Everyone has had a prize possession that slipped away. With the season of giving upon us, this true story seems apropos.
Until which time worldly goods are no longer of value, an unwanted gift from my grandfather haunts me the most. What he gave me was a bookmark in the history of the Old West, but at the time, I didn’t appreciate it.
George H. Bartlett was born in Oklahoma territory in 1865, the year the Civil War ended. When he was 21, he was appointed sheriff of what is now Logan County. In June 1887, he married his childhood sweetheart, Anne Murray.
Shakespeare’s King Richard III famously pronounced, “”My kingdom for a horse!” Back then, the value of the animal was incalculable.
Bartlett was a sheriff whose attitude toward horse thieves was ideal for the purpose he was hired. He was never seen without his Colt .41, the Winchester in his saddle scabbard and the lariat strapped to the swells. That rope wasn’t there for cattle.
He wanted to be known as the man with the deadliest aim and fastest horse. His reputation was well deserved. The easy-going fellow showed no mercy when punishing anyone who would steal another man’s property.
In April 1889, Oklahoma staged the famous claim race, where property could be gotten free. Bartlett rode out that spring morning in quest of a new life. He wasn’t a “Sooner,” the nickname given to those who sneaked out the night before, but he still staked out a prize piece of farmland.
He discovered relinquishing his badge wasn’t so simple. It had become unhealthy to steal a cayuse in Logan County. A vigilante group drafted Bartlett, giving him a monthly stipend. It also awarded him with an elaborate porcelain sign proclaiming him as their leader. He could still farm, but would act if called upon should a crisis arise.
In this capacity, he would gather a posse and chase down horse thieves and outlaws regardless of where the hunt would lead them. Two noteworthy confrontations involved the Dalton gang in Coffeyville, Kansas, and Billy the Kid on the 101 Ranch in Oklahoma.
Bartlett’s life was changing. Oil was discovered on the Cherokee Strip. Eager investors were buying up farms. Cars were replacing horses. The need for a horse thief boss was petering out.
In 1913, he sold his farm and moved to Ponca City, where he opened a Willys-Overland automobile dealership. He instituted credit buying, a new and daring concept at the time. From l9l2 to l919, Willys-Overland sales were second only to the Model T. His cars sold like hot cakes.
In October 1929, disaster struck in the form of the Great Depression. Credit buying was Bartlett’s downfall. Overnight, the value of the dollar evaporated. He was unable to raise $30,000 to salvage a million-dollar enterprise. He was broke. Sorrow-stricken, his wife Anne died within the year.
Among his surviving possessions were $200 he had squirreled away, a Willys that slipped through the cracks and his precious sign.
In the spring of 1930, he headed west where my father farmed. Not wanting to be a burden, the old sheriff happened onto a tarpaper shack along a dry creek on federal land. A cook stove, two chairs and a table remained in one room, a bed in the other. It was to be his home for the next 31 years.
In this simple abode, I came to know my grandfather. I would run barefoot down sandy ruts from our farm through cottonwoods to his shanty. I could never visualize this gentle person placing a rope around anyone’s neck, but I knew he that he did.
The gift that prompted this story was the white porcelain sign with brown block letters forming an arc, announcing, “GEORGE H. BARTLETT, PRESIDENT, OKLAHOMA ANTI-HORSE THIEF ASSOCIATION.”
I was too immature to appreciate the present. I tossed it under the porch of our farmhouse. The farm was sold, the house removed.
In retrospect, I didn’t really lose the sign. In my mind, I still have it. The inscription still honors the man to whom it was given. Fortunately, memories are the possessions we can always retrieve.
Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.