Bishop Mule Days: A Rip-Roaring, Mule-Packing, Toe-Tapping, Saucy Good Time!

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In a fit of wishful thinking, the image and the sensation of warm summer days keeps coming to mind. Well, I haven’t been so much thinking about it as I have been longing for it with every fiber of my being. Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow, but that overgrown rodent can’t take away my dreams of warmth, sunshine, and pain-free fingers! So, as I sit here trying to warm my cold extremities, I’ve decided to do a little planning ahead for warmer weather.

Even though it technically falls in the spring season, Memorial Day will forever be the official summer kickoff, in my mind. That’s why, today, we’re going to do a little looking forward to a classic Western summertime kickoff: The Bishop Mule Days Celebration. For 46 years, crowds have headed to the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to gather in Bishop, California for a Memorial Day extravaganza to celebrate the hardest working equine in Western history.

 A Little Mule Days History

Blog2I’m always interested in learning how a town first began doing something, like say, honoring mules. Admit it; it sounds a little wacky. But the history of Mule Days is one to which I can totally relate. You see, the winter of 1969 was a bitter one for the people in the towns along the Eastern Sierra Nevada area. There was snow in them thar hills and I can pretty well guarantee you that someone was tired of having cold hands and feet! In fact, it had been one of the coldest, snowiest winters in recorded history.

Blog3Snow can be fun at first. Hey, who doesn’t like snow ice cream and making snow angels? But enough already! Pretty soon, the people in the Bishop, California area were ready for the ding-danged thaw! And cash-strapped locals were more than ready for the return of the tourists seeking pack rides into the mountains. A small group of mule packers hit upon an idea: They couldn’t make the snow thaw any faster, but they could at least bring a little interest to the town once the thaw started!

Blog4They planned a one-day competition to be held at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop. They would have it on the Saturday before Memorial Day and they would call it Mule Day! Mule Day—it was poetic in its simplicity. There’s no need to use flowery words when you’ve hit upon a fine idea. If the Chinese could proclaim 1969 the Year of the Rooster, then Bishop, California could declare the Saturday before Memorial Day to be the Day of the Mule!

Blog5Yes, it was a celebration of the long ears! Up until that point, mules hadn’t gotten a tremendous amount of positive PR. There was a parade through downtown Bishop, in the morning. There was a showcase of “traditional pioneer packing skills” later in the day. And the day was a rousing success! It was such a success that packers from far and wide declared that they should have it again the following year. And so they did. And they kept having it. And people kept coming! In 1974, then California Governor, Ronald Reagan, even served as Grand Marshall of the Mule Day Parade.

 Mule Train

Blog6What began as an itty-bitty mule show in 1969 has today grown into one whale of an event. (Er, maybe that should be one mule of an event.) The celebration draws a crowd in excess of 30,000 people to see, what the Mule Days official website calls, “part mule show, part test of skills, and part Wild West show.” And the best part? It’s warm! Well, okay, it can actually be quite hot, but that doesn’t sound so bad right now.

Blog7Competitions include everything from standard rodeo competitions, to packing competitions, to horse shows, to mini donkey driving. You can watch mule-back steer roping and penning! You can sign up for pleasure driving and trail rides. You can take trail and halter classes and jumping classes. There’s dressage of both the English and Western varieties and there is showjumping. There’s a chuck wagon race, a bedroll race and a Dolly Parton race. (I must admit that the Dolly Parton race has piqued my interest more than a little bit!)

43rd annual Bishop Mule Days CelebrationAll told, 700 mules compete in 181 events at Mule Days! Plus, there are country music stars, dances and an arts and craft show. Oh, and let’s not forget that there is barbecue, bar-b-q, B-B-Q! It is a rip-roaring, mule-packing, toe-tapping, saucy good time!

 I Love a Parade

Blog9I love a parade! If you love a parade, too, you should add the Mule Days Parade to your bucket list. It is said to be the nation’s largest, totally non-motorized parade. Who needs motors when you’ve got mule power? Even the Budweiser Clydesdales will be there to add a little star power to the event! However, it can honestly be said that the mules themselves are the real stars of this event. Mule Days is all about celebrating the hard-working animals that helped make the American West what it is today.

The 46th Annual Bishop Mule Days Celebration will take place May 19-24, 2015. Tickets are on sale now so snatch yours up, mark your calendar, and start dreaming of warmer days ahead!

And take a few minutes to watch this great video, you’ll see what the Bishop Mule Days Celebration is really like!

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

Richard Farnsworth: An Actor and a Gentleman

Farn1It’s almost Oscar time! I can’t help getting excited about it. It’s that wonderful night when I get to sit at home in my jammies and mentally critique evening gowns. Throw in some popcorn and you have my recipe for a great evening! It doesn’t matter that I haven’t seen all of the nominated films. That has never stopped me from having an opinion. However, all of that red carpet glamour is a far cry from the topics that we typically discuss around our virtual campfire. And even though the Oscars take place on the West coast, it’s still not what you would call, “Western.” So, I’ve found a way to incorporate my love of the Oscars with my love of the West.

In honor of the 87th Academy Awards, I am dedicating this edition of the Campfire Chronicle to one of my all-time favorite Oscar nominees and a fine Western stuntman. You might not recognize his name, but you’ve probably seen some of his work. I’m talking about the late Richard Farnsworth.

California Born and Bred

Farn2Richard Farnsworth was born in September 1920, in Los Angeles, California. That was a little less than nine years before the first Academy Awards ceremony. Young Richard’s father died when he was just seven-years-old. (If you’re doing the math, it was roughly two years before the first Oscar ceremony!) Growing up in a single parent household during the Great Depression meant that higher education was a luxury. And it was a luxury Farnsworth didn’t have. Plus, he wasn’t much of a scholar, anyway.

Poor Richard had a Knack

At the age of fifteen, poor Richard began the business of making his way in the world. He got a job working as a stable hand at a Los Angeles polo barn. He was pulling in a whopping six dollars a week, when the hand of providence tapped him on the shoulder. When you’re only making six dollars a week, you’re more than a little eager to see what providence has to offer. For Richard, it meant that he had the opportunity to work as a genuine Hollywood stuntman. When Paramount scouts showed up at the polo stables in search of horses to use in the movie Marco Polo, Farnsworth perked up when they mentioned that they needed extras to play Mongolian warriors.

Farn3For the chance to earn seven dollars a day, plus a boxed lunch, Farnsworth decided he could easily become a Mongolian warrior! He shook that providential hand and never looked back. He had a knack for stunt work and the jobs kept coming. While still a teenager, Farnsworth played a jockey in a Marx Brothers’ film, an unnamed bit part in Gunga Din, and a soldier in Gone with the Wind. Wow! All that and a boxed lunch, too!

Farn4His ability as a horseman helped Farnsworth transition into work as a stunt double. He regularly served as a double for the likes of Roy Rogers, Montgomery Clift, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper. Super duper!

Credit Where Credit was Due

Farnsworth’s IMDb page lists him as having seventy-six stunt credits. Ironically, seventy-four of those were uncredited. His uncredited credits are pretty darned credible! He did stunts for The Caine Mutiny, How the West Was Won and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When the Red Sea parted in The Ten Commandments, Richard Farnsworth was there on horseback. And, for eleven long months, he drove a chariot around the set of Spartacus, and did sword fighting, while doubling for Kirk Douglas.

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No, Richard Farnsworth wasn’t in the business for the purpose of seeing his name scrolling down the big screen. But his name eventually got there anyway.

An Actor and a Gentleman

Soft-spoken, modest men don’t generally seek the spotlight, and Farnsworth was a soft-spoken, modest man. The transition into acting happened gradually. He had some bit parts—mainly in television Westerns. But his first larger speaking part didn’t come around until 1976, when he played a stagecoach driver in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox.

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If you missed that role (and I’m going to guess that most people reading this did miss it!), perhaps you saw his work in the 1978 movie, Comes a Horseman. For that one, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Of course, everyone talked about his overnight success. That overnight success was only forty-one years in the making!

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He had roles in such notable films as The Natural, and Misery. Yet, out of all of the roles Richard Farnsworth ever played, my favorite was his portrayal of Matthew Cuthbert in the 1985 Canadian miniseries (also airing on PBS), Anne of Green Gables. He won a Gemini Award for that. I won a good, old-fashioned, ugly cry!

Farn8Perhaps the most impressive thing about Farnsworth’s Hollywood career was that what you saw was what you got. He despised the use of profanity. In a movie and television career that spanned more than six decades, he never once uttered a swear word on film. I’m guessing he didn’t utter many off-screen, either!

He was a Golden Age in Hollywood

Farnsworth was enjoying a semi-retirement when director David Lynch offered him the role of a lifetime. It wasn’t for a bit part. It was for the lead in The Straight Story, a biographical drama about a WWII veteran who hops on a thirty-year-old John Deere Lawn Tractor and sets off on a 240-mile journey to make amends with his estranged brother. The fact that the brother is dying only adds to the angst of watching an old man puttering down the road at 5 mph. For that role, Farnsworth became the oldest person to receive a Best Actor Oscar Nomination. He was 79-yrs-old at the time.

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During that 72nd Academy Awards Show, host Billy Crystal made a point of mentioning Richard Farnsworth from stage. One year later, at the 73rd Academy Awards Show, the Academy honored Farnsworth for a final time, in its In Memoriam tribute. Suffering from a painful, terminal cancer, Farnsworth ended his life with a gunshot in October 2000. He was 80-yrs-old.

Farn9aRichard Farnsworth, the actor whose name you might not have known, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was also inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

Farn10So, in case you also have plans to spend an evening in jammies, mentally critiquing evening gowns on the red carpet, you might want to take a moment to remember the life of one of the finest actors to ride across the silver screen. I know I will.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

Poker Alice: A Wild Card in the Wild West

Blog1Picture an Old West town in your mind. What do you see? Surely there are horses, cowboys, guns and cattle. If you keep rattling off images, it shouldn’t be too long before you hit upon saloons. That’s because saloons were about as commonplace in the Old West as performance fleece is in an Old Navy store. While I’ve never been able to figure out what separates performance fleece from say, oh, spectator fleece, I have a pretty firm grasp on the role of saloons in mining towns.

Saloons provided liquid refreshment, a place to socialize, women who weren’t known for playing hard to get, and gambling. Yes, there was a lot of gambling. That meant there was no shortage of gamblers. One of the most famous Old West gamblers stood out from the crowd. Why? Because one of the most famous gamblers wasn’t a gun toting, cigar smoking man. No, one of the most famous gamblers was a gun toting, cigar smoking woman, who made a name for herself. That name was “Poker Alice.”

Wild Card

Blog2There was nothing about Alice Ivers’ childhood that might have indicated she would become a notorious professional gambler. I mean, as far as I can tell, she wasn’t taking bets on the playground or anything. Alice was born in 1851 in Devonshire, England and when her family moved to Virginia, she was still a sweet, young thing. She was the daughter of a proper schoolmaster and was expected to learn how to walk and talk like a lady, so her parents sent her off to a boarding school for young women. She stayed there until her family relocated once more to Leadville, Colorado.

Blog3Alice married Frank Duffield, a mining engineer, when she was twenty. Common interests are important in a marriage, and, as it turned out, Frank was interested in gambling. Alice used to accompany him to gambling halls, where she would stand by and watch him play cards. It wasn’t long before the young bride thought she would rather be a player than a good luck charm. She was a natural. She knew when hold them. She knew when fold them. She knew when to walk away. She knew when to run. And playing poker was certainly more exciting than sitting home alone while her husband had all the fun.

Cards Stacked Against Her

Blog3aWhen Frank Duffield was killed in a dynamite explosion, Alice found herself a very young widow with the need to support herself. With her fancy education and fine elocution skills, she could have become a schoolteacher. Surely, that would have made her parents happy. But, Alice had other ideas. She wanted to do what she loved. And, what she loved was playing poker and Faro.

Blog4Poker Alice stood out among the gambling hall crowd simply because she wasn’t a man and she wasn’t a prostitute. Yes, she was easy to spot. She was the petite, young woman wearing Parisian gowns and smoking cigars.

Sweeten the Pot

Blog5Alice wasn’t only known as a player. Her skills as a dealer were in high demand. Like other professional gamblers, Alice moved from town to town. Owners of gambling halls were happy whenever her travels took her to their establishments. A woman gambler was a novelty. The men lined up for a chance to play against her. No doubt, she left quite a few bruised egos in her wake when she picked up to move to the next mining town.

Bodega Saloon, Deadwood
Bodega Saloon, Deadwood

When her travels took her Deadwood, South Dakota, Poker Alice met Warren G. Tubbs. Tubbs was a housepainter, whose hobbies included dealing and gambling. He appreciated Alice’s ability at the poker table. He also appreciated her ability with a .38. When a drunk threatened Tubbs with a knife, Alice shot the man in the arm. People have married with lesser shows of affection. Poker Alice became Mrs. Tubbs and the couple went on to have seven children.

Dealt a Bad Hand

Blog7The gambler and the housepainter moved off the beaten path, near Sturgis, South Dakota, and homesteaded a ranch. They raised their passel of young ’uns and were quite happy. Then fate dealt Poker Alice another bad hand when Tubbs was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He died in 1910, and the grieving widow, once again, had a need to support herself.

She hired a man named George Huckert to manage things on the ranch, while she moved into town to be closer to the gambling halls. The chips were down, but she still had a card up her sleeve. Huckert repeatedly proposed to Alice. Eventually, she said, “Yes.” She said the reason she married him was that she owed him over $1000 in back wages and it was cheaper to marry him than to ante up. He died in 1913.

Poker Face

Blog8As time passed, Poker Alice lost her fresh-faced good looks. She traded in her Parisian gowns for men’s clothing (but she kept the cigars). She didn’t look the same, but she still knew an opportunity when she saw one. Prior to becoming a widow for the third time, Alice had branched out and gone into business for herself. She bought a house and set it up with drinking and gambling downstairs and girls upstairs. She named the house, “Poker’s Palace,” and, just like that, Poker Alice became an entrepreneur! What better time to open a saloon that during Prohibition!

When a group of drunken soldiers got too unruly, Alice fired off a warning shot. Unfortunately, it turned into a mourning shot when the bullet killed one of the soldiers. Alice and her girls were arrested and hauled off to jail. It was ruled an accidental shooting and Poker Alice was back in business.

All Bets are Off

Blog9In her later years, Poker Alice was frequently arrested for public drunkenness and for her choice of careers. There might as well have been a revolving door on the jailhouse. Alice always had the money to pay her jail fines and as soon as she was released, she would go right back to business. At the age of 75, she was sentenced to jail time, due to her numerous convictions as a madam. Her advanced age gained her a pardon by the governor.

Through it all, Alice was never known as a cheater. She never lost her love of poker. She never worked on Sundays because of her religious convictions. When you stop and think about it, Alice had a lot in common with the saloons she loved. After years of offering liquid refreshment, a place to socialize, women who weren’t known for playing hard to get, and gambling, Poker Alice cashed in her final chips in 1930, when she died following gall bladder surgery.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia

Charley Parkhurst: A Life Disguised

Charley1I firmly believe that anyone’s life story is worth telling if it’s told correctly. The trick is in telling it correctly. But, folks, the subject of this post is so riveting that this story could be told without words—through interpretive dance and shadow puppets even—and still be the best story you’ve heard all week. I’ve decided to go the more traditional route and use words because all of my shadow puppets are pretty well limited to bunnies and this blog post doesn’t contain any rabbits. What it does contain is plenty of intrigue and a woman of the Old West named Charley Parkhurst, who lived her life as a man.

Charlotte’s Web of Lies

Charlotte Parkhurst was born in 1812, the same year her mother died. Little Charlotte’s father died while she was still young and Charlotte and her sister were taken to an orphanage in Lebanon, New Hampshire. I’ve read enough Charles Dickens’ novels to know that orphan asylums of the 1800s weren’t known for being nurturing environments, in which children blossom into young adults. At the age of 12, Charlotte determined that she had no intention of blooming where she had been planted, so, she hightailed it out of the orphanage.

A little girl on the run would have been a curiosity in the 1800’s, so Charlotte decided that it was safer to dress as a boy. That was good thinking because a little boy on the run scarcely raised an eyebrow. Even a twelve-year-old, cross-dressing, orphaned run-away knew that a boy wouldn’t be named Charlotte, so she began going by Charley. And that is how Charlotte’s web of lies began.

Charley ran all the way to Worcester, Massachusetts. Legend has it that Charley made the acquaintance of a man named Ebenezer Balch. (This really is sounding more and more like a Dickens novel.) This Ebenezer, however, wasn’t a scrooge. He hired the orphaned “boy” to work as a hand at his livery stable. Balch treated Charley like the son he never had. Oh, the irony that he never had the son he never had! He taught the youngster how to drive a coach, and Charley was a natural at it. Soon he was driving teams of six horses.

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Put Her Pants on One Leg at a Time

In the 1850s, Charley headed west to see what California held for a man with a secret. (Note: I will begin using masculine pronouns when referring to Charley Parkhurst because I’m confusing myself.) He went to work as a driver for a drayage business. Every good Old West driver needed a nickname, and Charley had a couple of good ones. He was dubbed One Eyed Charley when a horse kicked him in the eye. The second nickname wasn’t quite as painful. One Eyed Charley went to work as a whip, or stagecoach driver. Driving the six horse teams earned him the moniker of Six-Horse Charley.

Whatever he was called, he was never called a sissy. At an estimated 5’6”, Charley Parkhurst may not have been a hulking man, but it seems that he never drew any suspicion either. It is said that he was a tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking, card-playing fellow, who wore leather gloves and oversized shirts. Plus, an eye patch that really helped to complete the persona.

Trade Secret

As a whip, Charley had routes in various parts of Northern California. Of course, when the Wells Fargo wagon was a-comin’ down the street, it wasn’t just carrying passengers. They also carried mail and transported valuables. This made stagecoaches prime targets for people with subprime motives.

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Charley3aLegends abound concerning Charley Parkhurst’s time as a whip. While I can’t substantiate any of those stories, he is credited with shooting the notorious stagecoach robber, Black Bart, in his posterior region. Is it true? Eh, probably not. But that’s the fun of legends.

Keep Under Wraps

Charley Parkhurst was registered to vote in the 1868 Presidential elections. That is noteworthy because, no matter how rugged Charley Parkhurst appeared, he was still a she, whose name was actually Charlotte. This was fifty-two years before the 19th Amendment passed, giving U.S. women the right to vote.

Charley4The Soquel, California fire station, and a monument at her grave, each have a plaque honoring Charlotte Parkhurst’s place in U.S. voting history. It should be noted that the first woman to vote on American soil was actually Lydia Chapin Taft, in 1756. But hey, it wasn’t the U.S. back then. At least it can be said that Charlotte Parkhurst was quite likely the first woman to vote in California.

Almost Took It to the Grave

Charley retired from working as a driver and settled down in Watsonville, California. For about fifteen years, One Eyed Charley worked as a farmer, before retiring from that, too. Charley Parkhurst died in 1878. It was then that neighbors discovered Charley’s secret.

Neighbors came to prepare Charley for burial and discovered that, man, he felt like a woman! And he looked like a woman. He was a she! A doctor examined Charley’s body and determined that, at some time in the past, she had given birth. Talk about mum being the word! A baby girl’s dress was found in a trunk in Charley’s cabin.

Can’t you just imagine that scene? I mean, you think you know someone, and then…poof! Those poor neighbors must have received the shock of their lives! You just know that the story was told and retold to anyone who would listen. And who isnhis right mind wouldn’t have wanted to listen?

Charley2Since there are major gaps in the story of Charley/Charlotte Parkhurst, writers have spent years weaving fact and fiction. Yes, anyone’s life story is worth telling, but Charley Parkhurst’s life story is worth speculating about, as well. If you’re interested is seeing how one author filled in the chinks in the story of Charley Parkhurst, you might want to check out Charley’s Choice: The Life and Times of Charley Parkhurst, by Fern J. Hill. Don’t worry. She tells the story through words rather than interpretive dance and shadow puppets.

Happy Trails,
Anita Lequoia