JM Capriola with Saddle

Explore Western Culture, Art, History in Elko

By NCOT BLOGGER | March 2014
Updated: February 2016

Explore Western Culture, Art, History in Elko | NCOT BLOGGER

The Wild West looms large in the national consciousness. Studied in high school history classes, immortalized in spaghetti westerns, celebrated in books and song, the West evokes ideas of rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny, the 19th century belief that America was destined to expand across the continent.

Among other attractions, Elko is home of the Western Folklife Center, recognized for its annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. It is here you will find J.M. Capriola Co., where saddles have been made for decades; and the Northeastern Nevada Museum, which houses an extensive collection of work by Western artist Will James.  And although Elko today is known for its mining economy, “there’s a lot of ranching culture left here,” said Claudia Wines, director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum. “There really is.”

Western Folklife Center

Cowboys and poetry may seem an unlikely combination, but not according to Darcy Minter of the Western Folklife Center. “Cowboy poetry is something that has always been created and recited in communities, in families and among neighbors in the ranching West,” Minter said.

The custom of reciting verse around a campfire after a long day on the trail dates back to the post-Civil War era, according to information on the Western Folklife Center website.

“People were still practicing it,” Minter said, when the Western Folklife Center held the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985 to present the tradition to a larger audience.

Since then, the Gathering has been an annual event, one that garners national and international attention and has made stars out of cowboy poets and musicians such as Waddie Mitchell, Baxter Black and Ramblin’ Jack. Held at the end of January when ranchers have more time to participate, the Gathering draws hundreds of visitors to Elko to watch performances at various Elko venues, including the Western Folklife Center.

This year’s gathering ran from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4, but the Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad St., is open throughout the year. Located in the century-old Pioneer Hotel, the Western Folklife Center houses the Wiegand Gallery, which has Western-themed exhibits and a 20-seat black-box theater where you can watch a 16-minute video about why the cowboy sings. Also take in the renovated bar, which features art and memorabilia from past poetry gatherings, and the gift shop, which sells books, CDs and other items related to Western culture.

J.M. Capriola Co.

See how saddles are made — and maybe even outfit your horse, if you have one — at J.M. Capriola, 500 Commercial St., just a block from the Western Folklife Center. In business since 1929, Capriola’s sells saddles, Garcia bits and spurs, boots, hats and other items essential to the bona-fide cowboy. The retail section is on the first floor, but visitors also can go upstairs, where saddles are made and other leather work is done. Capriola’s saddle-making tradition dates to the 1920s, when a young man named Joe Capriola apprenticed with Elko saddle maker G.S. Garcia, eventually opening his own saddle-making business in 1929. Capriola and Garcia enjoyed a friendly rivalry before Garcia retired to California. Capriola sold the store to the Bear family in 1958; they maintained the store’s name and its tradition of selling the well-regarded Garcia bits and spurs.

Northeastern Nevada Museum

Stories of the Wild West are filled with larger-than-life characters. Learn about one of them —  artist and writer Will James — at the Northeastern Nevada Museum at 1515 Idaho St., less than a mile from the Western Folklife Center and Capriola’s.  Canadian-born James lived in the American West during the first part of the 20th century, a colorful life included a stint in the Nevada State Prison for cattle rustling and winning the 1927 Newbery Medal for children’s literature for his book “Smoky, The Cow Horse.” Northeastern Nevada Museum houses an extensive collection of James’ work — “probably one of  the best in the world,” said Wines, the museum director — including 53 pieces of original art and first-edition, signed copies of each of his 23 books.

The 40,000-square-foot museum also has local history, natural history and geology exhibits, more than 100 mounted animal exhibits from around the world, shown in natural settings, as well as four art galleries with rotating and permanent exhibits. In conjunction with a local mining company, plans are in place to develop a world-class mining exhibit, to be completed by summer 2012, Wines said. The museum, owned by the Northeastern Nevada Historical Society, also has plans to expand its current facility to include a western art collection that will take its place among the great western art museums in the country. 

The Nevada Commission on Tourism is a part of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. For more on Nevada travel, visit the website

Keep an Eye Out

The California Trail Interpretive Center, eight miles west of Elko off Interstate 80, opened in June 2012. The center, run by the Bureau of Land Management, has exhibits, video and more to explain America’s westward expansion. From the center, visitors can view Hastings Cutoff, the alternate route to California taken by the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. For more, see the center’s website,