It may seem like an unlikely story: A young woman from small town Massachusetts takes a job at a dude ranch, marries an aspiring rodeo rider, and follows her cowboy dreams into the Florida sunset.
It happens to be true.
Two new books from Gulfport author Michael Taylor (“Natalie, A New England Girl with Cowboy Dreams” and “Natalie’s Cowboy Dreams Take a Tropical Twist”) chronicle the life of Taylor’s mother, Natalie Gray Taylor Linger, who moved with her husband and two boys to a ranch in Indiantown in 1956. Their rodeo romance – part of a thriving Western culture of dude ranches that flourished across the country in the 1940s and 1950s – wasn’t always easy. The accidental death of Natalie’s son Smokey and divorce from her husband Bill rocked Natalie’s foundations, but she hung on. Reflecting on the story captured in his pages, Taylor muses, “I think she would be proud.”
This isn’t Taylor’s first foray into family history. His 2016 memoir “Growing Up Floridian” chronicles his early life, from cracker cowboy kid in rural Florida to a beach-loving teenager on the Gulf. His new project involved a lot more research, gathering stories from older relatives and reading accounts of everyday life during the World War II era. His investigations lead him to discover some fascinating Florida stories – like tales of Vick and Faye Blackstone, a legendary Florida rodeo duo and the only couple represented both in the national Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Cowboy Hall of Fame –as well as some surprises, including two divorce certificates indicating his parents had divorced not once, but twice.
“Writing gives you a changed sense of yourself, of your family.”
His research also delved into what became one of the real highlights of the Natalie books: dozens of striking photographs of his mother. Each chapter begins with a different image that captures the essence of that moment in her life, and Taylor notes that pairing words and images through the self-publishing platform provided by Amazon Kindle offered one of the most satisfying aspects of the project.
I’m a little envious; as a collector of family stories, I would love to see some of them immortalized in print – triumphs, struggles, and oddball adventures playing out on the page, and connecting my ancestors to the bigger story of life in this country and beyond.
For Taylor, it’s an ongoing process of discovery.
“Writing gives you a changed sense of yourself, of your family,” he says. “In the end, Natalie’s is really an amazing story about a woman who went through all kinds of trauma,” he grins. “And still managed to do a good job by me.”