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The Features, Season 1 - Cowboy Tom - Ep 5

Updated: May 27, 2020

HISTORY WORTH SAVING - His whole life he’s been guided by the code of the American west. He’s ridden the range, served his country and his community by wearing the badge, and he’s honorably worked jobs to feed has family that wouldn’t have been his first choice. No matter where’s he’s been or what he’s doing - he’s lived his life as an American cowboy - and that makes Tom Kerlin - History Worth Saving.

Slide Show Podcast Version:

Interview Transcript:

MJ: His whole life he’s been guided by the code of the American west. He’s ridden the range, served his country and his community by wearing the badge, and he’s honorably worked jobs to feed has family that wouldn’t have been his first choice. No matter where’s he’s been or what he’s doing - he’s lived his life as an American cowboy - and that makes Tom Kerlin - History Worth Saving..

TK: Well, I grew up 20 miles west of here in Fayetteville, GA, actually, down in the country in a little place called Stars Mill. And all I ever wanted to be was a cowboy.

MJ: I caught up with Tom inside the store, where he’s worked for nearly a decade. It’s a cowboy shop - an outfitter of sorts where Tom sells everything for cowboys and horse lovers except the horse and trailers. He really looks the part - tall, weathered just the right amount - a stare that could stop a train - and a mustache that I’m sure he rents to Sam Elliott. Tom is the complete package.

TK: I mean, I was just like a lot of kids. And my mother always joked that if she bought me enough boots and hats and guns, I'd grow out of it, and I never did. I wanted to be a cowboy.

When I graduated from high school, I graduated with a 93 average, and everybody wanted me to go to college, and I didn't want to go to college because I hated school. I was bored to tears in school. I wanted to go west and be a cowboy, and my daddy said no. And in that day and time, back in the '60s if your daddy said no, it didn't make a difference if you were 30, you didn't do it because your daddy said no.

I joined the Air Force and wound up in electronics and the Minutemen Missile field. And they sent me to Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was like throwing a rabbit in a briar patch. And I got out there and basically made friends. My best friend lives in Wyoming right now. His folks had a wheat-farming ranch. He had a ranch, and I met him and just fell right into it out there. And that's all I did was cowboy out there. Even though I was in the service, I was cowboying. And I loved it, and I rodeoed some. I rodeoed a little bit before I left here, went out there and rodeoed some more. And that was just my life. Got married, had a kid, got divorced, came back to Georgia, stayed here a few years and then went back out to Wyoming in the seventies and worked out there some.

When I went to Cheyenne, I was in the Air Force. And I met my buddy, Gerald. And I would go out to his place and work on the weekends. And I met some other guys. I worked for a guy named Slim Brantley who had a dude string, horse string west of town. And I would work for him and help with dude riders and all. And I just fell right in. The way I dressed, the way I looked, the way I acted. I was just somebody from Wyoming as far as anybody was concerned. And I would work 7:30 to 4:30 in the Air Force, five days a week. When Friday afternoon came, when I got off, I was a cowboy. And there was a place on 17th Street called the Mayflower Saloon. And that was where people hung around and did everything there. I would meet my-- yeah. I would meet my friends there on Friday night.

And I'd go out to Gerald's ranch and spend the night with him, stay out there for the weekend. I went in one Friday night early and there were some people sitting at a table. Only other people in there was a man and a woman and two teenage girls sitting at a table. I walked up and talked to the bartender and he knew me, and we were talking. And this guy came up and he stood behind me for a moment and turned around. And I . turned around and I said, "Yes, sir? Can I help you?" And he said, "Yeah. Would you mind coming over to the table and speaking to my wife and two girls?" And I said, "Sure." So I walked over, sit down. And he said, "We're from Pennsylvania. We've been riding around out here for two weeks on vacation. You're the first real cowboy we have ever seen.

Would you mind talking to us?" So I set down and talked to them. I talked to them about 10 minutes and then some of my buddies came in. They saw me, nodded to me, walked on back to the back. The people noticed they came in and they said, "Well, we thank you very much for talking to us. We see your friends are here, so we're going to not take up any more of your time. Thank you so much for talking to us. You have really made our vacation." I said, "You're very welcome. Thank you." Got up and walked back, the people left. One of my buddies [inaudible], "Who are those folks?" I said, "I don't know." "You don't know?" "No. Those are some folks from Pennsylvania." He said, "What were you talking to them?" I said, "Well, they been out here on vacation. They want to talk to a real cowboy and so I set down and talked to them." And the guy looked at me and he said, "Well, did you tell them you were in Air Force?" And I said, "What? And ruin their whole vacation?”

MJ 3: Eventually though, the financial realities of being a cowboy caught up with Tom.

TK: When I was 30 years old, I had kind of an epiphany and I said, "What are you doing?" You working out here for nothing making $250 a month in room and board. And I came back to Georgia and settled down, but I'm still a cowboy. That's just what I am. I don't agree with everything. A lot of folks that say you either a cowboy or you're not a cowboy. It's not a state of mind or heart. But I'm one of these that believes that cowboy is a state of mind as much as anything because there's a certain code that you live by, a certain way that you deal with people and that's just the way I am. Treat people right, it pays off in the end. So that's just me. That's who I am.

MJ: Since his time in Wyoming Tom continued to ride cuttin’ horses he even became a poet and occasionally performs with a guitar pickin’ friend from northern Georgia, but a lot of folks who have traveled Interstate seventy five might have met our cowboy, while taking a break at Horse Town. For nearly the last decade, Tom has helped cowboy’s and cowboy’s at heart find their perfect boots and hat, in fact that’s where I met him.

TK: MJ: I met you here at Horse Town which is where you've been the last-- Almost nine years.

MJ: Almost nine years. But what are you selling here at Horse Town? Because I know there's hats and there's boots, but what are you selling here?

TK: To me, you sell the western lifestyle here. We've got everything here. We joke, and our little line is we've got everything for the horse and rider except the horse because you can get anything here at Horse Town, largest western store east of the Mississippi River located just outside Atlanta, GA of all places.

TK: And we got the hats, we got the boots, we got the clothes, we got everything. And people will come in here who have never worn boots and we put them in boots. We fit them and make sure they're going to fit right that they're going to like them.

MJ: So what about the cowboy way of life? There’s a lot of folks who’ve never worn a pair of boots and they’ve certainly never had the pleasure of sippin’ coffee on a farm house front porch, but it’s what’s in their heart that’s really different. It makes you wonder if the cowboy way - is dyin’ off.

TK: It used to be a disappearing way of life. I've always said-- I say always. Always is too general of a word. But the Cowboys really became a part of Americana in the late 1800s on the cattle drives in that area. And basically, there was this fictionalized character that they wrote about that was the good guys that always stood by for justice and stood up for women and stood up for the downdraught. That cowboy was him. And then it sort of kind of [inaudible] and the horse population dropped significantly before World War 2, basically after World War two as much as anything.

When tractors were invented, people stopped using horses. They stopped working horses. Well, everybody prophesied about the demise of the cowboy. It was gone. It was a way of life that was vanishing. And people began to look around especially those of my generation when the Westerners were on TV in the 50s and early 60s. And there was one time I believe there was 30 something Westerns on then Prime Time every week, a half hour show, some hours shows. And those of us of my age, they grew up with that realize that it was a lifestyle that we liked. We may not be able to live it, fortunately, I was but you can emulate it. And you emulated those values.

And like I said, the good guy always won. You treat people with respect, you treat people with dignity, you try to do the best you can and not take advantage of folks. That kind of philosophy that was out there. Several of my friends are my age, we all identified with that, even the guys that don't dress like me every day. They watch the Westerns and some are involved in single action shooting society and that type of thing. I think it's a way of life that people look at and they say it must be something to it. And just the fact that you put on boots and and jeans are Western dress slacks and a hat. I don't know. To me, it's just a feeling.

MJ: Tom’s living proof that if you hold fast to the cowboy way in your heart it’ll never leave you - no matter what you’re doing to earn a pay check. I want to talk a little bit about your experience. You told me you went into law, too. You've been a lawman.

TK: I worked as a police officer.

MJ: You traded your badge in but you've kept the gun, right [laughter]?

TK: Well, I don't know. I got a conceal carry permit several years ago. And I wear my gun some, and because of this store and it's location right here on the interstate.

MJ: You never know.

MJ: You also told me that, I'm going down the list here because every cowboy has to have their cowboy time. They often wind up as a lawman, and you've got to have a good act around the campfire. You have that. You have the cowboy poet and the guitar player now so we're working down the list, Tom. You told me you're selling the family farm and that next act's about to happen. And all that I can think of is when the cowboy rides off into the sunset, he returns back to the West. Walk me through this. Walk me through what's going on right now because this is a neat time in your life.

TK: I’m 72 years old, and I officially retired when I was 63. And it was a combination of circumstances. I had gotten in the construction business and had been part owner in a millwork company which basically sold trim and doors and windows and things to the construction industry. When the economy downturned before 2010, we got caught up in that and the company just almost overnight said, "We had to close." So I was thrown out of work, and I was 60 years old, 61, and couldn't find work. There was no work anyway, especially for people my age. And I drew unemployment while I looked for a job, and there were no jobs. So just as I turned 63, I realized my unemployment was fixing to run out. And my wife and I talked about it. She had a steady job. And I said, "I've got to do something." So I just filed for unemployment.

I got everything settled up. I was supposed to get my first check in, I think, November. And I had known the people who owned first time. I had known them a long time, and I came in over here to see them one day about something entirely unrelated to working here. And they offered me a job, and said, "We don't normally hire people from outside the store as a manager, but we're going to make an exception." And I said, "Well, okay. We'll try it for 30 days. Me and you both. We'll see if I like it if ya’ll like it. If we don't, we'll part and still be friends." And they agreed on that. Well, that was right at nine years ago. And I like it, but I'm 72. So I'm getting ready to retire again, and my wife's getting ready to retire.

And we just decided we was going to get - I can't even talk - we were going to get an RV and travel some.

So I've been living in my house basically since 1969. Except I left and went to Wyoming in the 70s and rented that out while I was gone. And my mother and daddy passed away. My brother's still there. My brother's got his wife, and his kids, and his grandkids. And even though we live about-- in our land 30 acres, we live about a thousand feet from one another. I see him maybe once a month. Talk to him more than that. So we just decided that we can't keep up the place that we've been keeping up.

MJ: And so now you are unbridled [laughter], ready to go.

TK: I told a guy the other day-- he asked me where we were going. I said, "Well, we'll know when we get to the end of the drive, we're going to flip a coin to see if we turn right or left. And we don't know.

MJ: Hopefully every cowboy gets to this point - the point where they can return to the range and ride free.

MJ: Is the way of life that you've been selling here, is it on the increase or is it on the decrease? What are you seeing right now?

TK: Our business is good. Our business keeps increasing. There was a few years ago the ladies fashion boots, cowboy boots really boomed. It became a really hot item.

So our business continues to grow.

MJ: But the cowboy way of life?

TK: I think it's out there. I really do. I see it on tv. I hear people talking about it in the store. I don't think that the cowboy way of life is in any way going away. It's there. Chris LeDoux. The late Chris LeDoux had a great song and the line in the song was, "The cowboys are still out there. You just can't see them from the road." They're there and that's what I believe. I believe wholeheartedly they're there. You just can't see them from the road.

MJ: Tell me about one thing. I bought a hat from you and I have two rules when it comes to buying a hat. Never buy a hat that's not yours and people say, how do you if yours? And I say, well I don't know but you'll know if it's not and never buy a hat from a place that can't shape a hat and I met you over there at the hat shaper. Bought that little Atwood for my yard and saw this Stetson over there and you didn't say a word. Now, this is kind of behind the scenes but you didn't say a word. I tried it on and I said, "Sir, what do you think of this hat?" and you said, "Well, it's a very good hat. It's made out of buffalo. It's not beaver. It's an American classic." and you didn't say another word. But I tried it on a second time and I think you probably saw me over there trying it on and I then I switched to another hat band and I walked over to the mirror and you did something I've never seen before, Tom. You gave me the most manly wink I've ever seen [laughter] and I had to buy the hat. It was as if you said it's your hat now. What is the deal with the wink?

TK: Well, you can tell when something looks right on somebody and it's almost like you see things on people and you go, that really doesn't look right. But there are times especially hats. Hats are a personal thing and they put them on and they fit. They fit the shape of their face. They fit their look. They fit their size. It's just one just it's just a natural feeling. They come in there to look at a hat and they want some help, I give them help. If they want to stand back there and try stuff on, I leave them alone and they'll find that they like and I don't mind telling them sometimes, they'll try on two or three and they'll say, which one looks best? And I'll say, that one does.

MJ: But if you give them the wink.

TK: Well, it's kind of the thing you're just telling them, yeah. That's right. That's you hit it.

MJ: And do they buy it?

TK: Most times.

MJ: If you give the wink.

MJ: If they're wink worthy, it's-- might as well just swipe the card right now [laughter].

TK: Hey, there you go. That's right. Just take them on up front and let them check out.

MJ: So what about buying boots? After our sit down interview Tom took me around the store to the boot section, and here are his four rules for buying the perfect pair.

TK: Tell me about boots. What are Tom Kerlin's rules for buying a pair of boots?

It's got to fit, that's the main thing. It's got to fit. It's got to fit snug in the ball of the foot. Your toes have got to be flat so you can move them around. Your instep, which is the top of your foot, it's got to be comfortable, that can't be tight. If it's tight at all--

MJ: Not too tight--not too tight. If it's too tight it's never going to get loose. And then, when you walk it's got to slip in the heel just a little bit. If you get those four things right, and then, you like them when you look at them, you're perfect.

MJ: Well there you go, now you know how to buy boots and hats. So on to the serious stuff.

MJ: When it's all said and done and you've taken that ultimate ride to the west, what do you want folks to say about Tom Kerlin?

TK: That’s really a deep question when you think about it. Nobody's universally liked. My daddy told me a long time ago and I told my kids this as they were graduating from school and going off to college or going off to work or whatever. My wife and I would say, "You need to understand something. We think you all are the stuff. We love you all dearly and we're just proud of everything you do. But everybody's not going to like you. They're going to be people out there who, for some reason, don't like you. And you have to learn to deal with it. That's part of growing up." I mean, this modern movement out there among these people that get their feelings hurt because somebody said something wrong or they see something they wrote and they go all ballistic. Life is not always fair. It's just life. And we're not promised anything. You deal with it on a daily basis. And that's how I am. I just like to deal with it. I like for folks to think that I treated them well, I treated them with respect. I would like folks to think I was honest because I try my best to be honest. I'm not perfect. I don't mean to be perfect. You can ask my wife, I am not perfect. But I try real hard. And if people will walk away from me with a smile on their face when they hear my name, that's all I can ask. All I can ask.

MJ: Give us a cowboy poem. You said you have one that you're known for. Let's hear it. Is this one of your originals?

TK: Yes. Yes. This is one I wrote. I actually wrote this in-- I was out in the barn doing what I'm talking about and it hit me. And I ran inside, and I wrote this thing in about 15 minutes. Marty and me been married now onto 30 years, and I know there's been many times that I brought her to tears. But truth be known, she's done her share of hurting me too because, at times, that woman can be a real shrew. It's on days like this that I follow my old pappy's advice, "Find you something to do outside, Son, and just get away from your wife." Well, I'd taken his advice about 25 years back and devised me a plan to avoid that kind of spousal attack. With some baler twine, I started plating a four-strand pigging string, over one, under tother. You keep it taut, kind of like a spring. Well, I'd braid for a while until she'd cool down. Then, I'd head back in the house after I'd unwound.

TK: Now, plating that pigging string has sure saved the day because without it, I don't think there'd been any other way that we could have kept our marriage together and our relationship firm, although we had both agreed in the beginning we were in it for the long-term. We'd get angry and crossed up, things would get tense. I'd just head out to the barn, rather than take the offense. In time, she'd cool down and, in time, so would I. And we'd get together and talk things over and let bygones go by. So plating that pigging string's kept our marriage real strong. But she probably ought to know that pigging string's now nine and a half miles long.

MJ: Well done.

MJ: Well there you have it, Tom Kerlin, American cowboy and History Worth Saving. I sure appreciate you listening. Be sure to stay in touch with History Worth Saving on Instagram and Facebook and subscribe on iTunes, Soundcloud or Sticher - so you never miss an episode. Until next time, I’m Matt Jolley and that’s History Worth Saving.


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