Longhorn roams far from home: Texan McCowan treks north to experience Minnesota winterWORTHINGTON — He hails from deep in the heart of Texas, but a small part of his own heart lies in southwestern Minnesota. That’s why Erik McCowan has braved icy roads, snowdrifts and chilly temperatures to travel to Worthington for the past three winters and also makes the trip almost every September for King Turkey Day.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — He hails from deep in the heart of Texas, but a small part of his own heart lies in southwestern Minnesota. That’s why Erik McCowan has braved icy roads, snowdrifts and chilly temperatures to travel to Worthington for the past three winters and also makes the trip almost every September for King Turkey Day.
“For some reason, they keep letting me back, year after year,” said McCowan. “I don’t know why. I guess I bring a smile to people’s faces. That’s what I like to do in life.”
McCowan is best known as the filmmaker who created “Ruby’s Town,” a documentary about Cuero, Texas, and its annual turkey racing rivalry with Worthington. He first came to Worthington to film for the movie, but he gathered much more than footage in his explorations of both Cuero and Worthington — he accumulated many lifelong friendships along the way.
Raised in Rosanky
McCowan has lived most of his life in tiny Rosanky, Texas, located near Austin.
“My first residence was a trailer house next to my grandma’s house, which is where I live now,” related McCowan. “Then we moved across the road to my great-grandmother’s house, and when my grandma died, I inherited her house. I’ve ventured far, but not lived too far.”
The Rosanky school closed several decades prior, so McCowan attended school in Smithville, a community with a population of about 4,000.
“The movie, ‘Hope Floats,’ was filmed there, and I have a small extra part toward the end,” he admitted. “At the very end, the marching band comes through, and that’s my marching band. I was the drum major, so I have a cameo scene at the end. So yes, I’ve been doing this movie thing for a while.”
That might have been his movie debut, but McCowan had already been experimenting on the other side of the camera.
“I’ve always liked the idea of storytelling and movies. The first time I rolled tape on anything was back in 1993 in seventh grade, when a friend and myself — one of my best friends to this day — we made a short film on the events of the Branch Davidian siege in Waco,” he said. “It was heavy stuff for a couple of 13-year-olds. I was very involved in politics and debating, so my political interests and filmmaking interests merged.”
Although he “jumped around” college for a few years, McCowan never contemplated attending film school. A few years ago, however, he did an intense college-level independent film study — a “trial by fire into filmmaking.” Shortly thereafter, he formed Outdoor Variety Productions with the intent of producing an outdoor variety program, filming people hunting and fishing and eventually selling it as a TV show. So far, that has not come to fruition, so McCowan relies on other projects for income.
“Weddings are the only things that pay me steady money,” he explained. “I’ve got a couple of those coming up, and my latest project is a wedding documentary. I think I will be shooting some footage in Minnesota for this documentary.”
McCowan also has a music video on his résumé.
“The band is called the Gunhands, and the song is ‘Mama Loves Jesus,’” he explained, referring to a band that headlined in 2009 at Cuero’s Turkeyfest celebration. “Myself and Ruby Begonia had a very quick cameo in it — my Alfred Hitchcock moment. … We had more fun making it than a human should have, maybe spent five days on it. … It’s been up and down the Internet, but there are not a lot of places independent music videos go. But it’s a good calling card for a filmmaker.”
In January, McCowan traveled to Park City, Utah, to volunteer during the Sundance Film Festival, the prestigious event founded by actor Robert Redford.
“This is my third year, second in a row, volunteering at the festival,” he said. “What that means is that I’m a crowd liaison — I’m with the group of people who stand out in the snow or in this tent where people gather to see the next film, and my job is to greet people, tell them where to go, where to get tickets, where to stand in line. You meet people from all over the world. It’s just a great experience.”
As a volunteer, McCowan is provided with housing in a condo complex just minutes from the festival site. When he wasn’t hanging out there or fulfilling his duties, McCowan made contacts with people in the film industry.
“I only saw one movie this year …. This year I went to network and meet people and figure out what people are up to in the film industry and film world. I made some really cool contacts.”
While Sundance draws many celebrities, McCowan only had a couple of fleeting brushes with fame this year.
“I stood behind Elijah Wood in a 7-11,” McCowan said. “He was very Hobbit-like. There were not a whole lot of celebrities out during the midnight shift at the theater where I was working. I did see Kate Bosworth. She looked at me, and I looked at her. That was about it.”
Coming to Cuero
It was a hunting expedition — a handicapped turkey hunt — that initially brought McCowan to Cuero.
“I met the organizer while I was promoting the outdoor variety show at an outdoor expo, and he told me he’d pay me a little money to document this turkey hunt,” McCowan related. “I showed up a little bit early, and he introduced me to these two fellows from Cuero Turkeyfest, thinking I could incorporate a little of the Cuero story into the film. Those two guys were Jason Rogers and Erwin Rath.”
Rogers and Rath introduced McCowan to Cuero’s rich turkey history, and when McCowan saw all the artifacts and photos, he knew it was fodder for a documentary. He devoted a large chunk of the next couple years putting it together.
“‘Ruby’s Town’ ended up playing five very small film festivals,” McCowan said. “It may eventually get on TV somewhere, maybe some small PBS station, but I’m not actively promoting it anymore. It taught me a whole lot on how to do film festivals, how to make a documentary, how to market it. Maybe it will do something more later in life.”
After hanging around in Cuero and documenting the Great Gobbler Gallop turkey race for several years, McCowan was asked to serve on Cuero’s Turkey Race Team, and now he is in his third year on the Turkeyfest Board of Directors. He may still live in Rosanky, but Cuero is his “secret home.”
“I’ve already screwed the board up — bringing roller derby to Turkeyfest, inviting weird people with tattoos to judge the turkey race,” he said about his contributions to the festival. “I’m either leaving a positive mark or tainting Turkeyfest quite well.”
McCowan has also left his mark on Worthington, becoming a familiar face as part of the Texas delegation during King Turkey Day. His first winter foray north was three years ago, and he’s returned at this same time to participate in the King Turkey Day Bowling Tournament fundraiser and reconnect with friends.
“Most people, especially the old-timers from Cuero, have never been up here in the wintertime and will never go. It’s just too cold,” said McCowan. “But I enjoy the snow, enjoy putting on all the gear, wearing the layers. Ice fishing totally fascinates me, and the whole hunting outdoors, just going and being in the trees and snow and cold. You really have to know what you’re doing so you don’t die. And it’s a time of year when all y’all aren’t so busy, so it’s easy to sit and chat with people.”
Although he will be on the Oxford Bowl lanes today, McCowan has no illusions about doing well in the tournament.
“The first year I came for the bowling; the second year I came to try to win something and found out I really can’t bowl even though I had practiced beforehand,” he said. “This year, I’m coming to view the bowling, and I might participate a little. My expectations are very low.”
His bowling expectations may be low, but McCowan expects he will have a good time with all his friends in Worthington. When he set out to make a film, he never dreamed the phenomenon of turkey racing would impact his life so greatly, and he’s learned that the relationships are so much more important than the actual race.
“When I started off racing the turkey, it was about racing the turkey, and I got worked up about it all,” he reflected. “You figure out that they don’t really care about the turkey race, that there’s more going on after 39 years than that little silly race. Even that first year they did it, it was more than just that race, and you figure it out after you get involved. And I’m way better for that, leaving the turkeys to do what they do and just being with the folks — although I sure would have loved to win.
“I’ve gained friendships, I’ve gained insight into a whole other state, and I’ve learned to pack really well.”