Chapter One: Beginnings of the Brand
c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
This chapter is excerpted from The Hash Knife Around Holbrook, available in both paperback at https://www.arcadiapublishing.com/Products/9781467130936 or on audio at https://www.amazon.com/Hash-Knife-Around-Holbrook-America/dp/B00UTSFP1W/ref=tmm_aud_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=.
Most historians agree that Hash Knife history began in 1874 when John Nicholas Simpson registered his first brand, the “Long S”. Simpson moved to Weatherford, Texas from Tennessee in 1866, operating a dry goods store between 1867 and 1872 before turning to ranching. In about 1874, the “Long S” brand was soon replaced by that of a hash knife: a common cooking tool whose brand was difficult to alter.
The new Hash Knife brand was certainly in place by 1877 when Simpson and his partner, James Couts, were using it. Tennessee native James Robertson Couts was a farmer when he moved to Weatherford, Texas in 1865. A year later, he used money earned from a cattle drive to California to establish the first bank at Weatherford. By 1872 he was one of the wealthiest men in the region. Couts purchased a half interest in John Nicholas Simpson’s cattle outfit in 1877. About a year later, Simpson and Couts registered the Hash Knife brand in Taylor County, Texas.
Thus began a long and illustrious life for the legendary Hash Knife brand. The first ranch headquarters was a dugout above Cedar Creek that would later become Abilene. Simpson made sure Abilene’s first railroad, the Texas & Pacific Railway, would run right by his ranch. He furthermore made sure the town was built directly along the tracks to assure its success. Shortly afterwards, Simpson expanded the brand west to Pecos and Baylor County, and formed the Continental Cattle Company.
In Baylor County Simpson did business with the infamous Millett brothers, the area’s own bad boys. The Millett brothers were a rough bunch when John Simpson met them. Citizens of nearby Seymour feared them. Ott Black, who worked for the Milletts and the Hash Knife, called the Millett Ranch “one of the toughest spots this side of hell” and commented that only “a rustler or gunman could get work with them.”
Even as he witnessed a bloody shootout at the Millett Ranch while signing the papers, Simpson purchased some land and cattle. He also continued buying smaller outfits around Texas while making even grander plans for a range in Montana.
The Hash Knife’s first trip to Montana was most likely dangerous and more than a little exciting. Cowboys on the trip had probably never been out of Texas, making their journey a true eye-opener. Cowboys on the trail relied heavily on nourishing grub and strong coffee to make it through the long workday. In 1882 Jacob “Dutch Jake” Heckman served as the cook on the Continental Land and Cattle Company’s first jaunt from Texas to Montana.
The Montana holdings, built along the Little Missouri River, were located roughly 20 miles from the tiny community of Stoneville. Three years would pass before Ekalaka was founded, shortening the distance from civilization to just 20 miles. The Continental Land and Cattle Company headquarters were built on Box Elder Creek. When the first herds arrived in the summer of 1882, foreman William Lefors arranged for two cabins to serve as headquarters. The foreman used one cabin on the left for his home and office. Cowboys slept and ate their meals in the other cabin.
Plenty of other cowboys came and went during the Hash Knife’s time in Montana. Other men who worked for the Montana outfit were Clarence Sisley, Pete Buzman, Johnnie Pannel and Jay Griffen Shelden, who joined the Hash Knife outfit at Box Elder Creek. In 1885 Stoneville was renamed Alzada in honor of his mother, Laura Alzada Flagg. Shelden later married and homesteaded at Alzada, but his wife couldn’t bear the loneliness of ranch life and left him. Shelden died in Belle Fourche in 1912.
Some of these men came with the cattle from Texas. Montana cowboys looked upon the Texas cattle as poor stock; worse yet, their keepers appeared equally lanky in stature. Cowboy Walt Colburn noted that Texas cowboys “were a different breed of cowhand for the most part.”
Puzzling over whether lanky Texas cattle and cowboys could survive Montana’s cooler altitudes was soon overshadowed by George Axelby a Hash Knife cowboy who came with the herd from Texas but soon turned rogue. Within a short time he was hunting buffalo, fighting with Native Americans and forming a gang with other Hash Knife cowboys-turned-outlaws. Axelby’s actions soon caught the attention of authorities, who battled it out with the gang at Stoneville. There were several casualties. Axelby escaped, only to be killed four months later.
In 1884 the Continental Cattle Company combined its holdings with the Mill Iron Cattle Company in Montana and sported the new name of the Continental Land and Cattle Company. The Mill Iron Ranch was located roughly 80 miles from Stoneville, with the Continental Land and Cattle Company somewhere between the two places. The Great Western Cattle Trail from Texas ended at Stoneville, but Hash Knife cattle still needed to be pushed on to one of the two ranches. Still, the Mill Iron Ranch benefited greatly from the Western Trail.
There is little doubt that Hash Knife cowboys appreciated a night at the Mill Iron, whose bunkhouse likely offered better lodging than the cabin on Box Elder Creek. Henry Warren, the ever flexible employee of the Hash Knife, was in charge of the Mill Iron operations.
During the 1880s, the federal government rationed beef to various Indian reservations in Wyoming, Dakota Territory and Montana. This allowed the Hash Knife to sell their beef at government prices. The largest shipment was likely 2,500 head delivered to Fort Yates, North Dakota in 1883.
By 1885, the Continental Land and Cattle Company’s letterhead from the main office in Dallas included both the Hash Knife and Mill Iron brands. A branch office was also located in St. Louis. Principle officers of the company occasionally left their cushy suites in these big cities to visit Hash Knife ranches in Texas, Montana and later, Arizona.
The opportunity to expand to other states came when surveyor Edward Kinsley of the Atlanta & Pacific Railroad spied Arizona’s vast lands. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company formed, and the Hash Knife brand moved there with its reputation still under fire.
John Simpson’s brother, Ed, was hired as manager of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company before resigning in 1890. Simpson and Couts also hired Henry Warren, a former government freighter and sometime client of James Couts, around 1877. Over time he became a trustee for the Continental Land and Cattle Company, serving as both manager and president of the Aztec Land and Cattle Company in Arizona. Warren stayed with the Aztec until his death in Arizona in 1917.
Back in Texas, the Hash Knife continued operations for many years. The Knox Brothers may have owned the ranch before Elmer Stevens and Roy Stevens bought it in the early 1920s, and Lowe Stout was their ranch foreman. During the Great Depression the ranch was turned back to the Knox Brothers, and John D. Mounce lived at the ranch with his family. Later, a Mr. Anderson leased the ranch. As for Stout, he and his wife, Alice Robertson, ranched on Miller Creek for many years.
When the Hash Knife in Baylor County decided to build new headquarters overlooking the Brazos River, the old headquarters became home to the Howe family. Aubrey and Midlred Howe Lunsford inherited the house in 1953. According to one source, “It had seen 90 years of service and was pretty well ready for the scrap pile.” The Lunsfords tore it down.
Likewise, the Hash Knife also continued operations in Montana for several years. In 1897, the State of Montana accused the Continental Land and Cattle Company of failing to pay enough taxes. Hash Knife cowboys who were witnesses at the trial included Phil DeFrand, Ed Ramsberg, Jim Connley, Frank Castleberry and H.H. Floyd.