Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Empire Ranch: Action! in Southern Arizona

The Empire Ranch is just the kind of place Heyes and Curry might have worked at when they couldn’t avoid ranch work.  Located in southern Arizona, about 30 miles from the Mexican border, Empire Ranch was founded in the 1860s on 160 acres as a homestead.  It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which would have suited the ex-outlaws fine, although the small town of Sonoita is nearby.  At the present time, it’s still a working cattle ranch but a foundation administers the site, which is situated on Bureau of Land Management land.
View around Empire Ranch; Biscuit Mountain is in the center
On the first weekend on November, the Empire Ranch Foundation holds its annual “Round Up.”  There are talks about Western, Old West and cowboy life, presentations by and about the people who used to live and work at the ranch, demonstrations of horsemanship and shooting, cowboy entertainment and food, kids’ activities and, my favorite, sessions about the Westerns that were filmed on the ranch.
Entertainment area
You see, Empire Ranch was not just a working cattle ranch, it was also a movie set!  Actually, a few TV series also filmed there: Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Young Riders.  Some of the movies that I’ve reviewed on this blog filmed scenes there, too, such as 3:10 to Yuma (the original), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Hombre, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Winchester ’73, to name just a few.  More on this shortly.

Since this was my first time at Empire Ranch, I wanted to see as much as I could.  And even though I spent about five hours there (and another couple hours driving each way to and from, and passed through through Border Control checkpoints because it was so close to Mexico), I still missed out on a couple things.  I wanted to see the Dutch oven cooking demonstration but by the time I got there, they were packing up to leave.  And I completely forgot to get a cup of Arbuckles coffee inside the main ranch house--dang!
Back entrance to main part of the ranch house
But here’s what I did see and do:

There was a demonstration of roping cattle going on when I arrived.  This was in a small arena and a few men on horseback showed how to do it.

I watched for about 15 minutes and then moved on.  I could see why Heyes and Curry might get tired of looking after cattle for days on end.

I had a very interesting discussion with a rancher about cattle brands.  I learned that rustling is still a problem here!  I also learned that all Arizona-registered brands can be searched on the Arizona Department of Agriculture website and when someone wants to design a new brand, the state has to investigate and make sure it isn’t similar to one already in use.  It costs $75 to register a brand and the process takes a couple months.  And I learned that although fancy brands look nice, simpler ones are better because they are easier to see clearly and to make.  The rancher, Mr. Shock, had a table with various branding tools as well as other tools used for ranching.
Display of ranching tools
Another thing I learned from him is which particular tool ranchers prefer to use when castrating bulls.  But ‘nuff said on that!

Most of my time was spent learning about the movies that were filmed at Empire Ranch.  One talk was by two stuntmen, Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France.  This was fascinating!
Rodd Wolff on left, Bunker De France on right
They told stories about the movies they worked on and the actors and directors they worked with, including John Wayne, Paul Newman, and Jack Elam (Boot Coby in Bad Night in Big Butte).  They also discussed how some stunts were done and the safety measures they took to prevent injury.
Harness used when a stuntman had to fall off a horse
Another talk was by Marty Freese, who is the historian at Old Tucson Studios.  What a great job that must be!  He showed lobby cards of movies filmed at Empire Ranch, starting with the earliest movie, and discussed them in chronological order.  The landscape surrounding the ranch is not the same as Tucson because the elevation is around 5,000 feet; it looks more like high desert or prairie than the Sonoran desert with its cacti.  So movies could film at Old Tucson Studios and then go out to Empire Ranch and it would look very different.  But, just like at Old Tucson, there was a mountain called Biscuit Mountain (see the photograph at the top of this post) by the locals that often featured in the background of movies shot at Empire Ranch.

The third movie-related talk I attended was the one I was most eager to hear.  That’s because it was five men discussing the work they did on Westerns.  Rodd Wolff and Bunker De France participated as did Bob Shelton, along with Marty Freese who moderated.  The other participant was, drum roll please: Don Collier -- Mr. Tompkins in The Young Riders!
Don Collier
He was also in High Chaparral and mentioned that show’s upcoming convention next March in Tucson.  It was really cool to hear him discuss his career, although with four other people on the podium, he didn’t have all that much speaking time in the one hour slotted for this “Cowboy Conversation,” as these talks were called.

Mr. Collier didn’t talk about The Young Riders but afterwards, I went up and told him I was a fan (though I like ASJ more) and asked him about his time on the show.  He said he really enjoyed working with all those young actors, as he put it.  I also asked him what his favorite episode was and...can you guess?  It was the Season 2 episode called Pride and Prejudice; the one when Tompkins’ wife and daughter are “rescued” from the Indians who abducted them years ago.  That was one of my favorite episodes, too!

The last talk I heard was by John Larkin, an expert on the guns of the Old West.  He had a large collection of hand guns, rifles and shotguns and explained the history of many of them.  I saw a Winchester ’73, a Colt Peacemaker, a Schofield (Heyes’ weapon of choice: Wow!) and pistols used by Bill Hickok, though I’m not sure if they were authentic or replicas.
Mr. Larkin and maybe a Winchester '73
One thing Mr. Larkin said stood out for me: Gun belts of the sort that Heyes and Curry wore weren’t used in actual fact because it was awkward and too time-consuming to reach around and pull out a bullet from a belt like that, especially when doing it quickly.  Instead, men just kept their bullets loose in small leather pouches.

Time was running out so I walked quickly through the exhibit in the main house that told the story of Empire Ranch.  I spent a few minutes chatting with several writers who had tables set up inside to promote their books, all of which dealt with the West in one way or another.
Two of the several authors promoting their books about the West
Then I took a quick walk down to the beginning of the Heritage Discovery Trail, a scenic path that goes to, well, I'm not sure because I didn’t follow it.
Gate at start of Heritage Discovery Trail

By then it was getting late and I didn’t want to drive back along isolated roads by myself in the dark.  Like Curry and Heyes, I wanted a warm meal and a nice bed at the end of a long but very enjoyable day! 


Related Links:


History of Empire Ranch

General information about Empire Ranch

List of movies filmed at Empire Ranch