After returning to the United States from being deployed overseas aboard the USS San Jose, I was ready for some time away from the Navy ship. It was spring of 1980 as we sailed into the San Francisco Bay for our homeport of Alameda, California. We had been serving with Four Battle Task Groups during the Iran Hostage Crisis since October of 1979. Most of the Sailors were going to be greeted by loved ones on the pier as we pulled into port. The many wives, girlfriends, family and friends all waving in searched for familiar faces. Some held signs welcoming our return home. The Boatswain piped his whistle followed by passing the word over the (1MC) an announcement speaker, “Now over all lines” as the ship tied up amongst the dock.
As for me, I was not expecting anyone to greet me since most of my family lived in Texas. A fellow shipmate named Ed Gribben was heading home for the weekend. He was a Cowboy from Loma Rica, California which was about a two hour drive north-west of the Bay area. Cowboys aboard ship stuck together sharing stories and for me, I was just the slim guy from Texas. Ed knew I would just be sitting around with no place to go. He offered if I cared to ride with him to visit his mom. Ed talked about the country home where he grew up. He spoke well of his mom and told stories about some friends who live on a large ranch a few miles from his home. As for me, I was delighted. I could sink my boots on land for a few days before coming back for duty and maybe allow my head to just empty as being in the serenity of the outdoors can often do.
It was during this trip, I first had the opportunity to meet the individual who would become known as the “Muleman”. Ed and I had been to his mother’s home. After a few hours visiting, we proceeded to his friend Angie’s home. She lived on the Sugarloaf Land and Cattle Company ranch which nested between Marysville and Oroville, California. The drive was scenic with lush vegetation along the side of the roads hiding the fence lines. The tall trees flourished over the road as we drove down through the country.
Upon arriving at the Sugarloaf Land and Cattle Company, Ed had me open the gate as we were entering a side area of the ranch where Angie lived. As we drove up towards the cabin, Angie came out greeting Ed and I. Ed was her former class mate since Junior High. Ed talked about ship life and what it was like being in the Navy while Angie filled Ed in on details of events in the surrounding area. I was just enthralled to be out in the country side and not cruising along in the Pacific or Indian Ocean where we had spent so much time during the last year.
Throughout the day, we sat out on the front lawn talking. Angie’s younger brother Frank came home from school getting off the yellow and black school bus. As he was making his way down the long gravel drive, Frank noticed Ed and I and became excited to see his neighboring friend home to visit. Angie, smiling as she listens to Ed and I talk about our cruise when her mom “Mrs. Bess Twitchell” who worked at the elementary school arrived home from her work. She said hello to me upon being introduce, then gave Ed a great big hug inviting all of us in the house for a glass of water.
Frank had changed school clothes into some work clothes, boots and his cowboy hat. He headed outback to take care of chores while the rest of us talked. We were about to leave for the day as Ed and I now in front of the home were moving towards the his car. That was when I saw a cowboy riding up. His appearance was as if stepping back a century into time. Outfitted in a fashion of the old western frontier, mounted on a huge mule sitting high in the saddle. Mules were not as commonly used animal in Texas as much as perhaps Quarter Horses where I had grown up. Although it was not like I have never seen a mammoth Mule used for ranch work, but most often for packing gear or in driving horse drawn equipment placed in a harness. I had not been exposed to working mules under saddle. The equine was disciplined and moved with grace. The cowboy was Angie’s dad, “Von Twitchell.”
I would not learn much about Von or mules on this first trip to the ranch but later that month, I would return where I was invited to stay at their cabin overnight. Frank shared some tips on calf roping where he was learning everything about being a cowboy and ranch management from his Dad. Frank also shared his knowledge about mules. He indicated that mules performed better by nature over the horse. Perhaps so, I was no expert on mules. My experience was with horses and rodeo. I remember Frank saying, “Anything a horse can do, my Mule can do better.” That quote had reminded me of the song which Ervin Berlin composed for “Annie, get you’re Gun” and just seem to have stuck with me all these years.
Mules have been selected over the many years because of their ability to adapt well to terrain. Used by miners as pack animals, driving as teams pulling chuck wagons during the cattle drives out of Texas or the well known 20 mule Team Borax Wagons in the arid deserts of California's Death Valley. The mule is highly intelligent, cautious, friendly, playful, and eager to learn. They are often pastured or stabled with horses and ponies, and are thought to have a calming effect on nervous horses. Additionally, they are not easily frighten and will defend themselves against predators. Their long ears are also helpful hearing further distant than horses and assist in cooling their blood.
Von spent most of his time riding the fence line ensuring the property was always in great shape. His primary function was acting as the Ranch Hunting Guide. Although Von concentrated most of his concerns on keeping the brush managed for game birds. Some of the birds were Chukar, Pheasant, and Quail which needed necessary brush lines for habitat while requiring grasses for seeding which they often feed on. Von was already practicing Brush Management Control building an environmentally friendly habitat in the late 1970’s nearly 30 years before most large ranches in the United States would catch on to and follow.
While I was staying overnight, Bess cooked some Venison ribs for dinner that Von had shot during the hunting season. The wild flavor of deer meat was good and a welcome change having a home cooked meal. The cabin was small yet cozy displaying many awards that the Twitchell family had earned in Horseshows, Rodeo and they talked about going to a big western show called Mule Days held each Memorial weekend in Bishop, California. Von had dozens of trophy’s and buckles that he place many into a cardboard boxes to store as they had no other room to display. Von was proud of his awards, although he was also modest as Bess brought out the dusty box and shared the many accomplishments Von had already earned. Although, needing to get back to my military responsibilities with the Navy, I would end my visit at the ranch the following morning.
Later that same year, I transfer to Austin, Texas with the U.S. Navy. Shortly after arriving in Austin, I purchased two horses. “Honey” a strawberry roan Appaloosa and “American Dream” called Yankee that was half quarter horse and half Arab gelding. Honey would become my trail horse while Yankee was the show horse and often used for endurance races. Horsemen seem to always review tips from other equestrians and frequently revert to reading magazines for various articles. Sometime around 1983 or 1984, I was reading Western Horseman that I came across an interesting article about Bishop Mules Days. The magazine had interviewed Von Twitchell and his tips in training Mules in western riding skills.….”Wow, I know him” I said out loud speaking to myself. I had all but forgotten my miraculous visit with the Twitchell family. Von left a memorable impression on me, and every so often I would practice throwing my lasso which his son Frank taught me to correctly use. It would bring me current with his mastery as an equestrian and his Champion Mule Miss Kitty, which one day would bequeath his title known as the Muleman. Von trusted the natural instincts of mules and Miss Kitty was the same mule he was riding just a few years back when I met him. Additionally, I would read how mules perform every level of equestrianship. Von was a master of the western riding, though the article also covered information of English Dressage along with American history using the skillful “Mule” animals.
Another decade would go by an again, I would find an article about Von Twitchell. Each time, remembering the engram planted in my head, “Anything a horse can do, my Mule can do better”. Each time recalling Angie’s mom and the venison super she fixed for me. Things like helping tear down an old cabin and stack wood on the property. Little things like recalling a spring fed creek on the property, always reflecting the wonderful memory and pondering how the Twitchell's might be currently. Each time I was gaining a greater respect for mules as each time I found new articles about Von Twitchell and working mules.
Once more, another decade would pass and through Internet communications with many other avenues of search engines, I found myself reading about the Muleman again. This time it was a note on the internet from Angie stating, “Daddy in going to be the Grand Marshall of the Bishop Parade.” This was a new avenue and perhaps a way to catch up my old friend Ed who still lives in California today. It was a way to share old friendships and to learn more about the man that I grew to admire and a new prospective about mules. Who really is the Muleman of Loma Rica?
So I wrote Angie. She had replied telling me, that she now lived in Colorado. Like pen pals, we brought each other up to date on our lives and families. Share stories about our children, spouses and the many years since we had met. I asked her more about her Daddy which she shared and even gave me his phone number.
Von Twitchell had been already recognized in the ADMA Hall of Fame along with two of his Mules which he trained. So I decided to give him a call and let him know about the engram let with me and to see how he was currently.
Von told me about being born in a log cabin located on Main Street of Manila, Utah January of 1932. The small town got its name after the famous 1898 Naval battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American war, which perhaps would one day find reason for Von to enlist into the US Navy. However, prior to enlisting, Von lived in Wyoming and then move out on his own at 15 years old.
Assigned to the Navy Destroyer Escort USS Higby that saw action during the Korean War, Von in his homeported of Long Beach, California, met his lovely wife, Bessie Rossetta Wood who was from Haggerman, NM. The two were married in August 17, 1954. Von completed his tour of duty and discovered the beauty of Yuma County as a truck driver. Returning to the grass roots of being a Cowboy, Von found a job with a ranch that would become his home for the next 32 years.
The “Sugarloaf Land and Cattle Company” did work cow – calf operation but the ranch focus was entertaining the higher echelon as a place to retreat from society for a relaxing weekend of hunting. The owners included members who also owned a large Newspaper and a News TV Station affiliate in San Francisco. Henderson, Hale, Spencer, McBean, Littlefield, Fuller, All men of wealth and substance shared the property which Von would work on for 32 years before retiring. Von often refers to himself as a “bird man” due to his care for keeping a good habitat for the birds as being the hunting guide. Many celebrities often hunted at the Sugarloaf. During a recent conversation with Von, I asked him who impressed him the most? You could see the smile through his voice when he replied, “Harry Crosby.” Then with a laugh, Von told me about taking Harry, who was the son of the late Bing Crosby out on a guided hunt. Harry was perhaps 12 or 13 years old at the time. This was Harry’s first hunt as Bing, Von and one other friend of Bing’s was together in one group. As they quietly waited, a bird flew over head, the boy lifted the shotgun, and fired. The bird fell from the sky. Everyone become silent as the boy could not believe he hit the bird. Harry demanded Bing’s friend to open his shot gun, then Von looking at the unfired rounds. Upon realizing he actually hit the bird himself, Harry exclaimed, “Dad, I got one.”
Von worked the ranch with his mule Miss Kitty. This was the mule he rode up on the day I met him. Over the years, he cultivated Miss Kitty to become a skillful ranch mule that also was building his reputation as the “Muleman.” Von had been competing on mules since 1972. Each year he had competed in the BISHOP MULE DAYS Memorial Day Weekend Celebration, where more than 700 mules compete in 181 events. He has only missed one year in 2008 due to shoulder injury that required surgery on his rotary cup. This year Von is one of the oldest competitors entered in the Bishop Mule Days event at the ripe age of 78 years old.
However, Von has earned a renowned eminence inside the Mule community. Von and Bess over the years have hit shows in towns like Bishop, Hayfork, Grass Valley and Oakdale in California, Winnemucca and Carson City in Nevada, Ralston, Wyoming and Enterprise, Oregon.
Von Twitchell was named to the American Donkey and Mule Society's Hall of Fame in 1999 for his decades of raising and competing with mules, and for his contributions to the sport and the breed. His former mule, Miss Kitty was 4-times world champion and earned the National Championship in 1990. Miss Kitty was named to the ADMS Hall of Fame in 1998.
Von acquired his current mule “Silky” when she was just a three year old. Today Silky is twenty years old and will compete with Von in the 2010 http://www.muledays.org/ Mule Days events. When Von began training Silky, he hadn’t named her yet. Family members kept giving him hints as to names for the mule which to Von, just didn’t seem to fit. After a great day of training and taking her out for her first run under saddle, “The name came to me” stated Von. “She was likely riding silk,” as he explained. Silky has an appaloosa race horse heritage on her mother's side, although his mule did not pick up the characteristic spots of the breed. "She's a sorrel," Von said, referring to the reddish-brown color. Silky also has received several championships and was entered into the ADMS Hall of Fame 2007.
Von has also been a Grand Marshall guiding the way. The first time was during the 2001 New Years Day Rose Parade leading 82 other riders from the ADMS. In 2007, he performed this task again leading the Parade and Rodeo events for Bishop Mule Days. While this year, Von is 78 years old and his mule 20, don’t let their age fool you as contenders. Last year they took several awards placing in nearly every event they entered including 1st place in Open Poles and 1st in Team Branding working with Chad Turner and Jim Short. Von likely will add a few more awards this year to the dozen of boxes that contain his accumulation of Ribbons, Buckles and Trophies.
I asked Von if he will continue to compete in the next year events. He stated, “The entry fees are harder to come up with being retired”. This year he received a sponsorship to cover some expenses from a share holder of the former ranch he worked in Loma Rica, California. They now had interest in Neiman Marcus and were willing to assist with some of the fees. Von explained, had it not been for the support of his wife Bess, he likely could have never performed the many events. Bess worked side jobs through his ranching career for extra money. She was frugal saving those pennies, often already submitting entry fees when Von thought perhaps to save money for something needed around the home. Bess, raised by her sister ten years her senior due to the lost of their mom six weeks after her birth knows the importance of family. Von and Bess have shared hardships and the strength of family celebrating 56 years of marriage.
Over three generations of Twitchell’s have competed at the Bishop Mule Day events. Von’s son Frank, also has became an expert equestrian winning several awards and has also been a ranch manager. Angie, has sung the National Anthem during the opening of the Rodeo, while Frank’s son Ty is a Rodeo Bull Fighter who had hoped to make the California show this year just to visit family. Von’s great grand nephew is Jason Goodman; grandson to Von’s sister http://americancowboy.com/blogs/south-texas-cowboy/thundering-percheron is a master coachman performing the Texas Thunder show that will also perform during the 2010 events in Bishop. Von has been featured in several magazines, including, Western Horseman, Mules and More, Western Mules, a book along with a video titled “Long ears everywhere: Bishop Mules Days.” Von likely will add many more awards to the dozens of boxes which stored the accumulated trophies, buckles, ribbons and certificates over the years.
Von’s has a modest attitude. He has made a mark that most men never accomplish. His influence noted widespread reputation of accomplishments. His road goes beyond the Hall of Fame. I asked Von what his greatest reward has been being a Cowboy. Von replied, “That’s easy to answer. It’s been able to have the love of my wife, our four daughters, Robin, Patricia, Angie, Eva and our son Frank. I have 15 grand children and 11 great grand children.” Von and Bess make their home today in Pine Bluff, Wyoming.
Story by Roger Edison