Monday, September 22, 2014

The Magnificent Burro

September 15, 2014 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

A very young Tom Kollenborn with his “trusty steed”
in Apache Junction’s burro race.
Photo from January 1958 or 1959.
Nostalgia is an interesting thing. When one begins to reminisce about the past they usually think of those things that have fascinated or enlightened them in some way. Since childhood I have had a special place in my heart for animals, Burros in particular. My first real home was in Christmas, Arizona.

I arrived there in April of 1944, before Christmas I had lived in Globe, Tonto Basin and Payson. This small, rough looking mining camp, clinging to the side of the Dripping Springs Mountains, was quite a site for a six-year old boy filled with dreams of adventure. The drive up Christmas Hill to the heart of the old mining camp was an exciting ride for me. The road was steep and rough. I wasn’t sure Mrs. Lewis’ old car would make it up the hill.

To the left of the road was a large ore-crushing mill, still covered with its gray, tarnished and rusting tin, and to the right side was a large yellow-looking tailings dump. Up the road a short distance from the old mill was the community store. Its old porch appeared creaky and run down, but there was activity near its doors. The steps were worn from decades of use by miners and their families. Miners stood on the porch drinking cold beer. Cars parked below the steps leading to the front door of the store appeared frozen in time.

The store was the center of community activity. Giant green-leaved Cottonwood trees grew everywhere water was available. Their shade was a welcome umbrella to all on this warm spring morning. The spores of the Broom brush gently floated on the breeze.

You could hear the hum of the Black gnats. Bees and Yellow Jacket wasps worked the flowers and drank from leaking old water pipes. The water pipes wandered about the old mining town on the surface of the ground like giant rusty old snakes. The ground was far too rocky to dig trenches and their old leaking joints provided a temporary oasis for plants and animals.

Burros wandered about the town’s abandoned rustic buildings that were in various stages of degradation. The burros were into this and into that searching for a meal, often making a nuisance with their presence. The town’s population accepted the burros, because the people who lived in Christmas were primarily Hispanics in origin. The Burro was a significant part of their culture south of the border in Mexico.

Christmas was a mining town. Like all mines in those days they were being worked primarily by Hispanics from Mexico. The language spoken around the cap lamp room and at Peterson’s store was Spanish.

Most Americans had been drafted to fight the war in Europe and the South Pacific. My father had served in France during World War I and was too old for World War II. He was the mine foreman at Christmas. His main job was to hire timber men, miners, and powder men out of Mexico. Father was a man with a varied background and desire for adventure.  My future looked very promising as I rode into Christmas that day with Mrs. Lewis’ in her somewhat vintage 1931 Ford Coupe.

It wasn’t long before I became acquainted with the local town burros.  I would watch the Mexican boys ride the burros with no problem.  Finally one day I caught one of the burros by offering greens from my dad’s garden.  I soon fashioned a rope halter and I was riding a burro.  It wasn’t long before the burro got tired of my antics and gave me a little crow-hop and I was on my backsides. I ran home with skinned elbows and knees crying to my mother who was quite upset about the burros being in town now. She considered them a danger to her small son.

I continued to ride the burros for some time, but several months later all the burros were rounded up and hauled off to Hayden and given to the Mexicans around San Pedro. I am sure my mother was behind the “great burro roundup.”  I was six years old when I first got acquainted with these burros, but I have never forgotten the animals since. Their ability to recognize a person is comparable to that of a dog. One burro that had befriended me would come to me anytime I uttered a whistle, expecting something from my father’s garden.

My mother constantly tried to discourage my interest in burros. She told me the Mexicans kept burros because they made a sandwich out their meat called a “Burrito”. She also told me I could catch worms, ticks and lice from burros. I was almost convinced of these tall tales, until one of my Mexican friends named Rudy Valencia told me it wasn’t true. Even my dad agreed with Rudy.

There were a couple smart burros that survived the infamous Christmas roundup and hid out along the Gila River.  I found these burros one day and continue my burro riding days.

When I worked on the Quarter Circle U Ranch they had several burros. Barkley used burros for a variety of tasks on the ranch. He actually had used them for packing salt into the backcountry of his ranch. I still had a lot of respect for Burros. Barkley told me thousands of burros were used at the Silver King Mine to pack wood to the mills. He also said many hundreds of burros were used during the construction of Roosevelt Dam. Several years later when I was looking over some photographs taken of the Roosevelt Dam site by Walter J. Lubkin, I found burros in many of the photographs. The burro played an important role in early Arizona history.

One of the most interesting experiences I had while working at the Quarter Circle U Ranch was entering the burro race in Apache Junction. I believe it was in February of 1958 or 59.

I represented Chic Jones’ Lucky Nugget Tavern in Apache Junction’s first Burro Derby. I will never forget that first day. We were all lined up and everyone was taking photographs. I even got my picture taken with a Burro representing Chic Jones’ business. Chic figured I would win the Burro Derby because of my long legs and cowboy experience. I forgot to tell Chic most cowboys knew very little about burros. 

The race was seven miles long. I completed the race, but my feet were covered with blisters. Ironically, I had worn a pair of cowboy boots and ran seven miles in them. Oh yes, I will explain the running of the burros. 

When the gun sounded the beginning of the race my burro was in no hurry to go anywhere. I chatted with him for a while, than got behind him and he finally took off and I chased him for the rest of the race. I spent almost two hours running and jogging to keep up with my burro that wanted to catch the leader of the herd for some reason.

Later I discovered the lead burro was my burro’s mother. Also it is important to know burros are herd animals. Chic bought me a steak dinner at the close of the race. Reward enough for my ignorance about racing burros. I believe we came in about seventh.  

After my experience at the Quarter Circle U Ranch in Pinal County and the Burro Derby in Apache Junction, the next time I came across burros they were in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I made my first trip down the Colorado River in the late 1960’s with Tour West.

Above Diamond Creek there were a lot of wild burros on the shore. The jack’s would challenge anyone who tried to land on the beaches.  These burros were the descendents of the burros released by prospectors in the Grand Canyon almost a hundred years ago. These small herds had survived almost a century in this hostile and remote environment.

Eventually the National Park Service had the burros removed from the “canyon” by helicopter. Ironically the average age of the burros was ten years.  These burros had adapted their species to the rugged environs of the Grand Canyon where temperatures soared to 120 *F in the summer months. Their forage was limited to minimal plants of the Sonoran Desert, but yet they survived a century in the Grand Canyon before being removed.

Our nation, our way of life is slowly being changed, but the burro somehow has managed to survive. The burro has become an icon of the American Southwest and the prospector, and the burro and prospector was the icon of Apache Junction for many years.

Today we can still see this iconic symbol outside the City Council offices in Apache Junction and behind the Focal Point at the junction of Apache Trail and the Old West Highway.

Burros were used for prospecting throughout the Superstition Mountain region from 1870 until the late 1950’s.

The Walter Lubkin, USRS photographer, recorded burros at work in the Superstition Mountain’s along First Water Trail in 1908 and through out the Salt River area during the construction of Roosevelt Dam. 

Cecil Stewart “Superstition Joe” and his brother Vernon Stewart prospected the Superstition Mountains for almost three decades and used only burros for their packing and riding. During the 1970’s and 1980’s Superstition Joe was often seen at Mining Camp Road and the Apache Trail with his wagon and team of burros. Many of the early ranchers used burros for packing on the rugged trails of the Superstition Mountain region. 

The burro is an animal that is smarter than a horse or a mule. The burro will survive in the worst of conditions. He can drop thirty per cent of his body weight due to dehydration and can still survive. Horses or mules will perish when they lose fifteen per cent of their body weight due to dehydration.

Today we still find a few small herds of burros scattered around Arizona. The most notable herd is in Oatman, on old Highway 66 near Kingman. Other herds can be found in Southern Arizona. 

Few burros roam public lands in Arizona anymore. Hopefully the burro will survive because of a few people who love these adorable animals and will accept the challenge to care for them and hopefully insure their future existence. Given the chance, a burro makes an adorable pet and caring for them teaches children responsibility. 

 Burros were used for prospecting throughout the Superstition Mountain region from 1870 until the late 1950’s.