'Last Cowboy' series opens at Tri-State Museum Friday, April 25 | Rapid City Journal

'Last Cowboy' series opens at Tri-State Museum Friday, April 25 | Rapid City Journal

by Milo Dailey Butte | Apr 11, 2014

Documenting the realities of the life of today's cowboy was a dream of Belle Fourche native Bill Kunerth.

The late ranch-raised nationally-recognized journalism professor hoped someone would show the real life of a cowboy in a modern setting.

Belle Fourche Tri-State Museum Director Rochelle Silva said Kunerth's vision will be achieved with the film, "The Last Cowboy" and a visit to the Black Hills by filmmaker Jon Alpert.

The first screening of the documentary in the Hills will be at the museum beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 25.

Silva said there will be no charge for the Belle Fourche showing out of respect to Kunerth's memory and contributions to the museum. Donations will be accepted to go toward museum projects.

Black Hills State University, the Days of '76 Museum in Deadwood and the Journey Museum in Rapid City are working together on the project.

Mitch Hopewell, interim director of educational outreach at Black Hills State University, said, it was Kunerth's vision to bring "The Last Cowboy” filmmaker Jon Alpert to the Black Hills.

For 23 years, Alpert documented the adversities faced by Porcupine cowboy Vern Sager. He hoped to show the raw reality of the rugged lifestyle romanticized by generations of film and television productions.

Kunerth hoped to do the same thing.

“He wanted people to understand the South Dakota ranching culture,” Hopewell said.

Kunerth died in December, but his vision will be realized later this month when Alpert and Sager come to the Black Hills for a weekend dedicated to the showing and discussion of “The Last Cowboy.”

Kunerth believed that Sager's story should be more widely known throughout South Dakota.

According to Silva, Kunerth felt that Alpert’s documentary on Sager’s more than 20-year struggle was by far the most accurate depiction of ranch life.

In correspondence to Alpert, Kunerth wrote, “Things have changed for most ranchers, with several years of excellent cattle prices and good weather. Many ranchers are driving extended cab pickups rather than Sager-vintage vehicles. However, the weather is still the determiner. Last year was bone-dry – no hay and the pastures are struggling to come back. Dry summer, fall and winter. Had some moisture a couple of weeks ago, but the future doesn’t look good.”

Silva said Kunerth had been working on the project last year before his death.

Although most of Kunerth's career had been teaching journalism at Iowa State University in Ames, he always felt strong ties to the rural and ranching culture of the Belle Fourche area.

When he left the university life to return to Belle Fourche, he included efforts for the museum and local history among many activities that made the suggestion he was "retired" a joke among friends.

The documentary arose when Alpert met Sager when the filmmaker was working for the "Today" television show. He was doing a story that included following a homeless Native American from New York City back to his home on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Alpert, who said he had always been fascinated by cowboys, was surprised to learn that there were white cowboys on the reservation who leased land from the tribe.

The filmmaker met Sager. Sager was willing to show the life of a rancher and cowboy.

That grew into more than two decades of Alpert following the character and stubbornness of a modern ranch family to maintain its way of life.

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