With the help of its annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which brings up to 10,000 visitors here each January, Elko clings to its image as the last cowtown even as a gold boom has transformed it into a struggling little city.
Two years ago, Elko was named "the best small
town in America" by the author of a nationwide guidebook to towns
with a population under 20,000. The honor is posted in shop windows
around town. But few residents believe it. By the time the
guidebook reached Elko the population had boomed to some 32,000.
"Elko was a nice little community," says Doug
Wright, a saddle maker at Capriola's western shop downtown. "We'll
never win that award again. We just outgrew it."
"It's a joke to call Elko a small town," says
Rod McQueary, who recently left his family's ranch in nearby Ruby
Valley to seek his fortune as a cowboy poet and writer. "Elko is
not small and it's not a town. Elko has cosmopolitan problems,
overcrowded schools, gangs. It has Wendy's, Burger King, Arby's,
K-Mart. That's not small town. It's a medium-sized city.
McQueary works out of the cowboy poetry
headquarters at the Western Folklife Center, which has taken over
the abandoned Pioneer Hotel, once a crash pad for buckaroos in town
on a binge. "We're going through something like teenage growing
pains, from one basic economy to a multitude of them," McQueary
says. "Elko is a halfway place between ranching and mining, Reno
and Salt Lake City."
While cowboy poetry has
attracted more tourists to Elko, cowboys and ranching remain local
sentimental favorites. But they are a small part of the Elko
economy. It is gold that for 15 years has brought a whirlwind of
And because it is a boom town, Elko has
not attracted many "stickers' - people who will stay even when the
gold is gone. For example, the town has a perennial shortage of
"Mining is great," says Debbie Smith of
the Northeast Nevada Development Association. "But it's
Mining has spun off some
businesses, such as engineering and environmental consulting firms
and metalworking shops, she says. But other manufacturers have a
hard time competing with high mining
"We're just beginning to talk of
post-mining," says John McDonough, manager of the nearby Barrick
Goldstrike mine. "This could be a logical place for a fairly
good-size center. But we're 230 miles from Salt Lake City, and the
going wage over there is close to minimum. Why bring your business
to Elko if Salt Lake wages are close to minimum, and they have
airports and highways?"