Monday, March 27, 2017

The Day of the Cowboy

March 20, 2017 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

A national holiday that recalls the “Day of the Cowboy” is somewhat interesting and unique. The cattle industry was a wild and rough business during the early years of 1850–1930. These eighty years of cattle ranching, roundups, trail drives, rodeos and even motion pictures played a role in shaping our image of the American cowboy. All these roles helped to form the cowboy image so familiar to many of us. When we think of cowboys, we think of cattle, horses, the open range, a ranch house, corrals, windmills, Stetson hats, bandannas, chaps, spurs, boots, lariats, and saddles. Today we mill around an imaginary world of the “Old West.” To some degree, many of us believe this world still exists today. There are movies, dude ranches, and gunfights to enrich our beliefs of what the “Old West” was like.

I can only speak from my experiences as to what cowboys are really like.

William Thomas Barkley watches from the back of the corral as he sits atop his horse “Champ.” c. 1958

When I was a young man I dreamed of being a cowboy based on the images portrayed on the silver screen at the old Rex Theater in Hayden, Arizona. I knew cowboys were good, honest and respectable men. They always defeated the bad guy, defended the good guy and won the heart of the ladies. Hollywood had created the perfect image of the American cowboy on the movie screen in my mind. This cowboy persona accompanied me throughout my life.

My image of the American cowboy was shattered when I accepted a job on the Quarter Circle U Ranch in the mid 1950s. I expected the cowboys to be a hero in all aspects, however I soon found out this was not case. Real cowboys were still only human—they were not always the men I thought they were. The real cowboys I met around Apache Junction, Globe, San Carlos, Tonto Basin and Winkleman were of a different breed. However, many of the cowboys I met were what I had expected. Some were rowdy, wild, and often careless. They drank far too much alcohol, cussed too much and were often not too dependable. Some of the best cowboys I ever saw were Apaches on the San Carlos Reservation east of Globe. Floyd Stone, owner and operator of the Tortilla Allotment, hired Apache cowboys to work his ranch. Most were really good cowboys and knew how to work wild cattle. Elmer Pope, an Apache cowboy, could rope a wild cow on the run in the roughest country east of Superstition Mountain. Stone always had a problem keeping his San Carlos cowboys sober.

Cowboys such as John A. Bacon, Bernard Hughes, Charlie Weeks, George Cline, Billy Garlinghouse, Slim Ellison, William A. Barkley, Billy Martin Sr., Billy Martin Jr., Jimmy Heron, Frank Herron, Duane Reese, Wheeler Reece, Bill Bohme, Royce Johnson, Jack Reeder and many more were real cowboys in our area that have left the legacy of the cowboy and cattle ranching in central Arizona. They were all good men.

First, and most important, a good cowboy has to be honest and responsible. These are the star attributes of a cowboy’s character, because they were often left in charge of corralled animals that needed to be fed and watered daily. By all means, not all cowboys are good cowboys. Any rancher will testify to that statement. Most cowboys are hard workers and they also play hard. Most of them love cowboy or country music. They would rather talk about cattle, horses, saddles, horse trailers or pickup trucks. Now, your old time cowboys wouldn’t be caught dead listening to some music we call Country-Western today.            

As a young man, I dreamed of someday owning my own cattle spread. Of course, it was nothing but a dream although I did manage to work for one of the real legendary cattle outfits. The old Quarter Circle U Ranch belonged to William A. Barkley and William Thomas Barkley. I worked for the Barkleys in the twilight years of this legendary Arizona cattle ranch. This was during the late 1950s and I cherish those couple of years I spent becoming what I am today. Life on that ranch certainly shaped my character, but also strengthened the values I had learned from my mother, father, and silver screen heroes. More than fifty years ago I sat astride a wild ranch pony and chased wild cattle across the mountains and desert east of Apache Junction. In those early days, there was not much in Apache Junction but a filling station, some permanent residents and a few desert dwellers that lived in mobile homes. To find the old Quarter Circle U Ranch you had to drive out Highway 60 some nine miles and turn east toward Don’s Camp. After driving another eight miles, you arrived at the Quarter Circle U Ranch. This ranch was really isolated with no communications with the outside world. The old ranch had no electricity and little running water. Conditions were very primitive, but I learn to cope with my new environment. My parents thought I was insane working in such a lonely place, making little or no money. I could never convince them that I had found my calling. I wanted nothing more than be a cowboy. My dad had wanted me to go to college and make a career for myself. I suppose I was a disappointment when all I could talk about was the Quarter Circle U Ranch and the cattle I cared for.

Like all good things my cowboy career ended one day when I was severely injured by a large Brahma-mixed bull. I lay in a hospital bed for several weeks. I found a new direction in life. I realized my father and mother were correct and I eventually returned to college and embarked upon a new career with the life of a cowboy always in the back of my mind.

Now friends, that is why I continue to this day wearing my cowboy hat, western shirts and jeans. Deep down in my soul I am still that young cowboy that worked on the Quarter U Ranch so many decades ago. The “Day of the Cowboy” honors this magnificent persona of the American West. I dedicate this column to all the cowboys who believe and follow this philosophy in life. An old friend, “Arkie” Johnston, recently passed away and left a cowboy legacy. He had four sons who are some of the best cowboys in the Southwest.

Note: Those of you that would like to read about another real cowboy, I recommend the book Cowboy Sign by Duane Reece. Duane has cowboyed all his life, and spent twenty years as a rodeo hand. His book should be on every cowboy and cowgirl’s shelf or in his or her saddlebags. For more information about Duane’s book, call (928) 812-0300 or drop a card to Kaycee Reece-Stratton, 4840 Longhorn Lane, Winkelman, AZ 85192.