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The Cowboy Poet - Jake Copass

Posted: Wednesday, April 2, 2014

By: Emma Bowlby (Expired article)

Santa Ynez, California -

The Santa Ynez Valley has hosted some illustrious characters in its time. Ronald Reagan had a ranch here, Michael Jackson's notorious Neverland was (and still, to a given value, is) located in this valley. Such contemporary greats as Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, and Bernie Taupin currently dot the area. However, alongside these glittering stars once lived a man just as illustrious in his own way, but with a grounded humility and sense of human reality to accompany it. Arguably, these attributes rendered his artistic contribution to the world all the more poignant. Jake Copass, the 'Cowboy Poet', lived in, worked, and loved the Santa Ynez Valley until the end of his days, solidly sticking to the cowboy life to which he was so suited throughout changing and often turbulent times. During his Santa Ynez life, he produced some wonderful poetry reflecting that lifestyle and his experiences.

The Last Cowboy

Copass has been described as ‘The last cowboy’, and it is not an entirely fanciful description. Born in 1920 in Texas, Copass grew up in the heyday and heartland of cowboy culture. He was one of the youngest of eight children, and swiftly learned to hold his own against the squabbling fists of his siblings. Growing up as a farm boy in a ranching area gave him a deep love of horses and cattle which would stay with him for the rest of his life. When he was young, his brother in law gave him a colt to raise by hand. He did this with love and dedication. Two years later, he sold the colt on for $85 – at that time an astonishing amount of money for a horse. Thus was born a dedicated and much enjoyed ranching career which would span some of the most turbulent and changeable decades human history has ever seen. Anyone with the requisite historical resources will have little trouble in understanding that the lifetime of one born in 1920 encompassed a good deal of social, economic, political and civil change. However, Copass bore war, economic collapse, political turbulence and the hasty advance of an entirely new way of life with an enviable equanimity, preserving his integrity and pursuing the lifestyle which he loved right up until the end.

Introduction to California

His career as a cowboy was rudely interrupted by WWII, which called Copass away at the age of 20 to New Guinea. His expertise and experience with animals saw him assigned a veterinary role caring for military horses. Initially he was sent overseas, but eventually he ended up in Santa Barbara. This was his first introduction to California – and it thrilled him. “Seein’ where you could grow green grass in the wintertime – I’d never seen that before – well, you guys have been stuck with me ever since” he later told an interviewer. He settled in the Santa Ynez Valley, which was then a ranching area, and remained here ever since. It was not long before he began to let his love of ranching and the cowboy lifestyle overflow onto the page, writing minimalist, evocative verse which lends a real flavor of the man and the land he loved. As the Santa Ynez Valley began to become a more opulent, tourist-driven economy, Copass’s poems often poked affectionate fun at ‘big city wannabes’ who drove down at weekends to pose in five gallon hats and tumble off horses. He had ample opportunity to observe this sort of behavior during his time working for the Alisal Guest Ranch, a popular destination for the rich and discerning.


In 1992, a collection of his poems entitled ‘It Don’t Hurt to Laugh’ was published, followed in 1997 by a poetic memoir called ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’. During his time in the Santa Ynez Valley, he saw the cattle ranches give way to vineyards, and cowboys give way to movie executives and city vacationers – but he remained philosophical regarding the changes. “It was about 1960 when the grapes began coming in”, he later mused, “but we all agreed we’d rather see grapes than houses, anyway”.

A Much Loved Figure

Copass filled his latter days giving readings of his work and attending cowboy poetry gatherings throughout he nation. He had a great belief in keeping busy, and was an inspiration to the many children who were intrigued by the spry old man with the Texas drawl and cowboy hat. Copass was a natural cowboy, with no pretensions or arrogance, and this made him a deeply respected and endearing figure. Sadly, he was to succumb to leukemia at the age of 86. He died in 2006, and was given a well-attended funeral at the Alisal Guest Ranch, where he had worked for decades.

Below is one of Copass’s poems – ‘It’s Always Home’. Imagine it, if you can, read in his slow, comfortable Texan drawl.

It's Always Home

We all drove down the old dirt road,

My sisters, my brothers, and me.

It wasn’t too easy to figure it out,

Where the old home used to be.

Guess the old house had been torn down,

The windmill and the old corral.

The little tin chicken house is still standing there,

In the brush, there is still a dim trail.

You could hear the Bobwhites in the distance,

Cows munching grass up to their knees,

I’d swear that’s the same old mockingbird,

Perched high in that old apple tree.

No matter what else has happened,

There’s some things you cannot erase,

The joys we all had together,

On our folk’s little sandy-land place.

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