Passengers gather to ride the Heber Valley Railroad’s ‘Cowboy Express’ during an earlier gathering of western music and poetry from the Heber Valley cowboys. This year’s festival features a lineup of singers, poets and other artists. (Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering)
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HEBER – It started as a chili kitchen and a group of friends who just wanted to perform their cowboy poetry.
Diane Pope said so many people came to the informal gathering at Midway Town Hall that organizers ran out of food and space.
“It was just a bigger hit than they had imagined,” she said. “So the next year, they retained him in our high school. And we’ve been growing ever since.”
Diane Pope said she and her husband, Doug Pope, have been board members of the Heber Valley Western Music and Cowboy Poetry Gathering for nearly 20 years. Diane Pope is also the producer of the festival.
The event, now in its 27th year, draws between 12,000 and 15,000 people over its five days each fall, she said. This year would have been the gathering’s 28th anniversary had it not been for the COVID-19 closures in 2020, she added.
This year’s festival runs from October 12-16 and features a lineup of 30 performers, including singers, poets and other performers. The bulk of the events will take place at Wasatch High School, with dinner shows at Midway Town Hall and Soldier Hollow.
General admission is $12, waived with any same-day concert tickets, which range from $10 to $75. Tickets are available online at hebervalleycowboypoetry.com.
However, on October 13, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., visitors can wander freely through Tom’s Cabin, which features cowboy memorabilia collected by fellow festival founder Tom Whitaker.
Also free to the public Thursday through Saturday are the Mountain Man Trader’s Camp and the Buckaroo Fair, both of which will offer an array of cowboy merchandise and food; as well as shooting competitions on Friday and Saturday.
The historic Heber Valley Railroad, also known as the “Cowboy Express”, will operate throughout the festival and tickets range from $25 to $45 per person for the ride.
The five-day event will kick off the evening of Wednesday, October 12 at Midway Town Hall with a cowboy dinner and live performances from Joshua Creek and Dave and Jenny Anderson. Poets Jeff Carson and Ryan Fritz will also take the stage.
Preserving the cowboy way of life
Diane Pope said cowboy poetry developed when cowboys, who had little to do in the evenings, began writing and reciting poetry around campfires on events of the day.
“You go from laughing out loud to shedding a tear,” she said.
Doug Pope added that the festival features western music rather than country music. Western music has “a bit more of an old-world feel to it,” he said. “A lot of these people who are more traditional Western singers, they sing a lot about ranching life.”
Diane Pope said she and the other board members spent the whole year planning and preparing for the gathering.
Most of the funding comes from local government and sponsors, she said.
Pope said Heber Valley had 30 dairy farms, but only one remains. And while the area still has several cattle ranches, they are “smaller in scale.”
As farmland “is eaten up by subdivisions,” Pope said she wants people, especially kids, to get a taste of what cowboy life was like.
“(It was) a simpler way of life…an honest way of life,” she said. “And so we just felt very strongly … that we wanted to do something for the next generation or two to remember (that) this valley … was founded and developed throughout the life of a rancher and a dairy.”