Tag Archives: Hash Knife

A Day in the Life of a 19th Century Cowboy

C 2020 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article were excerpted from The Hash Knife Around Holbrook.

As romantic as it sounds, a day in the life of a cowboy has always been a hard one. “We ate breakfast about 4 a.m. and wrangled our horses,” said 96-year-old cowboy George Hennessey of Arizona in 1974. “Sometimes we’d circle for 20 miles in a day, bringing the cattle in. Generally, we got a little rest in the afternoon. We’d come in at night in time to get the herd together and hold it overnight. Then everybody would stand three hours guard at night.” Hennessey worked for the famed Hashknife brand, a well-traveled icon of the cattle industry of Arizona and other places during the late 1800’s. In New Mexico, Frank Jones purchased some Arizona cattle bearing the brand and decided to register the Hashknife at his Watrous ranch. The brand can still be seen on the ranch’s 1913 barn from Interstate 25. The brand was also established in Oregon by a former Hashknife employee during the early 1900s.

Cowboying goes back a long way. The beef industry was especially important during the gold rushes of Colorado beginning in 1859. A year later, famed cattle baron Charles Goodnight brought cattle north through New Mexico and into southeastern Colorado. The Goodnight-Loving Trail and many other paths became well-worn highways of history, with millions of cattle stamping down the hard, dry dirt during summer and struggling through snow during winter.

The average cowpoke around the turn of the last century could make between $25 and $40 per month, but the work was tough. Many were young; New Mexico cowboy Ralph McJunkin left school after fourth grade to work on his father’s a ranch. But not everyone had what it took. A good rider, one who could work alone under a blazing sun or in freezing snow, made a good candidate. Working 15-hour days was typical. Loneliness was a given, since many hands spent weeks out on the range.

A comfortable bedroll was important to the boys, who were expected to roll up their bedding and toss it on the wagon each morning. One man recalled how cowboy Homer Creswell “always rolled his bed looser than anybody, just wadded it up loose as a goose and stuff was always spilling out of it.” The men also had to carry a gun. “We were gathering some of these wild cows and sometimes you had to shoot one to keep it from hooking your horse,” Hennessey explained. A good rancher supplied his hands with up to three circle horses, three cutting horses and two night mounts.

Although cowhands spent much of their time on the range, they also shared a common bunkhouse on the ranches that employed them. Eight to ten cowboys were usually kept on the payroll. In addition to herding cattle, cowboys also staved off wolves, rounded up strays, looked after the horses, and made repairs to fences and line shacks. Most men worked April through November calving, keeping the herd together and rounding up cattle as needed. During the winter months, crews of two men and a wagon spent their time looking after the herd and branding.

The success or failure of any ranch came twice a year at roundup, when it was time to sell the cattle. Up to 25 men could be needed as the cows were herded to stockyards, where they were inspected as buyers came to make their bids. Demand set the price, which was important since many ranchers bought their winter supplies on credit, at high interest rates. “It was likely they sold their souls to the company store,” commented one rancher’s daughter, Ruth Wallace. “Our father used to say if they had one good year out of seven, we would be lucky.”

At the end of the day most cowboys relished the chance to rest up. Some spent the evening hours singing songs or playing a guitar or harmonica. But after roundup or payday were the times the men looked forward to the most. Stories are many about cowboys galloping through some town or another with their guns blazing, or partying the night away at a saloon or brothel. Trinidad, Colorado’s location along the Santa Fe Trail, for instance, made the town a central location for cowpokes and cattlemen where bathhouses, saloons and plenty of wild women were on hand for entertainment.

The men also could eat a good meal after months of chowing from the chuckwagon with a rather repetitive menu. Dry biscuits known as hardtack, beans, jerky and coffee were regular staples. Those lucky enough to dine at the ranch fared much better. “Mama did the cooking for the cowboys and took care of them as her own,” said Ruth Wallace. “I learned one thing, when a cowboy came riding through to ask him in and cook a meal for him. That was the way of the west.”

The career span of a cowboy largely depended on whether he made enough money to start his own ranch and how long he was physically able to mount a horse. Longtime cowboy Frank Wallace had no use for cars and trucks. His daughter-in-law, Amy, remembered telling him, “that car isn’t a horse, and when you come to a bush or tree, unless you turn it, it is going to go right over.’” Colorado rancher Joseph Schneider was known to yell “Whoa!” and start cussing before jumping out of the vehicle. George Hennessey’s sentiment towards retirement likely rang true for many. “I think I’d enjoy myself a hell of a lot better if I was out on the range,” he said.

Trucks and other modern technology have changed ranching in many ways. For many cowboys, however, the work remains just as grueling and long as it ever was. Love for the job still comes straight from the heart. “You gotta want to be a cowboy, keep your eyes open and your mouth shut,” Arizona cowboy Pat Hughes once said, over 70 years ago. “And, by Gawd, don’t think you know it all the first year. Hell, I been cowboyin’ all my life and I’m still learnin’.”

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.