c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins
“She was really the one who raised us as Papa was away so much of the time.” So said Ruth Wallace Moritz of her mother, Cora Wallace. Ruth’s father Frank, a well-known Arizona cattle rancher, was absent from home on a regular basis. Like so many others, Cora found being a ranch wife truly demanding. These hearty women spent much of their time alone, performing such daily chores as tending the garden, curing meat, pickling and preserving food, washing laundry, sewing, cleaning house, raising children, feeding livestock and more.
Cora’s decision to be a rancher’s wife may have been inspired by a love for adventure. Born on an Arkansas plantation in 1870, Cora was primarily raised by her grandmother in Arkansas and Texas. It is notable that Cora attended a “finishing school” while with her grandmother. By 1888 she was reunited with her widowed father, a farmer near Dona Ana, New Mexico. There she met Frank Wallace, a sometime cowboy who was working for Joe Nations of New Mexico. Wallace spent the night while herding horses to Albuquerque but soon returned and married Cora. Two days later the newlyweds departed so Frank could take work as a cowpuncher near Tenuca. Cora’s life as a ranch wife had begun.
Shortly after the first of eight children was born in 1890, the Wallaces relocated to Winslow where Frank worked for the Waters Cattle Company. Three more children were born at Winslow, and Cora also took in two young girls whose mother had died. “Mama took care of them as her own,” Ruth noted. Frank was gone much of the time and even more so when Waters sold out to the Aztec Land & Cattle Company whose Hashknife brand was already famous in Arizona.
In 1898 the family moved to the Hashknife headquarters three miles south of Joseph City. Ruth recalled the challenges her mother faced. “Her life as a rancher’s wife was not an easy one,” Ruth remembered. “During those years the ranchers had open land for their cattle making it more difficult to gather them. They would be gone weeks at a time leaving their wives to take care of the children and keep things going at the ranch.”
In addition to her own family, Cora also boarded and fed numerous cowboys. Former cowpuncher J. Lon Jordan, later sheriff of Maricopa County, remembered that Cora “cooked more good groceries for hungry cowboys than any woman in Arizona.” Two more daughters were born at the Hashknife headquarters, yet Ruth remembered her mother as cheerful, generous and kind. Cora was also very proud to be a descendant of U.S. Presidents Zachary Taylor and James Monroe.
When the Aztec sold the Hashknife brand to Babbitt Brothers in 1899, the Wallaces stayed at the headquarters as caretakers while running their own cattle. In 1905 the family next relocated to Adamana, a desert whistlestop east of Holbrook. The first family home was a tent along the Rio Puerco River. When the family was flooded out they relocated to higher ground where Frank and his ranch hands built a two story home. “It was a desolate place,” said Ruth of Adamana, “and we depended on the windmills for water.”
Ruth also remembered the struggle to make ends meet since ranchers were regularly hampered by droughts, freezing winters and low prices for the beef they raised. At the mercantile in Holbrook, the family was forced to “sell their souls to the company store”, living on credit at a high interest rate. “Having no money was a fact of life and mothers made do,” she said. “We had very little money in those days but Mama gave of herself to all around her. We never felt deprived.” Although she occasionally secured a little extra money for store coats for her children, Cora made almost all of her children’s clothing. Towels were sewn from flour sacks, and scraps of material were saved to make quilts.
Seven children and two ranch hands continued to keep Cora busy at her cookstove. Ruth remembered that “Mama had a large kettle of beans on the stove and lots of home cooked bread. She cured the meat, made soap from scraps of pork so we had plenty. Our diet with lots of stewed peaches and apples was sufficient.” Cora also gave birth to her eighth—and last—child in 1912. She enlisted the help of her children when she could but the younger children were sent to school. Ruth remembered trekking two miles down the railroad tracks to the schoolhouse.
Ruth and another daughter, Margery, also were often out on the range taking fresh horses to cowboys as they worked throughout the day. “It was a lonely time as we missed home,” Ruth recalled, but added that Margery would sing songs to her for company. The girls headed home across the prairies after these round ups, where “Mama would have a hard time getting us clean.”
The Wallace’s hard work at Adamana eventually paid off. By the mid-teens, the family was faring well enough to build a nice home in Holbrook, complete with a beautiful hardwood interior, glass doorknobs, electricity and indoor plumbing (Frank stubbornly kept an outhouse in the back yard as well). Cora’s name appeared on the property deed. She also assured that her son-in-law, George Hennessey, purchased property directly across the street and built a home for himself and Cora’s daughter Frances. Shortly after the homes were completed, Hennessey was elected the first mayor of Holbrook.
Success continued to follow the Wallace family. Within a few years, Frank also purchased the majestic O W Ranch outside of Young for a whopping $150,000. The original log ranch house served as an ample home. There was plenty of water and the family dined on fish, wild game, chickens, turkey and, of course, beef. Outbuildings included a smokehouse, a cow barn and a dairy house for keeping butter, milk and cheese. Cora’s larder also included potatoes grown by a neighboring rancher and wild grapes. Writer Norma Leonard told how, after she had made some wine, Cora threw the fermented grapes in the yard. Some turkeys came along and ate the grapes, and were soon stumbling around trying to regain their balance.
A second, much fancier home was built on the property at the O W as well. It was intended for the Wallace’s oldest son, Emmet, to live in with his wife Amy whom he married at Adamana. Tragically, Emmet died during the 1920 flu epidemic (a daughter, Margery, had also died in 1915). The family later moved into the house, where an ample root cellar stored Cora’s homemade preserves. In spite of a lack of electricity, Cora was able to make a comfortable home for her family, as well as the numerous cowhands who worked for or passed by the ranch. She also bought, sold and traded coffee, flour and other goods with Native Americans, cowboys and other local ranch wives.
Forced by hard times to sell out in 1928, Frank went into business with various of his children and their spouses. In 1937, Frank and Cora moved to Tucson and lived with daughter Ruth and her husband, Harold Moritz. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary there a year later. During a visit to Holbrook in September of 1939, Cora died unexpectedly. Her son-in-law Charles Lisitzky and Fred Schuster of A & B Schuster Co. handled the funeral costs. Guests and pallbearers included many of the cowboys she had cared for and fed from the Hashknife, including Dick Grigsby, Johnny Paulsell, Bill Wyrick and Ed Bargeman.
Little remains today as a testament to Cora Wallace and women like her. Most of the Wallace homes are gone now, one exception being the house in Holbrook. Thanks to preservation efforts by subsequent owners, the home remains amongst the nicest in town. Another landmark is the old root cellar from the family home at the O W Ranch where Cora stored her cured meat and homemade preserves. When her granddaughter, Suzanne Peterson, visited the ranch as a young girl she remembered seeing some mason jars filled with preserves that were still in the cellar. Perhaps it is most fitting that this one remnant from a ranching family still pays tribute to a unique group of women from the old west.
Jan MacKell Collins is the great-great granddaughter of Frank and Cora Wallace. More about ranching life can be found in her book, The Hash Knife Around Holbrook.