Jun 292012

Photo courtesy of Kim O’Haco -- McReynolds Heck Marley poses with a Hereford bull in 1959.

By Barbara Arthur —

On a night unlike any other, Second Saturday was celebrated June 9 at the Eagles Pavilion in Winslow. Despite the blowing wind, an enthralled audience learned about ranching around Winslow. Dave Hartman assured everyone the wind always blew when branding occurred. To set the stage, hay bales were placed with some holding saddles and some steer hides, as well as a chuck wagon which served cowboy coffee and biscuits prepared by Leo Leonard, branding irons, cowskulls.

When Kim O’Haco McReynolds presented the fascinating ranching history of her family, she wore a Basque beret as the Basques do in the Pyrenees. Her grandfather Michel Ohaco was a French born Basque. “Itacho,” as he was called, came to America in 1899 at age 14 with $20 in his pocket. He landed at Ellis Is-land, but was to make his way to his uncle Pierre’s in Wickenburg via Phoenix. Uncle Pierre was busy with his sheep in Wickenburg, which caused Michel, who spoke no English, to spend 20 days in Phoenix working at a livery stable to earn his board and room at a hotel until Uncle Pierre could pick him up.

Michel worked with his uncle for three years. He also worked for other sheep companies until he accumu-lated enough money and credit to buy his own sheep. By 1905 Michel bought his own band of 3,000 sheep. He and Mike Echeverria went into business ranging their sheep near Ash Fork and Flagstaff. The market did well so they sold out a few years later.

From 1910 to 1918, Michel, a member of the Arizona Woolgrowers Association, began to buy land around Chevelon Butte. The initial purchase was the Creswell homestead and the Bargman place, which are still identified as such on the O’Haco ranch. This land purchase allowed him and other sheepmen to begin migrating up the rim near O’Haco Lookout and the O’Haco cabins for the summer, and back down to Cheve-lon Butte for the winter. Other areas where sheep were summered were Flagstaff and Ash Fork. Wintering took place at Wickenburg and at North Phoenix near present day Turf Paradise.

In 1916, Louisa Aristoy, Kim’s grandmother or “amache,” came from the Pyrenees to help her sister who, with her husband, was running sheep at the Espil ranch on the San Francisco Peaks. Raymond Branch also referred to this ranch and the fact that the sheep ranchers were here before the cattle ranchers. Louisa and Michel were married in 1918, with their first child, Michael, born in 1920, followed by three younger girls.

Arizona enacted the Alien Land Act of 1921, which stipulated that only citizens or aliens eligible for citi-zenship could own real property. Many Basques had applied for citizenship only to have it denied since they had refused to serve in World War I, among other reasons. The sheepmen devised a strategy to circumvent the discriminatory system–they joined with citizens to form sheep partnerships based on honor, trust and fair dealings.

In 1923 the Ohaco Sheep Co. was formed by Michel and three Basque partners. In time it became the largest sheep outfit in Arizona. This company prospered in the 1920s, survived the 1930s Depression and was still owned by the original four partners in the 1940s.

Between 1918 and 1945, Kim’s Itacho continued to purchase homesteads near and around Chevelon Butte. Many of these homesteaders had worked hard to make a living ranching, breaking wild horses, farming and running moonshine, but the lack of a consistent water supply caused them to “give up.” About 12 differ-ent properties were incorporated into the present O’Haco Ranch.

Kim’s dad, Michael, who changed his name to O’Haco for pronunciation purposes, was attending the University of Arizona and received an Army ROTC commission. At the time he could have been deferred, since he was involved in agriculture. He told his dad, Michel, he wanted to help win the war and thought he’d be out within a year. Not so–Mike was in the service for five years, earning a Purple Heart, a Silver Star and other honors. Two weeks before the war ended, a bullet entered his spine, leaving him almost completely paralyzed. Two years under medical care in a California hospital returned the use of his legs and found him an Army bride nurse, Teresa Savinsky. They returned to Chevelon Butte Ranch to begin their married life and to add eight children to their family.

Kim changed hats at this point, wearing her Stetson, which gave us a clue that sheep were no longer as important, but ranching was now going to involve cattle and horses.

In 1947 many changes began: ranch headquarters were moved from the Creswell place to the Haught place as it was closer to the two-track dirt road we now know as Highway 99; the original was added onto; cattle were raised instead of sheep; remount stallions from the war were bred as quarter horses.

They stayed at the Chevelon Butte ranch until Michael became school age. Life was primitive 32 miles from town, and it was a three-hour drive. The Ed Wittig cabin became the new bunkhouse.

Around 1953 the family moved once again to the John Lazear place just north of Winslow so all the chil-dren could attend school. This became known as the North Ranch. In 1955, Mike acquired the LaPrade Place (City Farm), and for 20 years grew alfalfa and permanent pastures.

The Dec. 17, 1967, Northern Arizona record snow day caused the family to call everyone in to help save the cattle. With rented bulldozers, they spent four almost 24-hour days clearing the 32 miles of road to the ranch. Finding bunches of cows huddled together, they would bulldoze a trail to areas where they would drop feed. Cattle couldn’t move, snow covered the fences and gates sure couldn’t be opened. It was a very real disaster.

In 1974 the family formed the 4 C’s, the Chevelon Canyon Cattle Company, after purchasing the Hutche-son Ranch. Four years later, the Little Colorado River flooded, wiping out the fields and taking nearly every-thing. Mike and his two older sons decided to rebuild. In 1980, after another flood, they rebuilt for the second time. In 1993 the Little Colorado flooded the O’Haco Farm for the third time. This time the livestock, hay and equipment were saved, but they decided not to rebuild.

In 1995 the oldest brother, Mike, made a difficult choice to take a job with Santa Fe. The ranch had hit hard times with the drought, the floods and the economy; money was tight. He’s still involved helping Jim run the ranch along with right hand man Kevin Fritz. The rest of the family members are part-timers–siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews, grandchildren.

The family continues to improve the ranch, and created a partnership with the Arizona State Land De-partment, U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Game and Fish, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Jim received the 2009 Wildlife Habitat Steward Award for his exemplary work.

As Kim said, “the future is always uncertain, until then we will keep working hard.”