It’s early November in the southeast corner of Arizona (60 miles east of Tucson as the crow flies), and I’m driving into the mouth of Sulphur Springs Valley, hugged by rugged mountaintops on three sides. As I turn into the monstrous cottonwood grove marking the headquarters of the Sierra Bonita Ranch, I catch sight of the 140-year-old adobe ranch home—the oldest in the state continuously occupied and operated by one family.
A scene from the film Tombstone (1993) recreates a visit to this same ranch by Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and his “immortals.” Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) lays suffering from tuberculosis in an interior bedroom as Earp departs, taking one last look at his best friend from the doorway leading out to a porch. The actual house, I now see, has no porch. Otherwise, it’s exactly the same spread where the historic Doc rolled out of bed in 1882, coughing, to saddle up and ride. The imposing Charlton Heston aptly plays ranch owner Henry Hooker, who came from a line of Englishmen known for their courage and fierce belief in liberty. According to one descendent, the first Hooker immigrated to Connecticut in 1633 and was said to have “carried a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other; preaching on Sundays and fighting Indians on weekdays.” That’s basically what it took to build up Arizona’s first permanent ranch.
Henry Hooker (1828–1907) was well known for his hospitality, and today, I enjoy my own dose of “Hooker hospitality” when the man’s great-great-great- grandson, Jesse Hooker Davis, greets me with a handshake in the driveway. Like most cowboys, he dislikes the limelight. His private ranch is not open to the public, but he graciously agreed to my visit thanks to an introduction by his friend Scott Baxter. Davis and Baxter collaborated on Baxter’s book about old Arizona ranching families, 100 Years, 100 Ranchers (Prisma Graphic Corp., 2012), and Davis appreciated my interest in his ranch’s history and ongoing legacy.
Though he spent his youth visiting the ranch of his ancestors, Davis grew up in San Diego. Now 39 years old, the burly former running back for Cornell University moved back here permanently in 2003. He had been working in the hotel/restaurant industry and was looking forward to the day he’d own a string of bungalows on a Mexican beach, but a visit to his ailing grandmother, Jacqueline “Rinki” Hooker, changed everything. The ranch was ailing, too, since she was basically living in Tucson. The livestock had been in the care of a foreman for years, and the 4,000-plus-square-foot hacienda, corrals, bunkhouses, carriage house, and barns on the 160-acre original homestead had sat mostly unoccupied.
“She was just trying to hold onto the ranch,” says Davis, who was inspired to take charge. As soon as we step toward the house, I begin to understand how the Sierra Bonita survived the terror waged by Apaches—it’s literally a fortress. Davis’ tour of the hacienda ends with a visit to the high-ceilinged room where Doc Holliday once lay. The makers of Tombstone made replicas of the exact adobe brick walls, headboard, and dresser when they filmed on location near Tucson. I can almost see the real Doc languishing, pale and sweaty, in this very bed, as he did in real life and vividly on screen.
“Can you sense the spirits of all who have been here?” I whisper to Davis. “I think they watch over me,” he nods. “Or, at least I ask them to watch over me. Other people have sensed them, too, but they don’t like it quite as much as I do.”
Davis raises American Quarter horses on the 45,000-acre Sierra Bonita and has kept Henry Hooker’s original Hereford cattle, whose bloodlines date back a century. He runs a commercial cow-calf operation and works horseback with the help of three hired men. Davis’ cows begin calving in November, and each season’s rainfall and market fluctuations dictate how many, and when, he sells. “I’m the last of the Mohicans,” says the single Davis about losing his grandmother and father a few years ago.
“It’s my turn to take care of the ranch.” It’s been a steep learning curve, but nine years after settling in, he’s as much a part of the place as the once majestic adobe brick corral. The ranch has been listed as a national historic landmark since 1964, and isn’t going anywhere thanks to Davis, who hopes to pass on the legend of the Sierra Bonita to a seventh generation.
Henry Hooker had to learn the ropes, too. Raised in New Hampshire on a fourth-generation farm, he couldn’t resist the California Gold Rush and set out to earn his fortune. As for many, prospecting didn’t prove very profitable, so he opened a mercantile in the California foothills in Hangtown (modern-day Placerville) in 1858. It thrived for eight years, until it and his home burned to the ground. Devastated and wondering how to start over, the young father of three learned that the mining camps of Virginia City, Nev., paid well for meat. With his last few hundred dollars, he bought 500 turkeys at a dollar apiece, and with one hired hand and several dogs, he drove the birds over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Just short of his destination, however, the turkeys came to a precipice and took to the air. Hooker figured he’d lost everything—again— and set out to find the birds. He managed to locate the flock at the bottom of the cliff and drove them on to Carson City, Nev., where he earned $5 a head. It was a tidy profit, and he used the same gumption to become the undisputed “Cattle King of Arizona.”
The first cattle arrived in Arizona with Spanish missionaries in about 1680. But in the southern half of the state, nearly two centuries of raids by the Chiricahua Apache rendered permanent ranches nonexistent. In 1850, the United States obtained New Mexico Territory (most of modern-day Arizona and New Mexico) from Mexico. Soon, gold-seekers and Army surveyors began forging trails along the Gila River on their way to California. By the time Hooker had cashed in on his fowl in 1867, Arizona had become its own Territory and the Civil War had ended. Troops poured in to resume the Indian Wars, and they needed beef. Always a forward-thinking opportunist, Hooker partnered with Captain Hugh Hinds, who held a government contract for supplying cattle to military posts and Indian agencies. And when that contract expired, Hooker joined pioneering cattlemen William Hooper and James Barney in a similar venture.
Hooker spent five years driving cattle from Texas and the West Coast into the remote wilds of Arizona. According to family legend, on a drive in 1872, his herd stampeded one night. Hooker found the cattle grazing the next morning in the rich Sulphur Springs Valley flanked by the magnificent Pinaleño and Galiuro mountain ranges. The site, located near an abandoned Spanish hacienda, became headquarters of his new ranch (later he’d refer to those same mountain ranges as his “fences”). Hooker’s success was largely due to his visionary ranching techniques; unlike other ranchers who let their herds run free with little oversight, Hooker fenced rangeland to control breeding and provide medical care for sick or injured cattle. He carefully managed his herds to maximize profit and quality. And he knew how to hire great cowboys—and gunmen—to help protect his growing herd and the plentiful springs where they watered.
In describing his hiring process, Hooker told playwright Augustus Thomas in 1897 that he could tell a cowboy by the way he saddled his horse: “We take a man here and ask no questions. He may be a minister backslidin’, or a banker savin’ his last lung, or a trainrobber on his vacation—we don’t care. A good many of our most useful men have made their mistakes. All we care about is, will they set sixty hours in the saddle, holdin’ a herd that’s tryin’ to stampede all the time?”
Thomas, who ventured out to Fort Grant on the advice of his friend, Frederic Remington, wrote a play, Arizona, based on Hooker and his daughter-in-law. It opened in New York in 1900 and was made into a 1918 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks.
According to Thomas, Hooker was small in stature but “forceful.” His men took to calling him “Colonel,” and he was the first rancher in those parts to plant alfalfa and timothy hay. He also invested in silver mining and a dairy, but, like many cattlemen whose efficiency soared with the coming of the railroad in the 1880s, he mostly kept his wealth “on the hoof.” Profits were poured into more cattle. He brought in a finer, shorthorn breed from Oregon to replace the coarse Mexican longhorns he’d originally driven out of Texas. And later, he introduced the first Hereford herd in southern Arizona, along with “blooded” horses from Kentucky.
“We drove by cattle innumerable and horses enough, it seemed to me, to stock all the stage lines and livery stables in the Territory,” marveled a visitor in the Oct. 16, 1880 edition of the Weekly Arizona Citizen, referring to the 5,000 head of Sierra Bonita stock that then ran the length and width of the valley. “I do believe there is no more beautiful country in all Arizona than these foothills of the Galiura Mountains.”
Hooker built his home under the towering cottonwoods that sheltered those original stampeding cattle. A monstrous wooden gate remains the only entrance to the inner compound, and a large, weathered American flag stands sentinel out front 24 hours a day. When Jesse Hooker Davis pushes the gate, it slowly creaks opens to reveal a beautiful outdoor courtyard bordered by the four wings of the house. In the center, Hooker dug a well (now filled) so he’d have fresh water in case of a prolonged Indian siege. Adobe brick walls 16 inches high and 20 inches thick support the 80-by-100-foot wings of the home and are topped with gun ports in the parapets. The original pine and mud roof remains. It occurs to me that this would also be my first destination if a posse were hot on my trail. The west wing is simply a massive wall, containing a large warning (or dinner) bell. The north and south wings contain three bedrooms each, and the east wing contains the kitchen, commissary, dining room, and parlor. An exterior door was added in the 1880s that opens directly toward Fort Grant, established by the U.S. military in 1872 and visible 10 miles to the northeast.
Each room in the hacienda has a fireplace, and the ceiling of the entire headquarters, including carriage house and barns, is made of tongue-and-groove redwood. These, and the room Hooker added later for his bath, were touches of refinement that complemented his sense of fashion. Hooker always wore a bow tie and eastern hat.
“He would invite anyone—thief or dignitary—to his table,” says Davis. “The only requirement was that you had to be wearing a coat, and if you weren’t, he would offer you one from his own closet.”
Hooker was a fan of greyhound dogs—two of his favorites were called “Ketchum” and “Killum.” He later paid astronomical prices to import fine Thoroughbreds, which he would race up and down the streets of the nearest town, Tombstone (about 30 miles away), in his buggy.
“He knew he’d be fined, since you weren’t supposed to do that, so he’d just have the correct dollar amount ready and hand it over,” says Davis.
Hooker had seemingly limitless open range, so it’s not surprising that his Sierra Bonita became the largest ranch in Arizona, sprawling across 800 square miles and grazing up to 20,000 cattle and horses. What is surprising is that the Hooker spread survived the remote region’s marauding Indians and murdering desperadoes. In fact, the silver prospector who named Tombstone in 1877 is said to have done so after being told that venturing into the area was suicide.
“The only stone you’ll find out there is your tombstone,” others said to him.
Hooker’s home was 30 miles from Apache Pass—a four-mile-long gorge where Apaches historically waylaid emigrants, soldiers, and miners. As far back as the 1700s, the Spaniards called it “Puerto de Dado,” loosely translated as the “pass of chance” or the “gate of dice,” as in “you’re gambling with your life.” It was said the graves, bones, and wagon wreckage along the trail were so thick that you weren’t out of sight of them the entire four miles. Hooker lost men and untold numbers of stock to the Apaches over the years, including about $20,000 worth of Sierra Bonita horses in one 1881 raid (that’s nearly a half-million dollars today). Despite these losses, he was never decimated completely or attacked at his main headquarters.
“When he hooked his trotter to the buggy, he had a spot on the back for protection, like a shotgunner on a stage[coach],” says Davis. “One day he came out of a gully and was flanked on both sides by Apaches. Instead of slowing down, he drove straight into their camp. The braves strung him up, and when Cochise returned, he told them what a brave man Hooker had been to come directly into their camp.”
The Apache leader and rancher went on to form a friendship. In the early 1870s, the aging chief even gave the cattle king a large red blanket that depicts Hooker’s Crooked H—one of Arizona’s oldest brands (registered in 1875)—in each corner.
“The cool part is that the Apache weren’t even weavers,” says Davis. “Cochise must have had this commissioned by the Navajo or something. And Henry gave him a special blanket, too, that I’ve heard he’s wrapped in now.”
Cochise was captured in ’72, the same year Hooker started the Sierra Bonita, and died two years later. Aside from being lauded by Indians for his courage, Hooker never took retribution against the Apache for raids (he left that to the soldiers). In fact, he was shrewd enough to occasionally give them beef and was known to be trustworthy and good for his word. According to the Tombstone Epitaph, Chiricahua Apache Chief Geronimo respected Hooker enough to order his followers “ that Hooker’s property should not be molested or his men harmed.”
Hooker was known for being hospitable yet did not suffer fools. In 1877, 17-year-old William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, worked for the Sierra Bonita, but Hooker fired him in a matter of days. Not long after, Bonney killed his first man, a local blacksmith in a saloon a few miles from Fort Grant. He was imprisoned in the stockade but escaped to New Mexico before he could be tried. And when the posse chasing Wyatt Earp’s men arrived at Hooker’s ranch on March 27, 1882, he refused to tell the sheriff which direction his friends had gone.
According to an account published April 4, 1882 by the Tombstone Epitaph, he said: “The Earps have always behaved like gentlemen to me. Damn your laws, and damn your posse—they’re a set of horse thieves and outlaws.” Hooker’s men and the posse drew iron on each other, but the situation was diffused, and Hooker set an extra table for the “horse thieves and outlaws” and dined with the sheriff.
The Epitaph went on to report that the posse then rode into Fort Grant and offered the cavalry $500 for the use of its Indian scouts. Fort Commander Col. Bidwell stroked his beard, looked straight at the sheriff and said, “Hooker said he didn’t know where they were and wouldn’t tell you if he did? Well then, you can’t get any scouts here.”
When Davis moved back to Sierra Bonita, he leaned on the Mexican cowboy knowledge of 64-year-old Adame, who has worked for the ranch for 35 years. Originally raised on a ranch in Caborca, Sonora, Adame’s English keeps getting worse because Davis speaks fluent Spanish. They often discuss the day’s progress out near the barn that still houses Hooker’s original buggy and his great-grandmother’s sidesaddle. Both like to smoke tobacco and shield themselves from the Arizona sun under weathered cowboy hats and pearlsnap shirts. Davis usually sports a buckle adorned with the Crooked H and carries the same sense of propriety and determination as his forebears. He’ll need both to tackle the staggering amount of restoration needed to preserve the ranch buildings.
Each of the five prior generations made adjustments to the hacienda, such as adding windows and bathrooms; otherwise, it’s as if the clock has been turned back. Meat hooks still hang in an unused walk-in icebox, and the floors need work. A well meaning family member, for instance, once replaced some of the wooden floors with concrete, and now the trapped moisture is rapidly crumbling the century- old plaster, exposing the adobe bricks. Davis has been consulting with adobe and historical experts for advice on how to proceed.
“I may have to dig a trench along the walls with a gravel pack like a French drain,” he explains.
We laugh about how it would probably be easier to build himself a new house.
“And I should be the first in six generations to not live in this house?” he asks. “It might be cheaper in the long run, but it’s not worth it to me.”
Davis doesn’t mind the fort-like floor plan that has the living room seemingly a half-mile from the kitchen, and he knows the bugs, dust, and snakes that often infiltrate the cracking adobe are just part of living in what amounts to a museum.
Today, Davis and his construction foreman, Kris Kreutz, are discussing the restoration of the “cowboy kitchen,” a wooden room Hooker built off the kitchen, where every Sierra Bonita cowboy has dined for the last 140 years. Removing the floor, which was sagging significantly, Kreutz uncovered an old tongue-and-groove wood floor and, underneath that, another fasted with hand-forged nails.
“Who stood on this floor?” Kreutz asks, incredulous, his boot pointing at the upper floor. “And who stood on this one underneath it that’s 140 years old? Wyatt Earp stood here.”
Later, Davis and I recline in the backyard as a spectacular sunset descends on three wagons that Ed Hooker likely last drove. Inside, old Hereford rugs give the place character, and here and there flip-flops and copies of Surfer Magazine mix things up. Davis misses the ocean, yet seems content.
“It’s not my five Mexican bungalows,” he says. “But I’m already doing what doctors and lawyers work their whole lives to be able to retire and do. It just feels right.”