Henry Clay Hooker’s Turkeys

Henry Clay Hooker

Before he became a famous Arizona rancher one might refer to Henry Clay Hooker was a turkey boy. It all began when he came west from his native New Hampshire during California Gold Rush. He tried his hand at mining, then opened up a hardware store in Hangtown, later called Placerville high up in the Mother Lode country. A fire destroyed his store in 1864 leaving him nearly broke. A year later he purchased 500 turkeys from farms in the Sacramento Valley for a dollar-fifty a head, hired another turkey boy to help with the drive and brought along two turkey-herding dogs. They commenced to drive them over the Sierra Nevada to the rich Comstock Lode country around Virginia City, Nevada but just as they were crossing the last ridge those turkeys stampeded and jumped off the cliff.

Once again it looked like Henry had lost his grubstake. They rode down to the bottom of the cliff to access the damage and found the turkeys waiting patiently. They drove them on to the Comstock and sold them for five bucks a head.

With this small fortune in hand he went to Texas and bought a thousand head of Longhorns and drove them to Arizona. Once again it looked like he was going to lose his investment when they arrived in what would later become Cochise County, the cattle stampeded. Once again Lady Luck smiled upon him. The cattle were found grazing in a verdant, well-watered valley south of Mount Graham. And that’s where he planted his roots, built a ranch and called it the Sierra Bonita or “pretty mountain.”

During the next few years he made friends with the Apache leader, Cochise, acquired a large herd of some 30,000 purebred Hereford cattle and horses on 250,000 acres of land. He also became friends with Wyatt Earp, whom the honest ranchers supported in the war against the cattle rustlers in the area. He is the rancher portrayed by Charlton Heston in the 1993 film “Tombstone.”

Hooker shipped so many cattle the railroads always gave him a free ride. A persistent story says that when a new conductor came to his seat and asked for his ticket Hooker replied “I’m Hooker, I ride for free.”

A pretty young woman sitting in the next row smiled and asked, “Do all of us hookers ride for free?”

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