Writing is the painting of a picture in another person’s mind using only words. The magnificent scenery of Texas has inspired many artists and writers through the years, and the backdrop of overwhelming beauty and sometimes larger-than-life characters has often been the spark needed for a great story. Elmer Kelton, a son of the dusty plains of West Texas, wove these elements into famous, award-winning tales of the Old West and became one of the most famous novelists in the nation.
Elmer Kelton was born in a ranch camp in eastern Andrews County simply called Horse Camp on the Five Wells Ranch in 1926. His father, Robert W. “Buck” Kelton, was a ranch hand, a man respected for his work ethic as he tried to scratch out a living for his family.
In 1929, the family moved to the small town of Crane, not far from Midland, when he father got a job with the McElroy Ranch. Sometimes the younger Kelton would work alongside his father when he was not in school. In 1942, he graduated from Crane High School.
Because he was barely 16 when he graduated in the midst of World War II, he could not enlist in the army like so many young men of the time were doing. Instead, he attended the University of Texas for a couple of years while studying journalism. After his 18th birthday in 1944, he enlisted in the army, serving in the infantry in Europe. Once his tour of duty ended in 1946, he returned to Austin and graduated from the university with his journalism degree in 1948.
He quickly found a job as the farm and ranch editor for the San Angelo Standard-Times. He was a popular writer and enjoyed his work. Along the way, he started writing novels about the Old West. His first, “Hot Iron,” was published in 1956. In 1957, “Buffalo Wagons” won a Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. He produced new books at a rapid rate. Kelton even wrote for two popular television westerns. In 1958, he wrote an episode for the program “Colt .45” and wrote a 1960 episode of “Maverick” starring James Garner.
In 1963, he became editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine, a position he held until 1968. Continuing to write novels on the side, he then became editor of Livestock Weekly. He would soon publish two more widely acclaimed novels, “The Day the Cowboys Quit” (1971) and “The Time It Never Rained” (1973). In 1977, though his writing career had yet to reach its peak, he earned the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Western Writers of America.
In 1979, “The Good Old Boys” was published. The novel centered on a middle-aged cowboy struggling with raising his family while pining for the adventure of life on the frontier. The book was made into television movie in 1995 and featured Tommy Lee Jones, Sam Shepard, and Sissy Spacek.
Though he steadily achieved fame for his novels, he continued to work for Livestock Weekly until 1990. His next-to-last novel, “Many A River,” was published in 2009. Kelton earned his eighth Spur Award for the work.
He worked until the end. Kelton died quietly at his home in San Angelo in 2009 at the age of 83. He had just completed his 62nd book, “Texas Standoff,” which was released after his death. He was celebrated for his many achievements as a writer. Today, years after his passing, his novels still enjoy brisk sales to his many fans.