In The Desert
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Taming the Kofa's
Jack and Martha Wilbanks
By Barbara Wilbanks Washum
Pictured here with her two sisters at the cabin
The King of Arizona Mountains, known as the Kofa Mountains, rise majestically out of the Sonoran Desert in southwestern Arizona. These beautiful, rugged mountains are easily visible to a traveler on Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma. The 660,000 acres of pristine desert environment is designated as the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge established by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to protect and preserve the native wildlife species.
Visible from Highway 95, a few miles south of Palm Canyon Road, is a white, rounded peak known as Squaw Peak. Unseen on the other side about two miles east on a flat knoll is a lonely cabin offering shelter to hikers and campers. The cabin is almost 70 years old, weathered and worn and impersonal to the visitor. But inside the lonely cabin still lives the heart of a young family who called it "Home".
When Jack Wilbanks first saw the Kofa Mountains in the spring of 1931, the hillsides were covered with lush grass and colorful wildflowers. Fat deer and burros grazed on the abundant grass. Palo Verde and mesquite trees were covered with yellow blossoms, and green, leafy ocotillo waved bunches of scarlet flowers in a cool breeze. Puddles of water stood in the damp washes.
Jack was a young cowboy with a dream. Born on March 11, l905 and raised on a cattle ranch near Payson, Arizona, where winters were cold and damp, he was looking for grazing land where the climate was warmer and drier for his pneumonia-scarred lungs. And he wanted land that wasn't controlled by the Tonto National Forest where ranchers were issued cattle allotments. After his first visit to the Kofa Mountains and surrounding Sonoran Desert, his search was over. His dream of owning a large cattle ranch was coming true.
Jack sold his share of the Flying W Ranch to his brother, Carrel, then purchased the few improvements established by Walter Bales, a rancher from Buckeye and Salome. This included eight hand-dug water wells scattered throughout the eastern slopes of the mountain range. He obtained a grazing permit from the State of Arizona and registered his brand, Rafter W ( W ). After the long cattle drive from Payson to Phoenix, Jack's share of Hereford cattle and horses were shipped by freight train to Salome. On horseback, cowboys helped him move the stock across the base of the Harquahala Mountains into the Kofa Mountains crossing Highway 60 at Hope.
With the help of his father-in-law, Dudley Lewis, he built a four-room house, barn and corral. Lumber and supplies were hauled to the mountain site by truck from Phoenix. The first one hundred and twenty miles on Highway 60 were unpaved but graded. The last fifty miles were over sandy desert, gravel washes and rock hillsides.
Lastly, he moved his young wife, Martha, and baby daughter, Jacqueline, from the comforts of the family ranch home near Payson, and at age 26, started living his dream of owning a successful cattle ranch.
But the dream soon turned into a nightmare. A long drought accompanied the Great Depression. By the spring of 1932 there wasn't grass or water or a market for Jack's cattle. He saw the grass and water disappear as swiftly as a mirage. The young couple found they were at the mercy of a hostile environment in the wilderness of the Kofa Mountains.
It was difficult to relocate the cattle and horses. Somehow the horses knew they should be grazing on tall grass along the cool Tonto Creek bed instead of thirsting and starving on a rocky hillside in the hot sun. They scattered off in all directions, even as far away as Peeples Valley near Prescott. The cattle wandered off searching for grass. Jack was busy from early dawn to sundown searching for his valuable herd. He encased the wells with rock and cement, and installed windmills at all the wells to pump water into the watering troughs. If the wind didn't pump out enough water during extreme hot weather, he hooked up a gasoline motor to the shaft. He built holding pens or corrals and loading and branding chutes at the larger wells. Still, after all his work, a herd of wild burros could trample the source of water overnight.
There weren't any real roads, only paths and ruts over rough, rocky terrain and gravel washes. Their Chevrolet pickup truck was usually loaded with supplied so on many occasions Jack's horse had to add the extra "horse power" to pull them out of a wash or up a hillside.
Sheep Tank Mine was located about twenty miles east and was one of the few active mines in the Kofas in the early 1930s. A few hopeful prospectors had mining claims and wandered around in the mountains with burros searching for the Lost Mexican Silver mine, and a few homesteaders were living on the surrounding desert but the nearest little towns with neighbors and mercantile shops were over forty miles away. Without a radio or newspaper, Jack and Martha had contact with the outside world only when they went to town for supplies
Martha was not prepared for the isolation of her new home. Only 21 years old, pretty and lively, she enjoyed family, friends and social activities. With Jack away all day, she was lonely and sometimes frightened. Jack also missed his Payson home. He hadn't realized the importance of family, friends and familiar surroundings.
The Wilbanks ranch house sat on a knoll near the wide Hoodoo wash. Beside the wood frame, four-room house was a storage room and shop and an outhouse. At the base of the knoll was a water well that furnished plenty of water for the home and watering troughs. The barn with tack room and corral were located across the wash on a high, flat mound covered with scrub brush. At this location Jack and Martha tried to establish a productive ranch. They planted fruit trees and a garden, but the young tree roots didn't like the dry, rocky soil. Rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks ate all the tender vegetable plants. Coyotes feasted on the chickens and a pet cat, Zookie, who was controlling pack rats.
Jack hauled in bales of hay from Mesa for his horses and stored them in the barn. A cowboy carelessly threw a cigarette butt on the dry alfalfa. During the night, the young couple tearfully watched their barn, hay and saddlery disappear in raging flames. As soon as the frantic horses escaped the corral they scattered across the mountains. Jack repaired the corral but didn't replace the barn. Thereafter, except during spring roundup, Jack worked alone with his trusty dog, Old Jack.
By June 1932 a second daughter, Barbara, was added to the family. Fearing rattlesnakes, scorpions and other poisonous insects, Martha always kept her little girls by her side. Jack protected his young family also, and provided all the basic necessities and a few luxuries that were usable in the wilderness. Surprisingly, Santa Claus found his way to the isolated home when others could not. The pantry was filled with canned and dry foods to add to the small wild game Jack caught in traps. Martha cooked on a wood burning stove.
In the spring of 1934, Martha put a bucket of ashes outside behind their home. A gust of wind blew a hot coal on the roof. The house with all their furnishings and belongings quickly went up in flames. Martha only saved her little girls. Fortunately, the keys were in the pickup so, frightened and heartsick, Martha drove to the water wells until she found her husband to tell him she had burned down their home. Jack took his family to a motel in Salome, then to Martha's father's home in Phoenix. He had to return immediately to the ranch to take care of his cattle and wells.
Feeling remorseful, Martha returned to the ranch within a few weeks. The family lived in the small storage shed until Jack built a two-room cabin with a lean-to porch. A second time Jack hauled in lumber and furnishings from Phoenix. A large cast iron wood-burning stove found at one of the abandoned mines was placed in the kitchen corner before the cabin walls were built. Later hauled in from Phoenix by Fannin's Appliance Company was a butane refrigerator, which was Jack and Martha's most prized possession. They enjoyed iced tea and homemade ice cream daily and could store beef. The Wilbanks family called this small cabin "Home".
Because the drought was so severe in 1934 and 1935, Jack had to keep moving the cattle from water wells to grass patches as far away as the Bouse Wash. Martha and the little girls followed Jack with supplies in their pickup and camped at wells under big ironwood or palo verde trees or inside abandoned homesteads on the desert. The temperature often stayed at 120 °. Jack finally sent his best cows to the Crowder Feed Lot in Yuma. United States government officials shot some of the starving stock or bought and shipped the healthier ones to depressed Oklahoma. Buzzards were the only creatures that grew fat.
One big mountain lion was hungry also. He stalked the helpless calves at night and ate his prey. Jack requested help from the U. S. Wildlife Service in Yuma and a ranger was sent to help Jack track and kill the predator. They tracked the big cat far up in the mountains and shot him as he leaped toward them. The old cat was larger than either man.
Original Photo - Jack Wilbanks on the right.
Jack wasn't a religious man, but part Cherokee Indian, he instinctively knew to respect the laws of Mother Earth. He loved his cattle and recognized each one by the white patches on their red bodies. After he found one of his favorite twin calf-bearing cows dead from starvation, he fell on the ground and cried and prayed, "God, I can't do this work alone any longer. I need help." The family left their camp at New Water Well at the base of the Kofas and went back into the mountains looking for grass. Within hours, storm clouds rolled in and sheets of rain pelted their pickup. When they finally returned to their camp, all their supplies were washed away in a flash flood. After the water finished running out of the mountains, all their water-soaked bedrolls, clothes, pans, dishes and canned goods without labels were found scattered down the wash. Jack learned to never pray for rain while camped near a wash. Also he learned to believe in the power of prayer. As he watched grasses cover the hillsides and clear, fresh water flow into the troughs, his despair quickly turned to an everlasting faith in God.
Also washed out in the flood were rattlesnake beds adding more nightmares to Martha who had learned to quickly chop off a threatening snake's head with a sharp shovel blade. Jack easily shot off their heads with his pistol. To calm Martha and Jack's worst fears, Jacqueline and Barbara stayed with their Grandmother Wilbanks at the ranch near Payson during the summers. The girls loved their Grandma and young Aunt Mamie Ruth and all the summer activities in Payson.
In February 1936 the drought really broke. It rained for two weeks. Water poured down the dry mountainsides and the washes ran like rivers spilling out into the desert. The ruts called roads were muddy bogs. Martha had not washed the family laundry during the rainy weeks. On the first sunny morning, Martha prepared to wash. While Jack was hooking up the gasoline motor to the well pump, the belt pulled his hand into the pulley. His right hand was completely mangled. Martha wrapped his hand in a dishtowel, packed the pickup, including baskets of dirty clothes, and prepared for the drive off the water soaked mountains through wet washes and slippery hillsides. When they finally arrived at the desert flats, the mud was too deep for crossing. Martha drove back into the mountains to Sheep Tank Mine where they found two men guarding the mine. The men took the family in their larger pickup to another desert crossing. The mud was still too deep to drive over, so the men helped carry the little girls (and laundry) across a mile of mud to an abandoned adobe cabin. While the family and one man waited, the other man walked a few miles to Hope located on Highway 60. The owner of Hope, Hope Survant, returned in his pickup over drier land, and picked up the weary, frightened family. Mr. Survant drove Jack and his family to Mesa to the hospital. The whole ordeal took over twelve hours. Jack's hand had not bled because it was so mangled and engine grease was imbedded in the wounds. Jack begged the family doctor, Dr. Truman, to save his hand. Miraculously, he lost only one finger. Jack's biggest loss was his perfect pistol shot. The Wilbanks family was forever grateful to Mr. Survant and the helpful guards at Sheep Tank Mine.
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