By Linda Kor
For more than half a century the Hashknife Posse has been a symbol of the Old West. Once a year for the past 55 years the posse has paid homage to a time when sending and receiving mail could mean risking life and limb as men carried letters via horseback.
Each winter this group of men transport the U.S. mail by horseback from Holbrook, down through Payson and finally to Scottsdale, delivering thousands of letters from all over the world bearing the valued Via Pony Express cachet. Their arrival in Scottsdale is well received by residents and visitors, and marks the start of the annual Parada del Sol.
The ride has grown in popularity over the years, with the official route taken by the riders designated by signs along State Routes 377, 277, 260 and 87. Collectors seek memorabilia from the rides, and a bronze monument measuring 10 feet tall and 20 feet long depicting two riders passing the mail bags stands in downtown Scottsdale.
But when that first ride took place in March 1959, it wasn’t to deliver U.S. mail, but a single invitation. The riders of the Hashknife Posse rode 26 hours from Holbrook to the state fairgrounds in Phoenix, covering more than 200 miles to deliver an invitation to the posse’s annual June Stampede to then Governor Paul Fannin.
An article in the Holbrook Tribune-News at that time stated that the first pony express rider took an envelope cancelled in the Holbrook Post Office and marked “via Hashknife Sheriff’s Posse,” and stamped it with a special delivery stamp at 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, March 9. That first rider was O.C. Thompson and he, along with other posse riders, ensured the delivery of that envelope the next morning just after 10 a.m. at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, when it was handed to the governor by Ray DeSpain. Riding relays of seven to eight miles each, other riders who carried the invitation on that trip included Carl Yarbrough, Grant Brinkerhoff, Cephas Perkins, Orson Shreeve, L. Ben Pearson, Ted Gerwitz, Norman Randall, Cecil King, Jack Riggs, Gale Perkins, Bud Brown, Dick Kennedy, John Hammons, Fred Lisitzky, Elmer Randolph, Roy Downing, Dutch Rupkey, Frank Adair, Eldon Jackson and Lynn DeSpain.
The following year, Holbrook Postmaster Ernest Hulet helped the posse obtain a permit to carry official U.S. mail designated for the pony express ride. Since then the Hashknife has held a continuous contract, the longest in the nation, to carry official mail via pony express.
The history behind the Hashknife name goes back many years. During the 19th century a hash knife was used as a cooking implement by chuck wagon cooks to cut meat for hash, but the Hashknife brand originated in Texas with the Aztec Land and Cattle Company. The company moved its operation to Holbrook in 1886, bringing with it 33,000 head of cattle and 2,000 horses.
In 1957 the posse requested and was able to retain limited use of the symbol of one of the largest cattle ranches in North America and the oldest recorded brand in the state of Arizona, the Hashknife brand.
The origination of the posse itself came in 1955 when Roy Downing moved to Holbrook and helped organize the group as a search and rescue team under the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office.
After that first ride the posse no longer attempted the non-stop trek to deliver the mail. They now stop for the night, with the first night of the ride spent in Payson and the second on the banks of the Verde River. On the third day they ride into Scottsdale.
For the 30th ride, the posse expanded the trip, delivering mailbags all the way to Hermosillo, Mexico; for their 50th ride, the posse transported the official game ball for Super Bowl XLII, with the ball now holding a place of honor in Holbrook’s historic courthouse.
This year marks the 56th year of the Pony Express Ride, which is being dedicated to former Navajo County Sheriff Marlin Gillespie, who served as posse captain from 1968-69.
The riders for this year include Sam Buckingham, Richard Candelaria, Sean Cassidy, Joe Chavez, Travis Chavez, Justin Deetin, Mitt DeSpain, JR DeSpain, Rusty DeSpain, Chris Eischen, Billy Fischer, Mike Hall, Tim Kelley, Greg Long, Andy Lund, Shawn Maestas, Jerry McGraw, Allen Mitchell, Bob Moffett, Ernie Neff, Nate Perkins, Wayne Ramey, Carl Reynolds, Pat Reynolds, Byron Shelendewa, Bob Price and Sean Moore.
The support crew includes Del Allen, Bill Bridwell Sr., Dan Bielefeldt, Fizzy Chavez, Kevin Fetherston, Mark Jackson, Frank Long, Gregg Lucas, John Macy, Jack Mead, Jim Mobley, Brandon Nichols, Pat Nichols, Bill Perkins, Andy Pickett, Bob Price, Dave Reese, Mark Reynolds, Steve Reynolds, Mike Russo and Mark Salem.
By Linda Kor