By Nancy Hadlock
Special to the Times
As White Pine County celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, a slice of its rich historical legacy revolves around the Basque and Mormon sheepherders and cowboys who grazed their sheep and cattle in the mountain meadows of the county.
Using aspen trees as their canvas and pocketknives, fingernails and nails to carve, these men left hundreds of arborglyphs (tree carvings) in the Cherry Creek and Snake Ranges of White Pine County.
For the past three years, volunteers Nancy Hadlock and Richard Potashin have documented these arborglyphs and the past lives of the sheepherders and cowboys for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under a grant from the Great Basin Heritage Area.
Beginning April 19 and running through June 2 at the Ely Art Bank, the “Art of Heritage“, a multi-media exhibit seeks to introduce the public to this unique historic and artistic treasure.
The opening reception for the exhibit runs from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. on Friday, April 19.
The center piece of the exhibit is a series of rubbings done in the field using muslin and wax crayons. Theses rubbings are complimented by photographs and interpretive text explaining the significance of arborglyphs.
Walking through an aspen grove in the mountains, one feels as if they are strolling through an art gallery and historical museum at the same time.
The arborglyphs convey an intriguing cultural and ethnic diversity. Basque, Mormon, South American, Native American sheepherders and cowboys working for sheep/ cattle outfits in the Ely and Central Utah area, all left names and dates on aspens. These carvings, amazingly, reflect over a hundred years of grazing activity in White Pine County.
Some of the names, Goyhenetche, Robison, Paris, Whitlock, Ciscar, and Swallow form a who’s who of White Pine County ranching history.
Artistically, the groves featured extraordinary examples of cursive lettering, flourished capital letters and many carving styles. Equally revealing to the mindset of shepherds and cowboys were the wealth of illustrations Hadlock and Potashin discovered on the trees covering a wide range of themes such as woman, cowboys, animals, prostitutes, stars and herder self-portraits.
One of the more unique illustrations was the rematch of the historic Joe Lewis verses Max Schmeling boxing match carved on two trees by Basque sheepherder John Goyenhetche. Lewis stands proudly erect and victorious on one tree, while Schmeling is portrayed on another flat on his back.
The stories behind these arborglyphs make wandering around aspen groves straining eyes, bodies and brains all worth it. Aspen trees are short-lived and this unique White Pine County history will soon be lost. Many trees are already dead and dying making them challenging to decipher. Preserving these stories is essential in preserving the history of a once vibrant sheep ranching industry in White Pine County that, like many of the trees in the groves, is dying out.
The Ely Art Bank is located on 399 East Aultman St. Hours of operation are Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.