February/March 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 2
The cowboys are gone, and so are the critters, Owen Ulph tells us in “The Cowboy and the Critter” on the preceding pages. The West, Ulph says, will never see their like again. Perhaps-but the image left behind them, lambent with truth or riddled with error, is not something we Americans are willing to give up easily. Or so it would seem from an event that took place in Arizona in the fall of 1975.
The event was an old-fashioned cattle drive, a real-life, round-’em-up, move-’em-out,git-along-little-dogie re-enactment of the days when meat on the hoof was pried, prodded, and roped out of the brush and bogholes of the West, gathered together, then driven hundreds of miles to shipping points for eventual conversion into digestible protein. It was, as always, dirty, exhausting, sunup-tosundown work and, in this age of cattle trucks and superhighways, completely unnecessary.
So why do it? The answer, at least according to Ed Overmyer, one of the drive’s principal organizers, was to give the cowboy his just share of the Bicentennial limelight. Overmyer, owner of the Triangle T guest ranch and the E Diamond working ranch near Dragoon, Arizona, was hunkered down watching a Bicentennial television program one evening in 1975 and was struck by the fact that apparently not much was being planned to commemorate the role of the cowboy in the winning of the West. He talked over the situation with a few friends and neighbors, and together they came up with the notion of the “Last Cattle Drive.”
The Plan: Overmyer and friends would gather up some 250 head of cattle (including a number of descendants of the old Texas Longhorns) and ship them to Willcox, a little town in the southeastern corner of Arizona they had selected as their starting point for the drive. Other cattlemen who wished to participate would contribute additional cattle, until a herd of about a thousand had been accumulated. A hand-picked team of drovers, complete with the traditional working clothes and equipment of the old-time cowhand (including a horse-drawn, though rubbertired, chuck wagon), would trail the herd south down the Sulphur Spring Valley to Douglas on the Mexican border, west to the copper-mining town of Bisbee, then northwest to Tombstone, Benson, and finally the stockyards outside Tucson, where the cattle would be auctioned off to the highest bidders. The drive would cover about 350 miles and take thirty days to complete. The drovers would be paid the traditional thirty silver dollars and found. Along the way, barbecues and branding demonstrations would be held; after expenses, the proceeds from these and from the Tucson auction would be donated to the muscular dystrophy fund, one of Overmyer’s favorite charities.
The Reality: When the herd rattled across the railroad tracks outside Willcox on October 20, as scheduled, it contained only 250 head. Various government officials had blanched at the notion of 1,000 cows lumbering about in modern Arizona (and even for 250 the liability insurance the state demanded cost Overmyer nine thousand dollars for a one-month premium); in any case, the donation of additional cattle somehow never materialized. Most of the ranchers who owned land over which the cattle had to be driven co-operated by cutting their fences when necessary and by providing water. Others were downright surly, muttering that the whole thing was just a stunt to promote Overmyer’s dude ranch. One rancher refused the herd water during a particularly thirsty stretch, and a number of others would not allow the cattle to cross their land. At one ranch the gates were blocked with pickups accompanied by a group of men obviously prepared for a throwdown if it came to it. In the finest John Wayne tradition, Overmyer strode up to the men, heard their objections, then spat at their feet and laconically allowed as how he would take the herd around the ranch, which he did.
Financial difficulties were less easily resolved. Overmyer paid out some twenty thousand dollars for the drive, and for a time it appeared that he would never get it back—much less be able to contribute anything to charity. The trailside barbecues and branding demonstrations never attracted the number of people that had been expected, and when the cattle were finally auctioned off at the Tucson stockyards in early November, they brought in considerably less than Overmyer had anticipated. He was heavily in debt. Fortunately, newspaper stories about his dilemma brought in a flood of mail, including enough checks to make up the deficit, and then some. Even so, the money he was finally able to turn over to the Muscular Dystrophy Association amounted to only eighteen hundred dollars.
The cruelest disappointment of all came a little less than a year after the expedition, when a group of Texans rounded up seventy Longhorn cattle and trailed them five hundred miles from San Antonio to Lubbock as a commemoration of the opening of the Ranching Heritage Center at the Museum of Texas Technological College. Overmyer’s “Last Cattle Drive” suddenly became the next to last cattle drive.
Still, last or not, it was real enough, and for those who took part it was redolent of other days, as Paul Dean, a columnist for the Arizona Republic noted: “Tin cups by the Sierra Club. Canteen water cooled in a Coleman. A Taiwan air mattress beneath a sleeping bag. But neither drive nor drovers should be sold one limp short for the way they are, and the way they are portraying that it was. Coffee is still campfire and 40 percent grounds and called ‘Arbuckle,’ although it has been 40 years since Arbuckle Bros, became Maxwell House.… Stampedes continue to be beef against horseflesh, with odds on the beef for the first hundred yards. A bandana is no Scottsdale ascot but a sun visor, dust mask, towel, blindfold, hat tie, bandage, water filter, sling, calf halter, and, but not on this drive, a shroud to cover dead faces. And the majority of hands on this move are men, cowmen with beef-jerky muscles on barbed-wire bones.”
Altogether, it was a brave attempt to recapture the past, and if it didn’t work out quite as hoped, Overmeyer and his compatriots might have found consolation in a phrase someone once scribbled on the men’s-room wall of a San Francisco saloon: “Nostalgia,” he wrote, “ain’t what it used to be.”