Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Learning from Las Vegas, in a special issue about the Great Basin.
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 growth.
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 doctors.
"Mining is great," says Debbie Smith of the Northeast Nevada Development Association. "But it's nonrenewable."
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 wages.
"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?"