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South Dakota cowboy poet celebrated

This drawing of Badger Clark is featured on Dakota Discovery Museum advertisements about an event Wednesday that will honor the cowboy poet.

Shebby Lee was only 10 years old when her great-granduncle, "Uncle Charlie," died.

That was 55 years ago, but she still remembers him well.

Maybe that's because of the many tours she's given at his old cabin in the Black Hills, or because of the writings of his that she has preserved and pored over and distributed.

Lee said "Uncle Charlie" -- the famed cowboy poet Charles "Badger" Clark -- also had a "very, very strong personality" that is hard to forget.

"He just oozed character," she said, describing him as a 6-foot-2-inch man who was known for his English riding boots, a "very refined" cowboy hat and a goatee. "People were attracted to him wherever he went."

Clark's legacy has been preserved and promoted by the Badger Clark Memorial Society, based in Rapid City. That will soon change with the transfer of Clark's publication rights to Mitchell's Dakota Discovery Museum, which Clark helped to establish as one of the original 13 founders.

The two entities are in the process of finishing the legal paperwork necessary for the transfer. Lori Holmberg, Dakota Discovery Museum executive director, said the society approached the museum a few months ago, wanting to ensure Clark's legacy will be preserved in the future.

"They believed that because he was one of the original founders, it was fitting," she said.

Wednesday, the museum will host a Celebrating Badger Clark event from 4 to 8 p.m. The event, which coincides with Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo week in Mitchell, will include readings of Clark's work, cowboy music, a visit from a rodeo clown and a chuck wagon supper.

Clark lived from 1883 to 1957. He never married and was happy to be alone in his cabin in the Black Hills. In his early 20s he spent time in Cuba, Arizona and South Dakota ranching, cow-punching and finding peace in solitude. He fell in love with the cowboy lifestyle, and that's when his poetry began.

"He just thought prose couldn't contain his delight," said Lee, who is president of the Badger Clark Memorial Society.

When he sent a poem to his stepmother, she sent it to a magazine, and his road to fame began.

In 1937 he was named South Dakota's first poet laureate, and his writings are still loved across the state and something to do with the goat in his room."

He went to Cuba for almost two years to help with a colonizing effort, right after the Spanish-American War, Lee said. He then moved to Arizona, and from there he moved back to South Dakota because his father's health was failing.

In his 30s Clark built a four-room cabin in the Black Hills that is now called The Badger Hole.

Lee said her grandpa was close to Clark. Growing up, she and her grandparents visited him at his cabin every summer.

"My grandma worried that he didn't eat very well because he was a bachelor, so we always took food," Lee said.

Lee said Clark gained the most fame from his speaking. Middle school graduations were a big deal at the time, and Clark was often asked to speak. He also made regular appearances at Kiwanis Club luncheons and campfire talks.

"He really, really influenced the people of South Dakota by meeting them personally," she said.

She added that his lasting recognition came from being on the Redpath Chautauqua lecture circuit, which was a movement that brought speakers, musicians, teachers and preachers to rural communities for entertainment. Clark read his poetry and wound it together with stories.

His fame grew and is still growing, Lee said, mentioning that Bing Crosby sang one of his poems -- without giving him credit.

Every January people gather in Elko, Nev., for an annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and Lee estimated 4,000 people attend the event.

"And they all know Badger Clark's poetry," she said. "They all have it memorized."

In Sioux Falls, the Badger Clark Poetry Club has met once a month since 1996.

"We were a bunch of guys who enjoyed each other's company," said Bob Christenson, the club's president. "... So we decided the third Wednesday of every month, we'd get together and read some Badger Clark poems, eat a hamburger and drink a beer. We've been doing it ever since."

The club has read Clark's poetry in schools and at small venues.

Christenson said the club plans to bring about 10 people to the Celebrating Badger Clark event Wednesday.

"He's a very, very interesting person," Christenson said.

"Plus, he's got a pretty cool name, don't you think?" nation.

"He really does exemplify the arts and poetry in the state," Holmberg said. "He was very involved in a lot of aspects in the growth and history of our state, directly and indirectly."

Clark was the youngest of four children -- one of two that made it to adulthood. His father was a Methodist minister and one of the founders of Dakota Wesleyan University. Clark attended DWU for a year, but college life wasn't for him.

"He got into trouble with the powers that be, and we're not sure what happened," Lee said. "It could be that he smoked, and it could be