Weekly Comments: A museum and dude ranch recall memories in Arizona
COLUMBUS: Last week I told you I had just returned from Arizona. But with Eliot Spitzer and Bear Stearns grabbing all the headlines I didn’t have time to tell you much about it.
I flew to Phoenix on Southwest Airlines. They had been in the news themselves lately about some small cracks in their planes. So I took along a roll of duct tape in case any showed up near my seat.
Drove to Wickenburg where they have a wonderful award-winning museum called the “Desert Caballeros Western Museum”. They built a new addition and Pavilion and wanted “Will Rogers” to help with the dedication. Well, I was honored to be invited. Wickenburg is northwest of Phoenix, on the banks of the Hassayampa River. Most places in Arizona, the word “river” is used mostly as a joke. They flood sometimes, but mostly they’re dry, kinda like some of their lakes. So finding one with water in it is like discovering gold. And this one has water. Sometimes you have to dig to find it, but it’s there.
In the old days (that means before interstate highways) this was a major resting point for anyone heading on to Los Angeles or the Grand Canyon, and it’s still the shortest route to Las Vegas. In 2013 this town will celebrate its 150th birthday.
During my talk I got the mayor up to do some rope tricks with me. And also a local ranch lady named Elladeen Hayes Bittner. She’s 89, and said she remembered everybody I talked about. I asked her about her roping experience. “I was the state champion roper”, she quickly answered, “in Alaska.” That got a laugh, so I had to ask her, “Exactly how many ropers were in the contest?” “Just one.”
Well, Mrs. Bittner is authentic. I bet she roped plenty of steers in her day.
In my remarks I talked about a letter I received in 1926 from a talented local fellow, asking is I could help him get hired as an entertainer. Here’s part of his letter: “I can do a lot of Rope spinning…, also I punish a guitar, and sing Cowboy songs. I can lie on my back on a (high) wire and sing too. I can spin the rope either while standing on the wire or on the floor. I can play a Harmonica standing on my hands.” And it was signed, Romaine H. Lowdermilk, Wickenburg, Arizona.
A cowboy with all that talent ought to be encouraged, so I included his letter, and my reply to him, in my syndicated column the next week. I figured if getting promoted in five hundred newspapers won’t get you work, what will.
It seems Romaine and his mother (Katherine) had bought land in 1909 along the Hassayampa and named it the Kay El Bar Ranch. In the 1920s a long drought dried up all their pastures, they lost their cattle, and Romaine switched to dude ranching. That’s no surprise because Wickenburg soon became known as the “Dude Ranch Capital of the World”. But what he really wanted to do was be an entertainer.
Well, imagine my surprise when I heard the ranch Romaine founded is still operating, hosting folks from all over the country and the world. They can ride horses all day, mostly along trails across the desert hills. Some folks, especially the teenagers when they get a bit bored with roughing it, like to ride about three miles down the dry riverbed to town, climb the riverbank and tie up their horses at McDonald’s. In the evening, for those unaccustomed to staying in the saddle for hours a day, a hot tub and heated pool feels mighty soothing.
(If you want to check out these places, go to www.westernmuseum.org and www.kayelbar.com.)
Historic quotes from Will Rogers:
“Arizona prolongs the life of the afflicted (and) makes perpetual the lives of the well.” DT #2158, July 4, 1933
“Going to fly over in Arizona tomorrow and see Mr. Coolidge dedicate the great Coolidge Dam. Arizona had to build the dam way over in the middle of the State to keep California from claiming two-thirds of the water.” DT #1124, March 3, 1930
“The (Hoover) dam is entirely between Nevada and Arizona. All California gets out of it is the water.” DT #1900. Sept. 6, 1932
“Dude ranching is one of the healthiest and finest vacations in the world.” DT #2089, April 14, 1933
“All your life every man has wanted to be a cowboy. Why play Wall Street and die young when you can play cowboy and never die?” DT #1549, July 10, 1931