Chris Machen preserves ranching tradition

Chris Machen, wife of University of Florida president Bernie Machen, has spent the last few weeks posting flyers for the Riders In the Sky performance Sunday night at The Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Machen, an avid cowboy and Western proponent, posted the flyers at places she went to on her daily errands.

JOSHUA L. HALLEY/Special to The Sun
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.


Show information

  • What: Riders in the Sky performance
  • Where: Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
  • When: Sunday, July 2, 7:30 p.m.
  • Tickets: $15-$25; $10 rush tickets for seats in the balcony may be available day of show.
  • For more folklife Info: Western Folklife Center,
    Florida Folklife Program,

  • Chris Machen is packing a stapler and she's not afraid to use it.
    University of Florida's First Lady began hanging Riders in the Sky posters around Gainesville a few weeks back at a local ranch rodeo in Williston to promote the Riders' Sunday evening performance at the UF Center for Performing Arts.
    Machen said she and Florida Folklife Program's Outreach Coordinator Bob Green have been promoting the band out of a sense of obligation: she feels she had a hand in bringing the band to Gainesville, asking University of Florida Performing Arts Director Michael Blachly to put forth the invitation.
    Riders in the Sky is quartet of singing cowboys whose show weaves together music made popular by Hollywood cowboys like Gene Autry, with a Smother's Brothers inspired style of humor. The Grammy-Award winning band is often credited with bringing back the style of Western music from if not near-death, then from obscurity.
    In this way, the Riders in the Sky symbolize the goals Machen and others in the folklife community nationwide share.
    Machen is familiar with the pursuit of keeping traditions alive. Her work with two folklife organizations will bring greater awareness to Florida cattle ranching in the next few years. By promoting the Riders in the Sky concert, Machen and Bob Stone, a researcher for the Florida Folklife Center, are trying to gauge the local interest in Western culture.
    "These are really good guys, and I really want a nice audience," Machen said. "When you invite a guest, you want a lot of people to come and not just for them. I want them to see that this is really fun and these are really talented people."
    A strong interest Machen has been a board of trustee member for the Western Folklife Center, based in Salt Lake City, since 1999. The group is dedicated to documenting Western heritage including ranching methods, poetry, music and tack - as in saddle-making, silver and leather work.
    "I've always been interested in the Western lifestyle, the mountains, the whole bit - Native American as well as cowboys," she said.
    She said she inherited her love of the Western lifestyle from her father, Frank Akerman. Even though she's never lived on a ranch, she joined the Western Folklife Center board of trustees six years ago to learn more about the heritage.
    The Western Folklife Center hosts the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., every January, drawing 8,000-10,000 people to the small town. Each year, the week-long gathering has a different theme generating an exhibit and documentation about an area of cattle ranching from the Western U.S. as well as other countries.
    Two years ago, the theme featured the Mongolian cowboy. Machen said after she moved to Florida, she suggested a Florida ranching theme.
    "The Mongolian cowboy is terrific, but Florida is a whole lot closer," Machen said.
    She said she pointed out the state's unique cattle-ranching traditions like cow dogs and the cracker whip.
    Florida's cattle ranchers use cow dogs which can negotiate the scrubs and swamps, as well as keep cattle grouped together. The state is also known for its cracker whips - which cattle men use to signal each other that generate noise that moves herds.
    In 2010, the Western Folklife Center's theme for their gathering will be its first regional theme featuring the Florida's Cracker Cowboy and Louisiana's Cajun Cowboy.
    "When people think about Florida, they don't think about ranching. They think about the retirees in Miami, a large Cuban population in South Florida, and just a bunch of people and hurricanes," Machen said. "Ranching is very big in this state, and there's a lot of the same kind of heritage here that there is in there West."
    Stone, who researches for the Florida Folklife Program, said Florida ranching dates back to 1591, and the state was actually the first cattle ranching state in the U.S.
    Last year, Machen was appointed to the Florida Folklife Council, an advisory group for the state run Division of Historical Resources and the Florida Folklife Program.
    Machen said she's only been to two meetings so far, but at her first meeting she helped choose recipients of the Florida Folk Heritage awards.
    Last year's awards were given for artisans who created and passed down practices like making clown shoes and Puerto Rican bobbin lace.
    Promoting Florida's legacy While Florida's program differs from the Western Folklife Center in that its mission is more diverse and encompasses all of Florida's folklife, the program is going to concentrate its research projects for two years on the state's cattle ranchers.
    Gainesville resident Bob Stone has been with the Florida Folklife Center since 1990.
    "We do a research and field work theme every year," Stone said. "Certainly, not since I've been with the program and certainly not before, did we do the same theme two years in a row ,so this is going to be pretty intensive."
    Stone said one of the reasons is a sense of urgency to document the cattle ranching ways of life while it still exists, because land development is encroaching at such a rate that ranching is changing rapidly.
    "A lot of the old timers are dying off and some families are selling out, and we want to be able to capture all of this while it's still happening," Stone said.
    Stone said Florida has 1.1 million head of cattle and is one of the nation's top 10 cattle producers.
    The program's two-year research project involving folklife of cattle ranching will include still photography, recorded oral history interviews and some video.
    "While we're documenting these folks, we'll be thinking about how we'll feature them in their cattle ranching themes at the Florida Folk Festival at what we call the Folklife area in 2007 and 2008," Stone said.
    After the festival, they will curate an exhibit for the state museum in Tallahassee, and then an exhibit that will come to Elko for the 2010 gathering.
    "We're glad to have Chris on board, and she's excited because it's the Florida cattle ranching traditions and the Florida landscape is different than what she's used to so she's having fun learning about how we do it in Florida," Stone said.
    Stone worked with Machen to build excitement for the Riders concert with the Florida cattle community.
    "Riders in the Sky, most of what they do is a lot of what I would call the Hollywood cowboy stuff but you know when you really get into all this, it's very hard to separate the whole Hollywood cowboy image from the everyday person who works on the cattle ranch. It's all intertwined," Stone said. "I just think that they're emblematic of this whole cattle ranching way of life. They're also very funny, if you've never seen them. They're incredible musicians."
    Chris Machen and her husband, Bernie, came to University of Florida in 2004 when Bernie took over the post of President of UF.
    The Machens came from Salt Lake City where he was the president of the University of Utah.
    Chris Machen is a graduate of St. Louis University with a degree in nursing. She worked as pediatric nurse until 1996. She is a member of several local boards dealing with music, art and folklife.

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