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    The West Today

Ranch Raised Kids 

The Faces and Force behind the new 21st Century American Cowboy

A photography project by Seth Joel and Charlie Holland

(Writer’s Note: As culture and society evolve, so does the English language and the word “cowboy,” will be used as a gender-neutral term to refer to the profession, not the specific gender.)

“What has become of the horseman, the cowpuncher, the last romantic figure upon our soul?”

—Owen Wister, The Virginian, 1902.


America, 2016 — As the quote and the date above reveal, the belief that the American Cowboy, and all that it represents, is of a time well past. A belief that all that remains are the 19th century tintype photography, renderings on canvas, lyrics in songs lamenting its passing and the silver screen’s endless parade of movies driving this belief home.

Well America, the American Cowboy is alive and well, by both birth and by choice. There are burgeoning forces driven by the passion of the young people who ride and ranch every day, that see this as a career choice and the future of their country. It’s about the “kids,” and Smoke Signals is honored to be able to bring you this exclusive look into the most powerful project to date that will illuminate the faces and force behind who the American cowboy is today and will continue to be tomorrow.

Ranch Raised Kids coverThe project, Ranch Raised Kids, is the compelling brainchild of award winning photojournalist Seth Joel and Charlie Holland whose goal is to bring a new awareness to this country and the world. Awareness that one of America’s only true root based cultures is still thriving, and both core and critical to this country and the world these amazing people help feed.

This project began in northwestern Arizona where, 114 years later, the horseman and the cowpunchers still gather cattle in terrain that is too harsh for mechanized vehicles. While itinerant ‘day worker’ cowboys are few and far between there are wagon bosses who ride but use solar energy and ATVs to manage water lines and ride fences. Men still wear the traditional cowboy dress but they are cattleman, conservationists, ranchers, range managers, stock contractors, electricians, plumbers and heavy equipment operators. And that’s just on the ranch.

Through an interview with Charlie Holland, their passion for this project is clear. “We are all of a time and place. Seth and I are from California and believed the myth reiterated in movies and still photography - the cowboys’ time and place  - had gone. Photographers still create black and white ‘timeless’ images that romanticize rugged cowboys that deny them any presence in our time. Even 19th century tintype photography has been used to evoke a by-gone age and, therefore, by-gone men. These projects may make strong artistic statements but they do not reflect reality. Our project ‘Ranch Raised Kids’ goes beyond the nostalgia and looks at contemporary ranching life and the next generation of cowboys in color and in the here and now. “

Devyn Blackmore

“We started this project in northwest Arizona. Four million visitors a year drive from Kingman or Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. They are unaware that they are driving through vast ranches that are measured in the hundreds of square miles and hundreds of thousands of acres. The families that work these ranches live far apart and far off the road yet we learn they are closely connected by marriage, history, work and friendships.”

The following pictures show some of the children that Seth and Charlie have photographed and interviewed for Ranch Raised Kids. As outsiders they wanted to understand what keeps them on the ranch and committed to a life as a cowboy.

And what they have learned is ranch-raised kids act older than their urban peers, taking responsibility for themselves, their animals and their futures. They learn ‘cowboying’ skills at a young age and love nothing more than riding out with their fathers. Some kids make a hand by the time they are eight. They are proud of the fall work they do in the vast rocky pastures that take three days to gather. They relish the isolation of their homes. With seed money saved from their 4H work, earned on the ranch, or hoarded from birthday gifts, young entrepreneurs start their herds at 8, buy bucking bulls when they are teenagers and braiding halters to pay their rodeo entrance fees.

Beb Ben Balow

It's one of those things that is you grow up with. You kind of develop a passion about them (cattle) and it kind of digs a hole in you until you get a cow or something like that. At least that is what it has done for me. I have always been real passionate about it….”

Tallen Simpson

“Tallen was severely injured in a horse accident when he was 5. I was told he would never walk or talk again. All he wants to do is be a cowboy. I hope he can recover to a place where he can drive the water truck or move hay, any job just to be on a ranch”. Whitney Welch, Tallen’s mother.

Because they are expected and trusted to learn, they learn. So a six year old can teach you to ride and a 10 year old can identify noxious plants on the range. Some feel they have already learned more about running cattle than can be taught in college while others plan to study range management to safeguard the delicate nature of this tough looking land. But all agree that you can’t learn cow sense from a book.

Cutter Lewis

“There is nothing hard about riding, not to me. You don’t use your spurs if you don’t have to. You use your hands and your feet. You use your hands a little bit and then your feet not your spurs.”

Riley Rodgers

“I remember what my favorite day was. It was getting up and knowing that I could go and ride with my dad. Like all day…”

Two room schools and home schooling groups alike use technology and on line learning. The community supports further education with scholarships that inspire students to excel in their fields and encourages participation in cattle industry associations to prepare them for the challenges of agri-business in the 21st century.

Bailey Kimball

“A lot of colleges in Texas teach agri-business and there’s a few in Arizona but I thought Clarendon, Texas would be a good place to go because they have a good rodeo team.”

Values and good manners are inherent in the traditional ranch lifestyle. They are proud of their heritage, proud to say that they are fifth generation, eighth generation ranchers. They retell the stories of grandparents who left small towns sixty years ago to find work on a ranch. While every kid’s story is a little different they share the same deep, unshakable love of family, the work and the land. And being an American cowboy.

Gavin Birkemeyer

 “…as a kid I was always told to ‘do what you want to do’ and that I don’t have to be a rancher. They say that, but the truth is you are born into it. You are born to be a rancher and especially in my case. I can’t let 140 years go to nothing. So yeah, it is not forced but it would be stupid not to do it.” 

In closing the interview, Charlie Holland said, “A good upbringing can happen anywhere but, in this day and age, perfect manners are hard to find and take your breathe away. As I left her house one night Riley Rodgers, 8, said to me: ‘Thank you for your time, Ma’am.’ No Riley, thank you and all the other families, for your time, for your commitment and your passion.”

The book, ranch Raised Raised Kids, will be published fall of 2017. Already the project is gaining national attention with photo exhibits planned as early as spring 2017 with the first one scheduled at Northern Arizona University.

Cade Rodgers

With about 60 cow and calf pairs in the corral, 4 year old Cade was frustrated that he was the only one (of the 7 adults and four children) who did not have a specific job and said, “ I could do all of them if only everybody would stop watching…” 


Smoke Signals is honored to support this important project and encourages our readers to join in supporting bringing the 21st century American Cowboy back to the status it deserves and ensuring it sustains for centuries to come.

For more information and to support Ranch Raised Kids, please visit

All photos © Seth Joel Photography. No reproductions allowed without the express written consent of Seth Joel Photography.

The American Photo Artists Organization honored Seth Joel with their coveted first place award for photography in 2016 for the travel/landscape category.

—Jayne Skeff


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Smoke Signals blows your way from High Noon Western Americana of Los Angeles, California, producers of the High Noon Antique Show & Auction for 25 years (1991-2014). Smoke Signals eMagazine was founded in 2010 from a desire to share thoughts and facts with the High Noon community and look at what is going on in the Western world while feeding our readers with great recipes and giving advertisers a chance to blow their own smoke.

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Linda Kohn Sherwood, Editor

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