other Rawhiders and learned from many: Stewart Elsner, Roger Fisher, Charlie Liesen, Randy Stowell, all exceptional Rawhiders.
“The Great Basin Buckaroo has a rich cultural heritage, unique to the American west,” he concluded. “We have been blessed with the opportunity to teach this art form and preserve a great part of our Nevada History.”
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