Call Gwen Petersen an “old-timer” and she’ll likely throw her head back and cackle— not because she disagrees, but because she finds ironies in the human condition amusing.
As author of How to Be Elderly: A User’s Guide, The Ranch Woman’s Manual and at least nine other books that chronicle the humorous struggles of life on a ranch, this 86-year-young spitfire has turned a lifetime of experience into a bounty of words.
This offhanded comedian, published author, longtime columnist, whimsical poet, and founder of the Montana Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Big Timber, is a Montana treasure who only grows richer by the decade.
Back in 1945, when Gwen Petersen stepped off the train in Livingston, Montana, the first thing that struck her was that the West wasn’t as “wild and woolly” as much as it was just uncrowded. The second thought: “This is home.”
Petersen had longed to come West, she said, after listening to episodes of The Lone Ranger radio show as a child. It fueled her imagination during summers working on her grandparents’ farm outside her hometown of Peoria, Illinois.
At 17, when she finally arrived by train, these wide open spaces left an impression so large, it beckoned her back to Big Sky country again and again.
Bouncing back and forth between Bozeman and Tacoma, Washington, Petersen earned a degree in occupational therapy from the College of Puget Sound. She immediately returned to work a 10-year a stint at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, a place she affectionately calls “The Home of the Bothered and Bewildered.”
It was there that she discovered a knack for writing, by scribing plays and skits for patients to routinely perform as part of therapy.
During that time she met and married rancher Martin Petersen, and began to assemble a series of observations and musings on life as a rancher’s wife, and her often arduous, but always magical, 69-year love affair with the Treasure State.
“I’d always wanted to write, but I never really knew you could get paid for it,” she said. She penned a piece called “Instant Hired Hand” about the overnight trials of becoming a rancher’s wife, and was published in the The Denver Post.
With a few books and a mountain of poems under her belt buckle, in the mid-1980s Petersen was chosen as one of the first four poets from Montana to perform at Nevada’s first cowboy poetry gathering in Elko.
“It was just 11 of us cowgirl poets (amid a sea of rhyming cowboys) to be invited to perform,” she said. “I came home from that event and thought, ‘We could do that in Montana’ so I ramrodded our first show in Big Timber.”
As a result, she received an invitation to appear as a guest on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” in 1986. There, she performed her poem “Hats for All Seasons” — which required literal changes of hats, including an old tattered 10-gallon hat. Comedian Don Rickles hijacked the hat from Petersen’s hands for his own standup routine.
Sitting next to Johnny Carson upon the stage is something she says she’ll never forget.
Petersen’s plate is still brimming, though now on just 40 acres of a non-working ranch. In the days since she lost her husband in 2000, she has raised miniature horses and continues to fill the weeks and months with writing, and producing her annual comedy show in Big Timber called “Toot, Snoot, and Hoot.”
Since 2000, she stays active by taking fiddle and guitar lessons, stays social at the local senior center and continues to run Poetry Wintercamp — an event she founded to encourage and develop budding poets, and folklore in the spoken word.
“I live life like a man,” she said. Furthermore, her love of Montana, and of writing, run neck-and-neck.
Limerick of Life
A curmudgeon with a very bad back
Fell in love with an ol’ gal in black
But he never could
And she never would
So they never did take up the slack
(From How to be Elderly: A User’s Guide, Volume One)
A Cussin’ Woman
A cussin’ woman’s a trial to hear
For folks who want to think
That females ought to smile the while
A skunk is making stink.
But when the heifers break the fence
As I start out for town,
In pure white slacks, high heels and pearls—
My savoir faire breaks down.
When those darned hogs get in my yard
And roto-till my flowers,
You’re apt to see the air turn blue
Perhaps for hours and hours.
Or when I sit at Bessie’s side
Just dreaming as I yank,
And she connects with pie-stained tail:
You’ll hear some words real rank.
I’m sure some girls are never rude
When farm chores go awry
Their golden words are never crude;
Before they’d cuss, they’d die.
But let me step in fresh cow pie—
I take it as an omen;
So close your eyes and plug your ears—
Cuz I’m a cussin’ woman.
(From In the Sidesaddle: Ranch Woman Rhymes)