Texas HistoryThe Cowboys’ Christmas Ball: A Festive Texas Poem

After visiting a Christmas dance in Anson during the 1880s, William Lawrence Chittenden penned the poem titled “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”
December 25, 2020
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In 1885, the owner of the Star Hotel of Anson, Texas — a small West Texas town a thirty-minute drive from Abilene — began hosting an annual Christmas ball for residents of the town and cowboys from the area.

One of the ball’s attendees was William Lawrence Chittenden, known as the “poet-ranchman of Texas,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Chittenden was born in New Jersey and worked as a New York newspaper reporter before moving to Texas in the 1880s to begin ranching with his uncle.

In 1890, after a fire destroyed the Star Hotel, Chittenden’s poem chronicling the frontier festivity was published in Anson’s paper, the Texas Western.

The ballad was later published in a collection of Chittenden’s poems, Ranch Verses, and it was also included in the 1916 edition of John Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads.

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While the annual ball faded away after the hotel burned down in 1890, the legacy captured by Chittenden’s poems kept the history from falling into complete obscurity and in the 1930s, the tradition was revived.

The town’s Pioneer Hall was constructed in 1940 and became the permanent home of the three-day “Cowboy’s Christmas Ball” before December 25 each year.

Texas country singer Michael Martin Murphey popularized the tradition even more when in 1985, 100 years after the first ball, he turned Chittenden’s classic poem into a song.

The event has continued on a regular basis in Anson for decades, though the directors and board members of the organization that runs it canceled the event this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

More information about the history of the ball can be found here and Chittenden’s poem can be read below.

‘Way out in Western Texas, where the Clear Fork’s waters flow,
Where the cattle are “a-browzin’,” an’ the Spanish ponies grow;
Where the Northers “come a-whistlin’” from beyond the Neutral Strip;
And the prairie dogs are sneezin’, as if they had “The Grip”;
Where the cayotes come a-howlin’ ‘round the ranches after dark,
And the mocking-birds are singin’ to the lovely “medder lark”;
Where the ‘possum and the badger, and rattlesnakes abound,
And the monstrous stars are winkin’ o’er a wilderness profound;
Where lonesome, tawny prairies melt into airy streams,
While the Double Mountains slumber, in heavenly kinds of dreams;
Where the antelope is grazin’ and the lonely plovers call—
It was there that I attended “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”

The town was Anson City, old Jones’s county seat,
Where they raised Polled Angus cattle, and waving whiskered wheat;
Where the air is soft and “bammy,” an’ dry an’ full of health,
And the prairies is explodin’ with agricultural wealth;
Where they print the Texas Western, that Hec. McCann supplies
With news and yarns and stories, uv most amazin’ size;
Where Frank Smith “pulls the badger,” on knowin’ tenderfeet,
And Democracy’s triumphant, and might hard to beat;
Where lives that good old hunter, John Milsap, from Lamar,
Who “used to be the Sheriff, back East, in Paris sah!”
‘T was there, I say, at Anson with the lovely “widder Wall,”
That I went to that reception, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”

The boys had left the ranches and come to town in piles;
The ladies—”kinder scatterin’”— had gathered in for miles.
And yet the place was crowded, as I remember well,
‘T was got for the occasion, at “The Morning Star Hotel.
The music was a fiddle an’ a lively tambourine,
And a “viol came imported,” by the stage from Abilene.
The room was togged out gorgeous-with mistletoe and shawls,
And candles flickered frescoes, around the airy walls.
The “wimmin folks” looked lovely-the boys looked kinder treed,
Till their leader commenced yellin’: “Whoa! fellers, let’s stampede,”
And the music started sighin’, an’ awailin’ through the hall
As a kind of introduction to “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”

The leader was a feller that came from Swenson’s ranch,
They called him “Windy Billy,” from “little Deadman’s Branch.”
His rig was “kinder keerless,” big spurs and high-heeled boots;
He had the reputation that comes when “fellers shoots.”
His voice was like a bugle upon the mountain’s height;
His feet were animated an’ a mighty, movin’ sight,
When he commenced to holler, “Neow, fellers stake your pen!
“Lock horns ter all them heifers, an’ russle ‘em like men.
“Saloot yer lovely critters; neow swing an’ let ‘em go,
“Climb the grape vine ‘round ‘em—all hands do-ce-do!
“You Mavericks, jine the round-up- Jest skip her waterfall,”
Huh! hit wuz gettin’ happy, “The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball!”

The boys were tolerable skittish, the ladies powerful neat,
That old bass viol’s music just got there with both feet!
That wailin’, frisky fiddle, I never shall forget;
And Windy kept a-singin’-I think I hear him yet-
“Oh Xes, chase yer squirrels, an’ cut ‘em to one side;
“Spur Treadwell to the centre, with Cross P Charley’s bride;
“Doc. Hollis down the middle, an’ twine the ladies’ chain;
“Varn Andrews pen the fillies in big T Diamond’s train.
“All pull yer freight together, neow swallow fork an’ change;
“‘Big Boston,’ lead the trail herd, through little Pitchfork’s range.
“Purr ‘round yer gentle pussies, neow rope ‘em! Balance all!”
Huh!  hit wuz gettin’ active-”The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball!”

The dust riz fast an’ furious; we all jes’ galloped ‘round,
Till the scenery got so giddy that T Bar Dick was downed.
We buckled to our partners, an’ told ‘em to hold on,
Then shook our hoofs like lightning, until the early dawn.
Don’t tell me ‘bout cotillions, or germans. No sire ‘ee!
That whirl at Anson City just takes the cake with me.
I’m sick of lazy shufflin’s, of them I’ve had my fill,
Give me a frontier break-down, backed up by Windy Bill.
McAllister ain’t nowhar: when Windy leads the show,
I’ve seen ‘em both in harness, and so I sorter know—
Oh, Bill, I sha’n’t forget yer, and I’ll oftentimes recall,
That lively gaited sworray—“The Cowboys’ Christmas Ball.”

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.