Alpine rancher receives award

Alpine cowboy Joel Nelson stands with his horse Stoney on the Anchor Ranch in the Davis Mountains near Alpine. 

Alpine cowboy poet and rancher Joel Nelson will be the third recipient of the Ranching Heritage Association Working Cowboy Award. He’ll receive the honor during the 43rd Annual National Golden Spur Award dinner on Oct. 10 in Lubbock.

The Ranching Heritage Association, a nationwide non-profit membership organization, sponsors the annual award to honor a working cowboy skilled in all aspects of ranch work and respected by the ranching community, and Nelson fit the bill.

“This award is designed to recognize an outstanding individual who makes his living primarily horseback, caring for livestock on a daily basis,” said Jim Bret Campbell, director of the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Nelson has spent decades working on some of the most respected ranches in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Hawaii. Just outside Alpine, Nelson and wife Sylvia work together on horseback operating a ranching business, Anchor Land and Cattle Company, where they have been raising Angus cattle since 2007.

Poetry has been a part of Nelson’s life since an early age.  

“My mother read poetry to me when I was very young, and I had a deep love for poetry of all kinds through high school and college,” recalled Nelson.

Most of that was traditional classic poetry by Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, and Rudyard Kipling. In the mid 1980s, Nelson began writing poetry connected to his cowboy lifestyle, and in 1999, even received an international distinction. He was invited to England as a poet-in-residence, where he visited public school classrooms, young farmers meetings, and public gatherings, all designed to encourage poetry writing.

In 2000, Nelson also released “Breaker in the Pen,” an album of cowboy verse that was the only cowboy poetry ever nominated for a Grammy award. Nelson is truly honored to join the likes of renowned television journalist Tom Brokaw, and famous musician and singer-songwriter Jewel.  

In 2009, Nelson was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts for “major contributions to the excellence, vitality and public appreciation of the folk and traditional arts.”

Back home in Alpine, Nelson helped found the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where he served on the organizing committee for 33 years, and had a stint at Big Bend Saddlery, where he built saddles.

Gary Dunshee, owner of the Big Bend Saddlery in Alpine, described Nelson as a “great ambassador for cowboying not only in Texas but all of the West.”

Despite the many accolades, Nelson said being named recipient of the Working Cowboy Award surprised him.

“I know a number of working cowboys who are as deserving as I. I’m very humbled by it, and very appreciative,” he said. “I consider myself a Christian, and I feel I’m probably no more deserving of that than I am forgiveness and salvation.”

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