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The cowboy way

As the boxes opened the memories came flooding back, memories of days long gone, days when a young man could make his living as a cowboy, or even put together a wild west show and perform in it for years. Gordon Leraas remembers those days and going through boxes of memorabilia really stirred the memories because he lived those days. Born in between Crosby and Alamo, in North Dakota in 1922, Leraas lived on a farm with his parents, Anton and Clara, both of whom had moved there from the Barrett area. “After nine years of drought they moved back to Minnesota,” said Leraas of the return to the Barrett area in 1937. He was 15. The next summer he went west to work on a ranch. “I was out there for the summer but I had to be back for the harvest, there was lots of shocking and bundle hauling to do,” he said. Being a farm boy, and spending a summer on a Montana ranch, he grew quite good at riding a horse and spent time herding cows. “Every farm had three or four horses back then, even if they had tractors” said Leraas. “You would use them to pull the mower around the yard in the summer and you knew you would be able to get out in the winter.” He had always been interested in ropes and horses and went to wild west shows in the Twin Cities in the late 1930s. “I started to write down information about rope tricks,” he said. His dad had a rope making machine and he learned to make small lariats. And he started practicing rope tricks. By the summer of 1941 he and his cousin, Ansel Christianson, and a few others had enough tricks and stunts to create their own wild west show. Their first performance was June 20, 1941 on Tody Christianson’s farm. On July 27 they were at Blehr’s Barn near Kensington for a show. That show featured Roger Ray and his wonder horse, King; Gordon Leraas with his rope spinning; Ansel Christianson and his trick horse, Jeffy; and Lawrence Thompson and his Blackstreak team. In addition there was a performance by the “Country Gentlemen” band, an appearance by the Krazy Kadets, accordion artists, trick riding, Lawrence the Singing Cowboy and Ebenezer the Clown. Show admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. “We’d get a couple of hundred people,” said Leraas. “Oh, golly you worked at that stuff,” said Leraas of his part in the show. He had a number of tricks. He would even perform standing on top of a horse with a 50’ rope. “You really needed a horse that would stand still for that one,” he laughed. Another trick was called the Texas Skip. Leraas would get a loop going vertically with the lariat and then skip back and forth through the loop. He also learned to spin three lariats at the same time, one in each hand and the other held between his teeth. Spinning a lariat is a little more than flipping a person’s arm with a rope in hand. The lariat ropes will soon knot up if a person does not twist the rope in his hand while the lariat loop is spinning. So, when Leraas was spinning three ropes, he had to twist the rope in each hand as he spun it. And do it in the correct direction. He used a swivel for the rope he held in his mouth. It took a lot of coordination. As he went along in the shows he also learned to teach his horse tricks. His horse could kneel, bow, kiss, pray, kick, walk, lay down and sit up among other things. He taught his horse to respond to both verbal commands and hand or even foot signals. He worked with his father farming during the week and he and his friends did the shows on Sundays. “They all went good,” he said of the shows. “Nobody ever got hurt.” As he traveled and visited other shows he met a number of people. One of those he remembers clearly Percy Kirk from Sisseton, a well known bronc rider. “He told me that what you never want to do is ride those brahma bulls,” said Leraas. “They’re terrible.” Leraas took the advice and never regretted it. While he was learning rope tricks and horse riding in the 1930s, Gordon’s brother, Carl, went into the CCC and left his guitar behind. Gordon learned cords and eventually played in bands along with the western shows. He and his troupe performed in Minnesota and eastern North and South Dakota. In 1950 all that changed when Gordon married his wife, Betty. He stopped performing in shows as he and Betty raised five daughters. But he wasn’t done performing. He played guitar in bands. Later the band was known as the Blue Knights and the group, usually four or five people, depending upon who was available various nights, would play all around the area from Fargo to Pelican Rapids, Fergus Falls, Morris and Alexandria. He did that for over 30 years. The band usually included an accordion, one or two guitars, a drummer and sometimes a trumpet. While Leraas had learned to play the guitar he had taught himself and never learned to read music, he played by ear. “Dad would buy sheet music but he couldn’t read the notes,” said daughter Linda. “So we started buying records and would write down the words for him. Then he would listen to the record to learn the music and take the words with him to learn on the tractor.” “It was pretty handy,” said Leraas of the band work. “I didn’t like playing three nights in a row but the grocery bill was pretty big!” Leraas kept playing for years and was a regular in the annual Barrett parade. In 1995 he performed cowboy music for a play at Roosevelt Hall called Sneaky Fitch and during the intermission he did rope tricks. It was one of his last public rope trick performances. “I still play enough so I keep the callouses on my fingers,” said Leraas. “I still play three times a week.” Gordon lost his wife Betty when she died in 1988. He married again but lost his second wife in 2004. But the boxes of memorabilia are still there in the farm house where he can pull them out and remember the days he was a cowboy.

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