Posted on February 21, 2015

By Mary Melcher

Ranch women in Yavapai County have a long history of hard work and adaptability.  A multi-talented group, they cooked, sewed, raised children and chickens, worked with cattle and rode horseback.  Their stories are sometimes buried under those of the male ranchers, but Sharlot Hall Museum’s Territorial Rose Garden honorees include numerous ranch women.  Their biographies (on the website https://sharlothallmuseum.org/archives/rosegarden/search.pl?str=) illustrate the lives of women like Johnnie Lee Fain.  Although Fain said that she was not born to be a ranch wife, she grew to love the life and seldom missed riding in a round-up during four decades of ranching.  Also included among the honorees is Inocentie Leivas Contreras, who homesteaded with her husband on Tonto Flat, thirteen miles west of Prescott.  After her husband died in 1933, Inocentie raised her eight children on the ranch. She did not retire from ranching until 1959.  These are just a few of the women who have ranched in Yavapai County, doing all of the work that needed to be done, whether it involved riding during round-up or branding calves.

Sharlot Hall was also a ranch woman who lived on her family’s ranch in Lonesome Valley from the 1880s to 1927.  Also a historian, writer and editor, Hall sometimes found the isolation of ranch life tedious, and she sold the ranch after her father died.  However, from her writing, it is easy to see that she enjoyed nature and the great outdoors.  She wrote to a lifelong friend that she was “so glad that God let me be an out-door woman and love the big things. I couldn’t be a tame house cat woman.”  One of Hall’s poetry books, published posthumously, Poems of a Ranch Woman, captures the challenges faced by this group, as well as the joys they experienced.  In the “Smell of Rain,” Hall describes the longing felt by ranch people and animals alike as a storm draws near, promising to drench the drought-stricken land.  These women also knew the dangerous nature of ranch life.  “When Ma Turned the Stampede” is the lively story told through poetry of a ranch mother jumping on a horse and riding bareback to turn a cattle  stampede bearing down on her children as they return from school.

Ranch woman and cowboy poet Sally Bates grew up on ranches in Yavapai County and read poetry by Sharlot Hall.  Bates learned to work cattle at an early age.  Home schooled, she also read a lot of poetry and began writing it while she was in grade school.  Her poems pay tribute to women on ranches, such as “Arizona’s Cowboys,” that begins with the following stanza:  “Some of Arizona’s best cowboys/Are women of guts and grace/Who ride astride/And rise to the race/Of horses and tough cowhide.”  The poem “Ridin’ Drag” describes the young wife who is asked to “ride drag” (bringing up the rear as they moved cattle) when an extra hand was needed.  She always enjoyed this job and was pleased when her husband requested that she “ride drag.”

Sally Bates and the ranch women she portrays in her poetry did not face as many physical hardships as those experienced by earlier generations.  Still they encountered the hazards of ranching, as Sally relates in the poem, “Grammy:”  “I’ve been bucked off, and busted up some/Run over by a bull/Been hooked at by a snorty cow/And manure…had a mouthful!/I’ve burned my hands with a brandin’ iron/Mashed myself in a gate/Had a cold-jawed gelding run off/Actin’ like a runaway freight.”

Bates, her mother and other ranch women will discuss experiences like these in a panel presentation at the Sharlot Hall Museum on Saturday, February 28 at 11 a.m.  Those included will be Sally’s mother, Roni Harper, Mary Matli and Charlotte McCoy.  Sally will be reading from her new book of poetry Life Between Dust and Clouds, and attendees will be able to purchase a signed copy of the award-winning book.   This free presentation will be in the Theater of the Museum’s Lawler Building.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.