Cowboy memories: Local woman grew up in the San Pedro House in the 1940s

Published on Monday, Jul 16, 2007
Copyright Sierra Vista Herald

By Ted Morris

The summertime San Pedro River flowed swiftly, cutting off travel to the east. Nighttime skies were black. Chores started at 5 a.m. The cowboy life was hard and at the same time idyllic.

These are some of the memories of Betty Foster Escapule, who recently published her memoirs, “The Five Fosters.” The book recounts her maturing into womanhood in the Wolf Place in the 1940s, working as a cattle rancher.

“I lived here twice,” Betty said. “I had my 4th birthday here, then came back at 9.” She would live there until she married at age 17 in 1955. She is still married to Charles Escapule, who grew up five miles downstream. They live in rural Tombstone.

Today the Wolf Place is more popularly known as the San Pedro House. In Escapule’s youth, it was a camp owned by the Boquillas Land & Cattle Co.

The camp was one of six owned by Boquillas in this area. The camp covered 36 sections, or 23,040 acres, covering a mile and half on both sides of the river, running from just south of Charleston to about a mile north of Hereford. The camp managed 300 cows, not counting calves.

The land has since become the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, owned by the federal government and administrated by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

A bookstore and giftshop inside the San Pedro House occupy what was once the Foster living room and one of the children’s bedroom.

On Friday, Betty walked across the original hardwood floors. Occasionally she paused as her eyes looked far away toward distant memories.

“This was a wonderful house,” Betty said. “We had indoor plumbing.” There was always hot coffee on the stove, and the back porch was a comfortable place to sit just as it is today.

Times were not always easy for the Fosters. Their father, Sam Foster, a Texas cowboy, had worked in various jobs, mostly ranching, in places such as Patagonia, Sonoita, Naco and Whetstone. He worked as a guard at the Main Gate on Fort Huachuca and in the oil fields of California.

When the kids were young, the parents split up, and the father took custody of them. The children — “The Five Fosters” — were Mary, Sammy, twins Bailey and Betty, and Richard, who was born much later after Sam had remarried a woman named Marion.

After they grew up, the first four Foster children became reunited with their birth mother in 1957. She is 88 and lives just north of Phoenix. “She’s still Mama,” Betty said.

Life’s hard times are smoothed over by Betty’s light touch in her memoirs. There are numerous chapters — some serious, some humorous. They are rich descriptions of horses, dogs, rattlesnakes, home-doctoring, biscuits and cornbread.

“A good cowboy ... I don’t think he ever ate a meal without beans,” Betty said.

The Fosters stocked up on staples every month from the Boquillas commissary. They frequently hunted and ate what they killed. Anything else they needed came from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog, or they could make a trip to Fry (now known as Sierra Vista), which had a general store.

A trip to town, however, wasn’t that simple.

“During a hard rainy season, the only way out was by horseback,” Betty said. “But we really didn’t want to get out.”

She added, “We were very self-sufficient.”

By 8 years old, she says in the book, Foster kids were considered by their dad to be old enough to carry a rifle. Armed with a .22, Betty was a marksman from the saddle of a horse or her favorite donkey, Lupe.

Grabbing onto their parents, the kids learned to ride on the back of a horse at age 2.

In a few days, the whole family would gather a year’s supply of firewood, which was their primary source of energy. Parents and children used honed single-bit axes and chopped mesquite when it was green, then cured it for three months. They also butchered their own meat.

“We were good meat-cutters and wood-cutters,” Betty said.

Dad was strict, but the Fosters largely raised themselves, sometimes getting into mischief, some serious, some hilarious, which Betty recounts in the book.

The kids walked everywhere. They knew where every windmill and stock tank was located and would drink from them.

When their father was home, he expected the children to stay within earshot of his voice. Sam Foster had an unusually loud “war whoop,” which carried for more than a mile.

The father planted trees wherever he lived.

At the Wolf Place, there was one that he did not plant. Today that giant cottonwood dominates the San Pedro House.

“This tree was known as Plaza. It had a name,” Betty said.

The chuck wagon camped beneath it, she said, when the cowboys were busy with activities such as the fall roundup. She is still awed at the memory of seeing 15-20 cowboys mounted on well-worked, healthy horses, charging out of the camp with an urgency like a posse.

A cowboy would ride down a horse in the morning, come back for dinner at noon, choose a fresh horse and ride him down in the afternoon. It was exhausting work.

But by 1953, “The government eradicated the screwworm, and when it did, it eradicated the cowboy as well,” said Betty.

She said the cowboy used to be far more necessary, because he was so skilled at caring for the herds.

Shipping methods changed, too. Instead of by rail, cattle are now mostly shipped by truck.

The next year, 1954, Highway 90 was paved and a bridge was built to replace the Thursday Crossing of the San Pedro. The family watched as workers built the bridge to the east of the river, then rechanneled the water to flow beneath it.

“We didn’t realize we were seeing the end of an era,” Betty said. “The cowboys knew it.”