Monday, February 9, 2009

A Much More Difficult Time

by Ben Small

I paid another visit to my friend John Weber just outside Tombstone. He’s the licensed rattlesnake hunter I mentioned in a prior article. But this time I went not for rattlesnake wallets, although I bought some for family members, but for his outdoor museum. John and I spent a couple hours staring at the implements he’s collected, evidence of the hard life experienced by desert settlers during Tombstone’s boom time. I also spent some time at Wyatt Earp’s house, a small two room house with no kitchen or bathroom. For meals, Wyatt and his live-in mate, had to cross the street to Virgil Earp’s home where family meals were cooked. That house burned down in 1998 and wasn’t rebuilt. It’s a vacant field now.

Here’s a section of Wyatt Earp’s wallpaper.

And here's one of Earp's buggies. Wyatt sold it when the Earps left Tombstone, and the not-for-profit that runs his house was able to track it and buy it back and restore it. Note: no shock absorbers.

Yuk. But Tombstone wasn’t a “feel good” sort of place in the 1880s, unless you were Ed Schieffelin and his partners, who were among the few who actually made money from the mines. They cashed in early for what now would approximate one billion dollars.
For the rest, Tombstone was, indeed, the “Town Too Tough To Die.”

These pictures show various tools used to de-horn and remove testicles from bulls. Evidently, from the number and variety of these in John's collection, this was a regular activity in Tombstone days. Don't know why I took pictures of so many of them. Maybe I identify with the bulls...

Here are some actual Tombstone posters which were nailed to posts throughout the town. These are the real thing, not something printed up post-period.

Branding was the name of the game for both ranchers and rustlers in those days. Cattle were free-range, so branding was essential. Problem was the rustlers were excellent at making their own brands, which would duplicate an existing brand but add a bar or circle, so the rustlers could claim the cattle were theirs. And cattle farming or stealing was profitable; the miners needed food. So, naturally, John Weber has many brands, some of which are remarkably similar. While I've got pictures after pictures of these different brands, I'll just flash one for you.

Of course, as shown by one of the posters above, Tombstone was a gun-free town, unless you were a Clanton or McLaurey and you wanted a gunfight over the issue. But outside town, hog-legs and Winchesters were essential tools. Between the Apache, rustlers and mine raiders, this was a very dangerous territory. John has some cartridges from the period.

Everyday existence in Tombstone was a struggle. There was no water; it was carried in from the San Pedro River via wagon and cost 3c/gallon. Ironically, water led to the closing of the mines in 1887, just nine or so years after the town was founded. The Tombstone silver mines were not closed because of the plunge in silver prices, as is commonly stated. The mines were flooded when a massive 1887 earthquake tore open a fault and part of the underground San Pedro flow streamed upward.

When a cattleman, miner or traveler had to spend a night in the desert, there was the issue of what to do with the horses? Unless one was staying along the river where large mesquite or cottonwood trees would provide a tie-up, the traveler had to carry the means for keeping his horse nearby. But the river was an especially dangerous area, because brigands, marauders and predators (mountain lions, rattlesnakes and bears) prowled the river banks. So it was much safer to sleep out in the desert. But how to tie up the horses? Here's an example of how that was done. The traveler would screw these posts into the ground and tie his horse to it.

If you were a miner or a cattleman who caught a claim jumper or rustler, and you didn't shoot him, you had to have some way to keep the bad guy captive until the town or county marshal could take over. Here's one way this was done.

The miners were afraid to leave their mines, lest claim jumpers settle in, so the miner had to keep nearby all his pots, pans, tents, and mining equipment. So much like the movies, travelers during this period usually trailed a mule laden with all this hardware. Here are some of the things those poor beasts had to carry.

If you happen to travel to Southern Arizona, I highly recommend visiting John Weber's outdoor museum and rattlesnake crafts store. Admission is free, and what you see will leave lasting impressions. Contact John at You may recognize him; he's been on both The Today Show and PBS.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with a picture of the entrance to his museum. It's quite a place, and a reminder that no matter how tough we think times are now, they were much more demanding a hundred twenty-five years ago...

Note: Sorry for the dis-jointed positioning of some of these pictures. This was the best I could do given the limitations of Blogger.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Ben, I've been to Tombstone several times and used to write articles for the Tombstone Epitaph. I visited Boot Hill but, unfortunately, didn't know about John Weber's museum. I've always been fascinated by the Earp brothers.

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting stuff, Ben. I've always been fascinated by those tales of the Old West.

Ben Small said...


Ditto. Had no idea you used to write for the Epitaph. Did you live down here? Fascinating stuff, the feud between the Cowboys and the Earps. Until I got out here, I had no idea it went far beyond the OK Corral battle. John Weber’s place is truly unique. I find it almost spiritual. And John’s an interesting guy. He quit his contract management job at our company at the height of his prowess, when he had the respect of our top officers and influential people in the state of Illinois. His wife died as did his best friend, so he married his best friend’s wife and together they quit their jobs and moved out here, not having any idea how they’d support themselves. Then he says he say a rattlesnake hatband selling for $50 and decided he could do better than that. The museum started out as just things he found with a metal detector, but then ranchers started bringing him stuff as bartering currency, and he was off and running in building his museum. Now, I think the museum is more fascinating than the rattlesnake stuff.

Beth Terrell said...

I've always wanted to visit Tombstone, probably because I was heavily influenced by my grandmother's Louis L'Amour westerns.

Gotta love a book where everybody rides a horse:)

The museum sounds fascinating, Ben.