The Hash Knife Around Holbrook: Introduction

The following is excerpted from The Hash Knife Around Holbrook, c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins.

The book is available through ArcadiaPublishing.com, on Audible.com, or order from Western History Books on Amazon.com for a signed copy.

The Hash Knife brand—fashioned after a common cooking tool popular amongst camp cooks and ranch wives—has been a staple of cattle history for roughly 140 years. Established by John Nicholas Simpson in Texas, the brand has served ranches in Montana, Arizona and beyond. Companies who owned the brand—namely the Continental Land and Cattle Company, the Aztec Land and Cattle Company and Babbitt Brothers—functioned as some of the largest and most profitable organizations of their time. Between 1878 and 1901, five large-range ranches were established using the Hash Knife brand.

            Through the years, the brand has taken on a romance of its own. The admiration seems equally shared by those who worked for the Hash Knife, those who know of someone who did, or those who wish they had done so themselves. The picture or even a memory of cowboys roping cattle on the dusty prairies or gathering around the chuckwagon evokes a sentimental love for the cowboy way of life. Forget that working on the range was hard and often dangerous. To those men who did it, working cattle was worth the risk and gave them some of the best memories of their lives.

            In fact, the Hash Knife seems to have grown into its own symbol of cowboy life. During the last century, the name has come to identify any cowboy, ranch or company associated with the brand. And there were plenty of them. The men of the Hash Knife ranged from studious businessmen from New York to hard working cow punchers to rustlers and outlaws. The rustlers and outlaws are of particular interest to history buffs, since they add a bit of color to the story.

            It is true that by the 1880’s, the Hash Knife’s association with the notorious Millett brothers in Texas, plus a shoot out in Montana, had somewhat tainted the brand’s good name. When the Aztec Land and Cattle Company was formed to bring the Hash Knife to Arizona in 1884, the owners likely hoped the outfit would shed itself of its unsavory reputation. Some of the hands had been with the brand since the beginning. Many of them were good, hardworking men. A few others were not.

            The Aztec, as it was often referred to, acquired two million acres between Holbrook and Flagstaff. The cattle had hardly settled in before stories began circulating about rowdy cattle thieves, drunks and robbers terrorizing Holbrook. Their well-publicized exploits eventually inspired authors Zane Grey, W.C. Tuttle, Clarence W. Durham and others to expand on the boys’ daring adventures and write fictional novels about them. The Hash Knife soon became, and remained, a fascinating entanglement of fact, fiction and folklore.

                By the time Burton C. “Cap” Mossman was hired as superintendent in 1898, rustlers and outlaws did seem to be rampant around the Hash Knife. Mossman set to work cleaning house, firing half the crew within a month. He was assisted by foreman Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Wallace, with whom he had worked in Texas and hired soon after joining the Hash Knife. Wallace in turn hired cowboy George W. Hennessey, and the three men became lifelong friends.

            By 1899 there were some 30 hands working for the brand. There is no denying that a few questionable characters may have still been in the group, but by then the good guys far outweighed the bad guys. “The Hash Knife had the name of being a hard drinking, hard fighting outfit,” Hennessey later remembered, “but I never worked with a better bunch of men.”

            Good or bad, the cowboys of the Hash Knife worked hard. The Aztec had suffered through a particularly hard winter the year before and was now combating feed shortages and a four-year drought. After 17 years of owning the Hash Knife brand, the Aztec sold out to Babbitt Brothers of Flagstaff. It took about a year to settle matters and ship out the cattle, after which Cap Mossman resigned. Wallace and Hennessey followed suit within a few years.

            Babbitt Brothers carried on the brand, but many considered the sale the end of an era. Improved railroads, automobiles, telephones and other newfangled inventions were slowly changing the way of life across the west. The four Aztec headquarters between Holbrook and Joseph City, as well as eight line camps out on the range, slowly fell into disuse and all but disappeared. Some of the cowboys stuck around and worked for other outfits while others rode off into the sunset, never to be heard from again. But none of them forgot about the Hash Knife brand.

            For Wallace and Hennessey, working for the Hash Knife evolved into quite the family affair both during their time with the Aztec and after. Upon leaving the company Hennessey, Wallace, Wallace’s son Emmet, and fellow cowboy James Donohoe began establishing their own cattle companies, forming partnerships, and registering their own brands. Later, Hennessey and Donohoe each married one of Wallace’s six daughters.

            Even as Hennessey and Wallace became noted cattlemen in their own rights, the Hash Knife somehow remained an integral part of their lives. Long before Hennessey was elected mayor of Holbrook, newspapers continually recalled his days with the outfit. Wallace later purchased the OW Ranch west of Payson. The ranch was formerly owned by the Blevins family during the 1887 Pleasant Valley War, a notable skirmish involving both the Blevins and some Hash Knife men. When Hennessey died in 1973, he was revered as being the last surviving original Hash Knife cowboy.

            Today the descendants of the Hash Knife’s many cowboys, as well as a good number of admirers, continue to keep the brand’s history alive. A handful of ranches, bed and breakfasts, monuments, clubs and even a musical group lay claim to the Hash Knife name. Perhaps the best known of these is the annual Hashknife Pony Express Ride which takes place between Holbrook and Scottsdale each year.

            Details on the history of the brand have also been lovingly documented in fine works by Jim Bob Tinsley, Robert Carlock and Stella Hughes. Tinsley’s work, The Hash Knife Brand, gives a good overview of the Hash Knife’s evolution from a Texas cattle camp to a reigning ranch of Arizona. Carlock, who worked for the Aztec Land and Cattle Company, was able to provide more intimate details in his book, The Hashknife. Hughes’ husband Mack worked for the Hash Knife during the 1920’s. Her book, Hashknife Cowboy, provides insight into the brand’s later years through Mack’s eyes.

            In this newest rendition of Hash Knife history, George Hennessey and Frank Wallace also get to tell their stories for the first time. Their history, and that of the Hash Knife, is gathered from a number of books and articles, but also from first hand accounts written by themselves, their wives, their children and their grandchildren. Family stories have been passed down. Scrapbooks, photographs, letters and other memorabilia have been carefully saved. The end result is another facet of history that should be told while there are some who still remember it, and also so that it will not be forgotten.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s