Archive for January, 2013

The Pony Express Rides Again

Some of Today's Pony Express

Some of Today’s Pony Express

Have you ever gotten a tardy piece of mail and joked, “It must have come by Pony Express?” Of course, we all learned about the Pony Express in school, right? I remember that I did–and I loved it. It was one of the few bits of history that starred horses! But that’s what it always was to me, and I’ll bet to you, too–history. Until I moved to Holbrook.

 Here’s the background to my story: In the 1880’s,  there was a ranch near Holbrook owned by The Aztec Land and Cattle Company. The brand of that ranch was the hashknife, which, in case you’re interested, was the knife the cowboy cooks used to cut up the leftover meat into small bits for breakfast hash. If you look at the picture on the left, you can see a couple of white mugs on the table in front of the men, and the black or red design on them is the famous hashknife brand. The Hashknife cowboys were known in our area for a lot of things, including–I must admit it–being hell-raisers. But none the less, they were glorious hell-raisers, who left a legend behind. The Hashknife Pony Express and the Navajo County Hashknife Sheriff’s Posse carry their name. 

In 1958, the Hashknife Pony Express began carrying the mail between Holbrook and Scottsdale once a year, in January, to correspond with–and lead–Scottsdale’s Parada del Sol, a huge horse-drawn parade. Up here in Holbrook, nobody cares much about the parade at the far end, but the carrying of the mail has an amazing cachet to it. 

The Pony Express riders will be sworn in as official mail messengers of the US Postal Service today at noon, and tomorrow morning will begin their mountainous 200 mile ride from Holbrook to Scottsdale. If you wish, you can mail letters which will have a special cancellation and be carried by the Pony Express. You still have to stamp your letters in the normal way, of course. You have to admit, it’s sort of cool. In fact, people around the world send letters to Holbrook to be carried and stamped in this way. 

The actual ride is still cold, often snowy, and arduous, but made a bit easier than in was in the Pony Express days that we learned about in school. There are horse trailers and relays of horses and riders, but it still takes a couple of days to get from here to the Valley. The riders camp out at night, eat cowboy food, and (I’ve heard), carry on a little in the old Hashknife tradition. But they plan for the ride all year, and they take it really seriously, as does the community.  

Last year, Jeff and I didn’t attend the send-off dinner. It sounded like grown-ups playing Cowboys and Indians to us, uninitiated as we were. But we see it a little differently now and understand it better. You see, for some of the Hashknife membership, who are children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of area settlers, this isn’t a game to them, it’s living history. Their history. And they feel passionate about keeping it alive. Why not? So last night, we went to the dinner, along with friends, and we enjoyed the cowboy beans, barbequed pork, and cornbread with the Pony Express. When in Rome, after all…Next year, cowboy hats? Who knows?

Our friend and former Navajo County Sheriff's Deputy John May

Our friend and former Navajo County Sheriff’s Deputy John May


Read Anything Good Lately?


Vanished Arizona: Recollections of the Army Life of a New England Woman

I borrowed this cover photo from Amazon today to introduce you to a delightful book I happened to read last week. If you live in Wisconsin or Florida or Guam, you might wonder why I’m recommending a book that has specific relevance to Arizona on this blog, but the appeal of Vanished Arizona is much wider than one state, despite the book’s age.

The author, Martha Summerhayes, grew up in New England in the late 1800s, where she received an excellent education, topped off by a year on the Continent with family friends. The father in her German host family was a soldier himself; her admiration for the military and the military life prospered in that fertile atmosphere. In fact, it grew so much that when she returned home, she married “my friend, Jack,” an Army second Lieutenant who had seen service in the Civil War. During all her married life, she kept journals, from which she drew this book in later years. And Martha was a dandy writer–fresh, vivid and amusing.

In the 1870’s, she went with Jack to serve on the frontier in several military posts, primarily in Arizona. She talks about life on these isolated stations and her experiences, about her husband and his work, about her neighbors and their foibles. Throughout the journal , her lively voice makes the reader chuckle aloud at times, and at times feel very sorry for the hardships she endured.

My favorite story from the book describes a memorable evening in the Summerhayes household, when the desert heat reached record-breaking levels, and the only way they could possibly sleep in their quarters was to open their unscreened first floor bedroom window. Coyotes and  wildcats filled the Western night with their hunting cries, and poor Eastern Martha  got more and more nervous as their calls seemed to come closer. She asked her husband if they had anything to worry about from the animals, and of course, he said “no” (husbands obviously have not changed substantially since the 1870s–Jeff would say the same thing). He’d barely gotten the words out of his mouth when a wildcat leaped through the open window, ran across them in the bed, and hid behind the sofa in the living room. Martha recounts that her husband cried, “Jerusalem!” grabbed his sword, and ran to the living room, where he rooted around under the sofa with it. The terrified cat decided it had made an inhospitable choice of lodging, ran back into the bedroom, galloped once again across the bed, and over the poor frightened woman on its way back to freedom via the open window!

Martha didn’t immediately fall in love with the Arizona Territory. Responsible household help could rarely be hired,  the heat scorched them relentlessly, and she had to depend upon the wives of the other officers to help her learn to cook, sew, and raise her children under tough conditions. But she never flagged in her admiration for the military, she loved her handsome, dashing husband, whom she called “my hero,” and she worked faithfully to advance his career. She loved adventure, loved the hot Southwestern food, admired the native people of the area, and eventually came to love the territory itself. She wrote daily, used every possible opportunity to speak her beloved second language, German, and spoke her mind frankly about all sorts of matters. Martha Summerhayes must have been a lot of fun. Both she and her husband formed life-long friends during his years of service.

I’m telling you about this little book because sometimes, we think people of the past are sufficiently different from us that we have nothing to say to one another. But you’d like Martha’s story–and while you certainly can order the book from Amazon, you can also download it from Project Gutenberg at no charge. My preferred genre to read is mystery, but sometimes I take a chance on something really different. This one was great fun for me.

What have you been reading lately?