Tag Archives: Jan MacKell Collins

The Last of the Hash Knife Cowboys

c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in True West Magazine.

 “Just to keep the record straight, my name when I left Texas was the same as it is in Arizona.” ~ George W. Hennessey

 “I consider it a damn good outfit,” George Hennessey once said of the sometimes infamous Hash Knife Cattle Company, at one time the largest cattle ranch in Arizona. “They were all good cowboys and good men. The ones I knew made something for themselves, ran businesses or held public office.”

Of course Hennessey would remember them that way. Those close to him knew he was a good hearted, optimistic kind of man who seldom had a bad word to say about anybody. Born in Mason County, Texas on the fourth of July in 1877, Hennessey first began working with cattle in 1891 and moved to Holbrook in 1898. William Smith, who grew up in Holbrook and served as mayor from 1961 to 1965, remembered Hennessey as “Neat, clean, good looking, kind and gentle.” But despite Hennessey’s friendly demeanor and his sentimental defense of the outfit, there is no question that the Hash Knife was once known for its roughneck cowboys. Company hands were known to terrorize Holbrook on a Saturday night, and several were involved in various shoot outs, robberies and rustling escapades.

The Hash Knife brand, named for a common kitchen tool, originated in Texas. During the 1880’s, the outfit’s association with the notorious Millett brothers of Baylor County, as well as a shoot out involving some Hash Knife cowboys in Montana, had already tainted the brand’s good name. When the company expanded to a large range between Holbrook and Flagstaff in 1884, the owners hoped the outfit would shed itself of its unsavory reputation. Unfortunately, such a cleansing was not forthcoming. By the time Captain Burton C. “Cap” Mossman was hired as superintendent in 1898, rustlers and outlaws seemed to be rampant both inside and outside the company.

Mossman set to work cleaning house, firing half the crew within a month. He was ssisted 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 Hennessey, and the two became lifelong friends. During Hennessey’s time with the Hash Knife, the outfit had been sold to the Babbitt Brothers’ Aztec Land & Cattle Company. Hennessey fell in with approximately 30 other hands working under Mossman and Wallace. A few questionable characters may have still been in the group but, “It wasn’t a mean bunch,” Hennessey insisted, “just happy to return trouble.”

It’s unseemly reputation aside, the Hash Knife was also suffering from over-populated ranges, feed shortages, the harsh winter of 1898 and a four-year drought. Upon receiving orders to liquidate the stock from Arizona, Mossman sold roughly 40,000 cattle for fourteen dollars a head and began a series of roundups for shipping. In his later years, Hennessey had fond memories of those days. “We ate breakfast about 4 a.m. and wrangled our horses,” he remembered. “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 also expressed a fondness for the men he worked with. “It makes my blood pressure raise when someone comes out with the phrase ‘that Hash Knife outlaw outfit,’” he once said. “The Hash Knife had the name of being a hard drinking, hard fighting outfit but I never worked with a better bunch of men.” Hennessey remembered that during his time in Holbrook, cowboys handed their six-shooters over to Sheriff Joe Woods when they came to town.  Gone were the rowdy days at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, Holbrook‘s most notorious drinking hole. “Our most fun was to get on a horse and get throwed off,” Hennessey remembered. “We enjoyed the life [of a cowboy] very much. There was no responsibility, only to just work. You had to be a pretty good cowboy to hold your job with the Hash Knife.”

Upon shipping out the final nine train cars of cattle in September of 1900, Cap Mossman resigned. Hennessey left a few months later, working for the Wabash Cattle Company before going into business for himself in 1903. He began by purchasing $1,200 worth of cattle from Hubbell’s Trading Post at Ganado with $200 and a promissory note for the rest. By 1907 he was able to help his family pay off their mortgage in Texas and even ran the Bucket of Blood Saloon for about a year. In 1911 Hennessey married Frank Wallace’s daughter, Frances, at Adamana. His personal brands, the Slash T Slash and the XVL, became well known throughout northern Arizona.

Marriage and cattle did little to slow Hennessey down. “I got into the cattle business and I made Holbrook my headquarters,“ he recalled in a 1967 interview. “First thing I knew, I was in politics!“ Indeed, in 1917 Hennessey was unknowingly elected the first official mayor of Holbrook. “I wasn’t even a candidate and I didn’t even go in and vote,” he later explained, adding that he was out rounding up cattle that day. “Then a bunch of fellows came riding out from Holbrook. My father-in-law said, ‘You’re the mayor of Holbrook.’ I said, ‘Hell, I’m not even running.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re elected anyhow.’” The legend of him being hog-tied and carried back to town, he said, was untrue—although his friends still joked about it for years.

Hennessey served as mayor for two years and continued ranching until he sold his outfit in 1932. The family—George, Frances and their two daughters—moved to Phoenix in 1934. Hennessey went to work as a cattle buyer, appraiser and field man for various banks. At First National Bank of Arizona, he became fondly known as “Uncle George”. He later confided that he enjoyed his position mostly because it allowed him to continue working out on the open prairie he so loved. Of his eventual retirement he once commented, “I think I’d enjoy myself a hell of a lot better if I was out on the range.”

Still, George and Frances busied themselves with attending various banquets and other functions held by their friends and business associates. Many times, the banquets were held in Hennessey’s honor. He also became a favorite subject of area newspapermen, who diligently reported on his participation in rodeo parades and his attendance at various gatherings. In 1956, when the Navajo County Sheriff Posse was formed using the Hash Knife brand, Hennessey was made an honorary member.

Hennessey was not far off when he said many of his associates at the Hash Knife did well. Close friends of the family included writer Roscoe G. Willson, pioneer cowman Will C. Barnes, Yavapai County Sheriff Buckey O’Neill, ranchers Barney Stiles, “Uncle Dick” Grigsby, Charlie Pickrell, and many others associated with the cattle industry. Hennessey not only maintained close contact with his old friends, he also defended them as needed. He called Frazier Hunt’s book about Cap Mossman a lot of “damned lies.” Hennessey’s cronies truly appreciated his friendship, often roasting him with stories about owning no other shoes but his beloved cowboy boots, and the time he chopped the toes off of his tight shoes as a boy in Texas. “I recall the dinner we had at the ‘Flame’, you and I,” Hennessey’s friend Sam Turner wrote in a 1957 letter. “It was such a treat for me recalling the old times, and just the pleasure of being with you was in itself so worthwhile.” Even Senator Barry Goldwater wrote Hennessey a letter, congratulating him on turning 90 years old in 1967.

When the Arizona Republic interviewed him one last time in 1970, Hennessey was applauded as the last true Hash Knife cowboy. He was also the last surviving charter member of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, a former Navajo County Supervisor, a member of the Masonic Lodge in Holbrook since 1912 and a member of the Order of the Eastern Star at Winslow for 50 years. To his associates at First National Bank, he was still a welcome presence at the annual breakfasts held throughout the region. To his wife and daughters he was forever the gentle pillar of strength. To his grandchildren and great-granddaughters, he was the kind bearer of candy. And to his many, many friends, he was the jovial, business-smart old cowboy he had always been.

George Hennessey died in 1973 at the ripe age of 95 after a long, full life and few regrets. Books about the Hash Knife and Holbrook mention him only in passing. His family and admirers, however, still praise him as the last of the Hash Knife cowboys who honored the brand and was a solid influence on the cattle industry in Northern Arizona during the 1900’s.

Jan MacKell Collins is the great-granddaughter of George W. Hennessey and the great-great-granddaughter of Frank Wallace. She is also a free-lance writer and author of The Hash Knife Around Holbrook (Arcadia Publishing).