The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Akasha Spino-Bybee

Local woman honored for preserving western heritage



ODES TO THE OLD WEST: Goldendale's Virginia Bennett has won major awards for her iconographic cowboy poetry despite serious health issues.

Many people are aware of the old cowboy way of life, the days when there were shootouts to draw for, saloons to drink at, and outlaws to be fought. Although the culture is still widely recognized, it is no longer a popular way to live-except for some. Some are even honored for doing so, preserving the culture and working in a positive way to forward it.

Virginia Bennett, born and raised in New Hampshire, has loved the western culture since she was a kid, seeing her grandfather farm with ox and cattle teams and watching old cartoons about cowboys on TV.

"I grew up with a love for horses, and of course everything I saw on TV at the time made a big impact on me and my appreciation for Western culture," says Bennett. "I always wanted to live out west, and as soon as I graduated from high school, I hitched a ride to Arizona and after getting my first job, I bought a horse. Then I started barrel racing around the state where I met my husband, Pete. After we got married, I would work with him on the ranches he managed."

It was while they were living on a ranch in eastern Colorado that Bennett's cowboy poetry was first published in different agricultural journals and newspapers. "And because I enjoyed English and writing poetry, I started sending in my own poems about the Western lifestyle. These journals wound up publishing my work rather often," says Bennett. "In 1990, I was invited to perform at a cowboy poetry gathering in Durango, Colo. One of the listeners told the Western Folk Life group about me, and I was invited to go to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. Because of that acceptance and encouragement, I began to write more and more."

Over the years to come, Bennett received several awards for her cowboy poetry and anthologies and was even featured on PBS and NPR specials. "All of those years my husband and I spent working on ranches, I broke horses for people-I really enjoyed it," says Bennett. "My husband and I eventually moved to work on a ranch in Paso Lobo, Calif., where I was a horse trainer. In 2004, I was in a bad horse wreck that changed my life completely. I shattered the C1 in my neck and suffered from what is called 'internal decapitation,' when the skull is severed from the spine due to breaking of the neck." This accident took away Bennett's ability to ride horses and the ability to write and perform her beloved cowboy poetry.

"After a while, I realized I was 100 percent disabled, and my husband was ready to retire, so we moved to Northern Washington, and in 2007 we moved to Goldendale," says Bennett. The Academy of Western Artists (AWA), a non-profit 501C3 organization, meet annually to give custom-designed statues as awards to people at the top of their field (Bennett's being cowboy poetry). Bennett has been recognized by this world-renowned organization twice, once in 2007 when she won the "Best Collaboration/Poet & Musician" for "El Fuego" which was a poem she wrote that was performed by Curly Musgrave. The second time she was recognized by the AWA, Bennett received the "Will Rodgers Cowgirl Poet of the Year" award in 2014. "Bennett was recognized for the award because she has contributed a lot to the Western culture over a long period of time," says Bobby Newton, director of the AWA. "Although she hasn't been able to do much lately because of health problems, what she has done has been a positive influence on us, and we wanted to express our thanks."

To read some of Bennett's work as well as learn some more biographical information, go online to For more information about the AWA, go online to For any other information about Bennett or the AWA, contact Vernell Hackett by calling (615) 356-8176 or by emailing her at


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