Badger Clark, poet, lecturer, and traveler, was South Dakota’s Poet Laureate for twenty years. Born in Iowa, Clark was only three months old when his family came to South Dakota in 1883. He accompanied his parents to several prairie towns where his father served in various capacities in the Methodist Church.
In 1902, Clark graduated from Deadwood High School and enrolled the following year at Wesleyan University, Mitchell, South Dakota. After one year there, Clark dropped out. He travelled to Cuba, but became ill and returned home to Deadwood.
After returning to Deadwood, he contracted tuberculosis. Because a dry climate often helps to cure this disease, Clark spent four years as a ranch hand near Tombstone, Arizona, where he wrote poems about working on the ranch. His stepmother sent one to a magazine – the Pacific Monthly. Clark soon was a regular contributor.
After four years in Tombstone, Clark returned to South Dakota. He eventually decided to live and write in the central Black Hills in a simple cabin nicknamed “the Badger Hole.” The cabin near French Creek eventually fell within the boundary of Custer State Park and may be still visited today.
During his life Badger wrote several books of poetry. One of his most successful was Sun and Saddle Leather. This book contained Clark’s most famous piece of prose:
Oh, Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow. I love creation better as it stood That day You finished it so long ago And looked upon Your work and called it good. I know that others find You in the light That’s sifted down through tinted window panes, And yet I seem to feel You near tonight In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.
I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well, That You have made my freedom so complete; That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell, Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street. Just let me live my life as I’ve begun And give me work that’s open to the sky; Make me a pardner of the wind and sun, And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.
Let me be easy on the man that’s down; Let me be square and generous with all. I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town, But never let ’em say I’m mean or small! Make me as big and open as the plains, As honest as the hawse between my knees, Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains, Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!
Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget. You know about the reasons that are hid. You understand the things that gall and fret; You know me better than my mother did. Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside, And guide me on the long, dim trail ahead That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
“A Cowboy’s Prayer,” was read into the Congressional Record twice, and his patriotic “Lead My America” was set to music.
Clark wrote what today would be categorized as cowboy poetry. He painted word pictures of cowboys at work. He praised western values. A lover of the outdoors, Clark reflected the cowboy’s lifestyle in his more than two hundred poems and thirty short stories. Another book titled “Spike” consisted of short stories.
During the 1920s and 1930s Clark toured the country telling stories. In 1939, Governor Leslie Jensen named Clark poet laureate of South Dakota. With pun definitively intended, Clark also became known as the “Poet Lariat” of the West. Other selected works by Badger Clark include: Badger Clark Ballads: Selected Works of a Cowboy Poet; God of the Open; Sky Lines and Wood Smoke; and Boot and Bylines. One of his poems – Spanish is the Loving Tongue – was later recorded by Bob Dylan (1969). He died on September 26, 1957. His hand-built cabin now belongs to the state. You may visit and tour the Badger Hole in Custer State Park from Memorial Day through Labor Day
South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department
Association of South Dakota Museums, Inc.
I.D Weeks Library
University of South Dakota