Adirondack Dude Ranches
Back in 1995, I wrote a book called “50 years a Trapper and Treasure Hunter” - some tell me it was a best seller. Quite a few who read it asked if I was ever going to write another. Always said, “I doubt it - used up all I had to say. Looking back at it now, I think maybe I was just getting started! There are a lot of good old boys that have gone to their maker without their story being told. I for one believe they deserve their day in the sun! JT
In 1959, I went to work for Don Baxter, the foreman at Painted Pony Ranch in Lake Luzerne. Don was the real deal when it came to being a cowboy. He had not only graduated from Michigan State Horseshoeing College, the first and only one of its kind at the time, he was also one hell of a roper and bronc rider.
Don had learned to break wild horses in Montana before working at Painted Pony. Baxter and big Lee Ormsby shipped a whole trainload of wild, unbroken army remnants from Montana into the railway station at Hadley, New York and drove them from the rail station over backroads (for the most part) to the breaking pens set up at Painted Pony, about five miles away. The Great Adirondack Championship Rodeo was started from some of those horses that didn’t gentle up enough to be used as saddle horses.
Don had built a high, round breaking corral where he handled the bad ones; threw ‘em, tied ‘em up and broke ‘em. I thought I knew a bit about horses - hell, I didn’t know jack! Don took me under his wing; he taught me how to throw a horse and tie up a foot, and the right way to shoe one. Don was married to Janie Isaacson, who was a barrel racer and a trick rider, as well as the ranch owner’s daughter.
The dude ranch country had more than its fair share of characters, for sure. When I had worked at Rocky Ridge Ranch before the Pony, I had met an ‘ol Idaho horseshoer named Tris Hensley. Tris would travel East in the spring to shoe horses for some of the ranches hereabouts. He was an the old-time hot shoer, which means he used a forge to heat up the shoe to shape it. He used the old Phoenix keg shoes and they had to be heated up, and either cut off the extra metal to make a plain plate or bend the extra up to make a heeled shoe.
Now, as I recall Tris was really a good horse shoer, as far as trimming a foot and finishing a shoe goes. He did have a little “slick” side about him, though. After he fitted the shoe to the foot he would stick the toe of the shoe back into the forge, heat it almost to a white hot, then pull it out and stick the toe into the sand and let it cool off. This would draw the hardness out of the toe so the shoe would wear out faster! I picked up on that right away! I guess that was really my first taste of ‘job security’.
Tris Hensley wasn’t a big guy but he was pretty solid and had a hell of an arm on him! There was a birthday party for him at the Cabin in the Pines one night and Speed Weber and Tex Wells each grabbed Tris by the arm to walk him around the place and all Triss did was raise up both arms at the same time, drove their heads into the ceiling, smiled at them - and dropped them onto the floor!
Lee Ormsby was a giant of a man, a former ex-marine heavyweight boxing champion. Someone you really didn’t want to mess with! Lee had helped Baxter get the rodeo put together the first year, and was a damn good man to have around when you needed to tie up a bad horse.
Lee was a master leather carver, best I have ever seen. He had a small leather shop in the garage up on the other side of the Cabin in the Pines (also known as Carol and Bob’s) and hand carved rodeo belts for several years. Belt carving was a real moneymaker back at that time. Every cowboy and dude alike that came into the country had to have a hand carved built with their name carved in the middle of it! (It is interesting to note that 15 years later you couldn’t give the damn things away!)
Lee Ormsby liked to drink a bit. He could get a little loud at times and only a stupid man would mess with him if you were drinking! I remember Tex Jenner and I were having a cup of coffee at the Chuckwagon one night and Lee was sitting next to us feeling no pain, so to speak.
In came three really rough looking dudes, who sat down at the other side of Lee. These guys were minding their own business - an’ Lee started in with the Italian jokes. They just looked over at him several times without comment. Lee’s “jokes” were getting a bit louder. Tex and I looked over at each other and figured it might be wise to pay our bill and get out of Dodge before all hell broke loose.
We had just paid our bill and were heading for the door when the biggest of the three walked over to Lee and asked, “you really don’t like city folks much do you?” Lee was sitting on a stool and came back with some smartass remark, when this guy brought a uppercut from down near the floor somewhere that took Lee right under the chin and damn near raised him a foot in the air! This guy was good and he sure knew what he was about!
Lee shook his head and stood up, all 6 foot six of him, and damned if he didn’t have a smile on his face! And says, “there’s two things I love to do - one of them is…” But all three of them were out of the door before he could finish his statement!
The next morning Tex and I had to go back up to the ranch where Lee was hacking horses and do some horseshoeing. Lee had his jaw bandaged up; the guy had broke his damn jaw!
One of the horses we had to shoe that morning was Lee’s lead horse “Ghost”. He was one bad horse that didn’t need to be in any hack line! We would have to tie him and sideline him to the fence every morning just to get the saddle on him! I guess Lee just liked the horse around for “local color” - and maybe it was one of best ways to impress the girls?
Anyway, I was tying up the front foot on Ghost - and that’s all I remember - until I woke up in the hospital two days later with my wife and the priest by the bed, ready to give me my last rites!
Tex and Lee said it was the damnedest thing they’d ever seen - they said the horse came up with his hind foot and kicked me along the side of the head and drove me as straight as an arrow about 20 foot headfirst into a fence post! It took about a month to get over the headaches! I never did shoe that horse again.
Joe Clark was well known around the dude ranch area, a retired seaman, a bar room scrapper who would fight at the drop of a hat. The first time I remember seeing Joe was when he walked into the Cabin in the Pines bar. The place was packed, with no seats left. Joe looked around and spotted a couple of big city boys sitting at the other end of the bar. Joe walked right in between them and he says to the bigger of the two, “I don’t like your face pardner.“ The guy looks at Joe and says, “What!?” Joe says, “I said, ‘I don’t like your face - and I’m going to change it, right here and right now!” The two looked at Joe, then at each other, stood up and walked out! Joe ended up with two chairs and a pair of beers!
A couple of years later, Joe popped up at the beginning of summer looking for work and wanted to know if Tex and I could use an extra hand shoeing horses. I says, “Are you a horse shoer, Joe?” “Sure pardner- and if we run into any bad ones, if I have to tie up a foot and they go down- they don’t get back up without shoes on!” “That’s the kind of talk I like to hear Joe! - I’ll pick you up in the morning“.
The next day we had eighteen horses to shoe at Ride N Hy Ranch. Each of us pulled up a horse and went to work. That’s when I heard Joe holler, “Hey pardner! How many nails?” I said, “What?“. He says, “How many nails do you want on a side?” I didn’t really believe what I just heard! “Joe, there are four holes on each side - and I want to see a nail in every damn one of them!“ “OK, pardner”, Joe comes back, “... just trying to save you some money“ (horse shoes cost about 2 1/2 cents each at that time!)
The second horse that Joe pulled was a rough one, so he tied up a hind foot - and the horse went down. Remembering what Joe had said, that they don’t get up without shoes on, I dropped what I was doing, jumped on the horse’s head and pulled it around so Joe could tie him up. “Oh, that’s OK pardner- let him up- I’d rather do him standing.”
As I recall, Joe only shod two horses that day - two of the shoes fell off the first week.
There’s an old saying “talk is cheap - takes money to buy whiskey!“
Tex Jenner and I shod hundreds of hack horses back in the day for four dollars a head with shoes, six dollars if we had to tie one up or throw one, we got two dollars extra! That doesn’t sound like much, I know. But a cowboy hacking horses only got $25-$30 a week with room and board (and gas for your pickup truck only $.16 a gallon!). A lot of cowboys who came out here from the West worked for $40 a month plus room and board -and of course they didn’t have all that many good looking girls out there to look at either!
A horseshoer can get really beat up at times. I was shoeing horses with Davy Jenner, Tex’s older brother up at the Paint Pony. We were working on two horses at the same time and the horseflies were really bad.
I was working on a hind foot and was just driving the second nail when the horse sat back, catching my finger with the nail and tore my finger off! He spun me around at the same time and broke my ankle! I crawled out from under the horse, grabbed my finger laying there in the sand, dragged myself over to my pickup and drove 25 miles to the Glens Falls Hospital. Did you ever try working a clutch and shifting with a broken ankle? Anyway, they sewed my finger back on, put a cast on my ankle and sent me back home. I drove myself. I was back to work hackin’ horses again three days later!
I was never a rodeo cowboy- never had the skill for it, but I worked behind the chutes, flanking horses, setting and pulling church flanks, tripping gates and the like for maybe three years. I was never a bronc rider, but I got to see some of the best ropers, doggers, bareback and saddle an’ bronc riders in the country! One I knew very well was the best bareback and saddle bronc rider of the lot! Hands-down! That was Tommy Quinlan. He won more silver rodeo buckles than all the others put together- and being the good guy he was - he gave most of them away! Tommy was a Montana boy and he damn sure knew horses and was a good horseshoer. He was one of the “real deals.”
A fella can get into some real money making deals sometimes. Hub Hubble had a western wear store in Lake Vanare. Hub was the announcer for the Painted Pony Rodeo for years. He and his wife Eunice were real rodeo show people.
Hub had bought this mounted horse with the saddle and all. It was a full size bucking horse! He had paid some big bucks for it and figured he could make a lot of money taking photos of dudes who wanted to impress the folks back home. It turned out to be a total flop! He had had it around outside the store most all summer and hadn’t had one taker. He was willing to sell it for a couple hundred dollars just to get out from under. Dick Lyon and I thought we could make some money, so we bought it. Hub even threw in the camera that had come with it. We hauled the mounted horse over to Animal Land in Lake George and Dick sat around there for two weeks and never had a taker. No one wanted to have their picture taken on a bucking horse. If it were 20 years before we would’ve done well!
Dick and I talked it over and I says, “Tell you what. Why don’t we haul it up to the rodeo and set it up in front of the chutes and take photos of the cowboys.“ So, that’s what we did! For the next two weekends most every rodeo cowboy had his photo taken before the rodeo started - and we made our money back on the first day!
That was the good part. The bad part was the cowboys had been wearing spurs and cut up the horse’s hide and stuffing was starting to come out of the poor horse. “Well,” I says, “... we made a good pile of money on it - I know a place up in Old Forge that just might buy it.”
So we loaded the horse up and headed for Old Forge, New York.
There was this old slabwood bar and trading post that had every kind of mounted animal or bird you could think of there – even cats and mice! We went into the bar and got a drink. After talking to the owner for a little while, I say, “my God, you’ve got most every kind of animal there is in here! It’s really something to see!“ That puffed him up a bit and gave him a smile.
We bought a couple more drinks, then I says, “We’ve got something that you ain’t got.“ He looks at me and says, “... and what might that be?“ “We’ve got a mounted horse.” He looks at me and says, “Yeah, sure you have.” “Yes”, I says, “We really do - It’s right outside.“ “You’ve got it with you? Let me see.” he says with a grin.
Well, we all went out to take a look at it, and he offered us 100 bucks - and we took it! We didn’t lose anything on the whole deal- and he bought us both another beer.
By this time I was running long trap lines during the fall and winter with a pickup, rather than back in the bush living in tents and lean-twos, trapping on snowshoes. I was trapping during the fall and lining up some big catches. During the winter I was bounty trapping quite a few bobcat, fox and coyotes along with a few fisher, which were becoming more plentiful and most trappers didn’t realize they were around yet.
About this time I met Earl Baker. Earl was a horseshoer at the Saratoga race track. There were about 20 blacksmith shops at the track and Earl was considered by many to be the best of the lot. Earl wanted to be a mink trapper and I wanted to learn how to shoe race horses, so to make a long story short -I taught Earl how to trap mink and he taught me how to shoe race horses.
By the next summer I started shoeing a better grade of horse and began making a lot more money. I didn’t need to waste my time shoeing six dollar horses anymore. Earl went on to become a good blind set man on mink (and a real pain in the ass at times!).
After years of being beat up shoeing horses, I became more interested in treasure hunting and gold mining during the warmer months.
I believe I first met Chris Burch (his first name was really Darwin) at the old Arrowhead Bar down in Congress, Arizona back in the early 80s. He was tied in with the last Dutchman Mining Association, who owned the government mining claims in the ghost town of Stanton. I was into killing coyotes and cats at the time and Chris was into gold mining.
Years later, after both of us had moved back East, we worked slush boxes in Vermont, New York and panned gold in Virginia, Georgia and both South Carolina and North Carolina. Chris taught me many tricks of the trade when it came to using a gold pan. It was years later that I learned just how good he really was!
Chris was a lot of things but being a bragger was not one of them. He actually held both national and international gold panning championships of the world. I know for a fact that Chris made his living for over 30 years as a gold miner in several Western states, as well as Canada. Last I knew he still had mining claims in Valdor, Canada.
Years ago, when China was building the dam on the Yangtze River, they found gold and closed the building of the dam until they could locate the source of the gold. Who did they contact to do the gold panning to locate the gold? Chris Burch! True story! The Chinese government paid all expenses over and back, and paid him $800 a day to pan the gravel the bar was bringing up with the drills! They worked for 10 days, I believe. There was eight men on the barge including armed guards, before finding the source of it, which is up near Tibet.
Chris and I sat around the table a great number of days and talked about it. What a story! He said it was like an Indiana Jones movie! Damn, I would’ve given anything to have been on that one!
I picked up the newspaper a few weeks ago and the name and photo of my friend Darwin was looking back at me. He’d been in poor health and confined to his home and although we spoke on the phone a few times, I felt very sad that I neglected to stay in closer touch with him over the past year. As I read the newspaper I became quite upset! Of course, the obituary contained all the proper information; who his parents were, where he was born, where he went to school and who he was survived by, etc. etc. Not one damn word about who he really was or what he accomplished during his lifetime!
Last year I was inducted into the Adirondack Cowboy Hall of Fame and was asked to walk up and accept my award and make a little speech before my peers. Many were old-time Cowboys and Rodeo people, most of whom I haven’t seen in over 40 years!
I stood there for a moment not knowing what to say and I thought, “what the hell“ and opened my mouth an’ the words just started pouring out, and what I had to say went something like this:
“I came to the dude ranch country back in 1954 and I went to work at Rocky Ridge here in Lake Luzerne, building fences and raking up after the horses.”
“In 1958, I went to work for Don “Wild Horse” Baxter, the man who ran the horses at the Painted Pony Rodeo. Don was the cowboy who brought in wild horses from Montana to be broken for the rodeo stocks. Don was considered one of the top notch Rodeo bronc rider‘s in this part of the country at that time and was a master horseshoer.“
“Don took me under his wing taught me how to set a saddle, how do use a rope, how to throw a wild Brock and tie up a foot and the right way to shoe one. My god, that man was good! Don Baxter was my one of my heroes and he still is today.”
“I worked a lot of rodeos in back of the chutes for a couple of years, moving stock, flanking horses and tapping gates but I guess the lack of ability and fear of pain kept me from being a real rodeo cowboy, and that said I see a lot of faces out there far more deserving of this award, and for that reason it really means a lot to me.”
As I walk back with the plaque in my hand, I passed Baxter and our eyes met for a moment and he said, “Thank you for that, John.“ I looked at him and said, “Don- thank you. I meant every word of it.” Don was the man who ended up marrying my first wife Pat years before.
The last time I saw Tex Jenner was a couple of years ago when he drifted in, and for about a week we sat around on the front porch drinking good bourbon whiskey and talking about the old days. Tex never got married, in fact I don’t really think he ever had a home other than the back of his pickup truck. We shod a pile of horses together back in the 60s. Tex was one of the boys who never sold out; he was still shoeing horses for a living, mostly out in Colorado.
He had been beat up a lot by bad horses over the years but he was still at it! Tex would give me a call about once or twice a year. One time he called from Colorado and he was up in the mountains looking for Spanish silver most of all summer. I guess he never found it - if he did, he never said.
In my book, 50 years a Trapper and Treasure Hunter, I spoke about Frank King and of his family and some of our adventures trapping beaver on Cold River, so there is no need to include any of that in this writing. Frank and his family moved to Chicken, Alaska and went to work mining gold for Chuck Wyman on Upper Wolf Creek, about 35 miles above Willows, Alaska. They took out enough gold the first fall to enable Frank to buy a fully stocked trading post at Willows with his share!
Frank and Dean Wilson’s grandson became beaver trapping partners for several years. For those of you who don’t know who Dean Wilson is - not only was he a professional trapper, he was also the largest for fur buyer in all of Alaska (all Alaskan Timberwolf caught in the state went through Dean).
A few years later Chuck Wyman’s claims on Wolf Creek became the richest gold mines in Alaska and his brothers left the lower forty eight and went up to Alaska to work the claims with him. His one brother Larry had been an old calf Roper at Painted Pony Rodeo years before.
Stony Creek had more than its fair share of characters back in the early 1950s. There were many old-timers who had been legends in their times and have long since been forgotten as I’ve been writing this. They are all gone now, each and every one, without any even recalling their names now.
This winter (2015) has been one of the worst in history according to folks who have moved here in the last 20 years. It’s been down to 10 and 20 below every night for the past four weeks. My water pipes froze up two nights ago and we have 3 1/2 feet of snow in the backyard. I know that I have a car out there in the driveway somewhere, but I haven’t seen it in the past week or so. The radio said the windchill factor last night was 40 below!
All that sounds pretty impressive but when I think about it, winter in Stony Creek was always like that back in the old days! I believe it was 1953 or ‘54, and I was living in a one room shack near Wolf Pond Road up at Knollhearst, just past the old Lazy J Ranch. I was working for Jack Baker, who was doing a little logging. He had a farm about a mile down the road past the Lazy J Ranch.
I walked down to his place one morning and when I walked in the door, Jack’s wife took one look at me and said, “my God, John, what happened to your nose?“ ““Why,“ says I, “why, it’s snow white!“ She says. About that time the nose started to thaw out and I could feel it! I ended up losing all the skin off the end of my nose! It was 44° below that morning!
Years later, first article I ever wrote was called “Forty Four Forty and Falling”, which I believe was published in the old Trappers World.
There was no end of “local color“ in Stony Creek at that time it was the heyday. At that time the stony creek that in Randy Knowles place across the street with the post office stands today as well as the Grange Hall where the tavern stands today all had square dances every Saturday night. The Stony Creek Inn is still alive and well and has been the one thing that is really never changed much over the years! I fear that when this place closes down it will be the death rattle of Stony Creek as we knew it!
Stony Creek had plenty of bar room scrappers back at that time. Ken and Jack Bonner been two of the most notable. Jack ended up losing one eye in a bar room scrap. Years later, Hank Soto wrote a song about it called “One-Eyed Jack“. I was friends with a lot of old Stony Creekers back in the day. Old John Fey (who’s house I live in today) was one. John’s wife had run him out of the house years before and he lived a little one room house up the bank out back with a root cellar under it. We used to sit on the steps in the summer and drink beer together. Little did I know I would be living in that same house 60 years later.