The JF Ranch Pack Burros
by Ed Ashurst
As I write this, Alvin Lann is 89 years old. I first met Alvin in 1974, and we worked together at the Babbitt Ranch north of Ashfork.
Alvin was born in 1931 in Central Arizona into a family of Arizona cowboys. His father was Burrell Lann, a rough-county cowboy, wild-cow catcher, bronc rider, and well known as a top hand. At the age of nine, Alvin got his first job at the Buzzard Roost Ranch south of Young. “You want a job, kid?” the old man who owned the outfit asked.
“Yes, what do you want me to do?” Alvin asked.
“Just get on that horse and follow me around, and when I want you to do something I will tell you.” And so that’s what Alvin did all summer.
In 1943 Burrell Lann was running the JF Ranch in the eastern end of the Superstition Mountains. The ranch had sixty burros that they used to pack supplies on all over the ranch. It was a rough-country outfit, typical of those all over the mountains of Central Arizona. They would keep half of the burros, thirty head, shod all of the time and use them for several months then switch them for the other thirty, so half of the sixty were resting all of the time. One man, a fellow named Bob Slaughter, worked every day packing supplies somewhere on the outfit. Bob Slaughter received a letter from Uncle Sam requesting his presence at an induction center where he could be introduced to the U.S. Army, and so the JF Ranch needed a new man to run the pack string. Burrell gave Alvin, who was 12 years old, the job.
Everything that was needed at the ranch arrived on the backs of these burros, including groceries. It was a little more than twelve miles south of the JF Ranch headquarters to a spot that could be reached with some kind of vehicle. This spot was the Hewitt Ranch, north of present day Apache Junction. Alvin would drive the thirty head of burros down the trail to the Hewitt, sometimes the trip down would be made with empty packs and sometimes not. At the Hewitt place supplies would be laid in ready for transportation north to the JF.
Each burro had a place in the single-file train that it stayed at on every trip. The lead burro was a mare named Blue Bell, and she wore a bell around her neck. The last burro in the line was called Jumbo, and he was larger than normal and very smooth traveling. Anything delicate, like eggs, was packed on Jumbo. All of the other burros walked in a line between Blue Bell and Jumbo, and Alvin rode behind the bunch on a saddle horse driving them. They were not tied together. If a pack slipped off to a burro’s side, the burro would simply step off to the side of the trail and wait patiently for Alvin to ride up and adjust the pack and straighten things out. Sometimes a pack that was uneven in weight would be made even with a rock placed on the light side for ballast. When the pack was made right, the burro would take off in a trot and get back into his spot, and they traveled in the same place in line every day. They were all very gentle and well broke.
If the pack train was going up or down a mountain slope, which was most of the time, and they came to a fork in the trail, Alvin would ride out of the trail and off to the opposite side of the direction they needed to turn. Blue Bell would look back and see him off to the side and then take the fork of the trail going in the opposite direction.
Twelve miles east of the JF headquarters and much higher in elevation was another cow camp owned by the outfit called the Reevis Ranch. It was over 5000 feet in elevation. There were 500 apple trees at the Reevis Ranch, and come harvest time all of the apples from this orchard were packed on the burros for the twenty-four miles downhill to the Hewitt Ranch and eventually sold to a Safeway grocery store in the Phoenix area. There was a beautiful home at the Reevis Ranch, and all of the material to build the home, and also the other buildings there, was packed in on burros. Anything that was transported in or around the ranch made its way on burros: salt, hay, groceries, hardware, cement, or window panes. One hundred fifty pounds, seventy-five one each side, was considered normal.
The burros moved very slowly and methodically, especially in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy. In between the Hewitt Ranch and the JF, Alvin would ride along and sometimes see an old cow with a big unbranded calf. One day he spied an unbranded calf and took to it on his horse and roped it and then tied it down and branded it. When he got this accomplished, he loped on until he caught the pack train. When he got home he told his father what he had done.
“That’s okay, son, just be sure you keep track of what you do so I can write it down in my tally book,” Burrell said.
At night when the burros were unsaddled, the packsaddles would be placed in a specific order. Every burro had a certain saddle, pad and halter that was used on them every day.
At the JF headquarters there was another burro that was white and named Snowball. Every morning Snowball would be harnessed to the end of a long pole that when pulled around in a circle would activate a pump by the continuous circular motion, and all of the well water needed at the ranch headquarters came to the surface as a result of this burro-activated mechanism. Snowball worked by the clock. If the burro was harnessed to the pole at 7:30 a.m., he would stand there until 8:00 a.m. sharp and then start walking, but not a second earlier. At 12:00 o’clock noon, Snowball stopped walking and would be unhitched and led to a corral and fed a can of rolled barley and a flake of hay. After a lunch break, the burro would be hitched back up and be ready to pump water but would not start walking until 1:00 p.m. sharp. Then at 5:00 p.m. Snowball stopped. Snowball never needed to be tended to and made to walk his hours of work but was faithful to do his job. At night he was fed a can of rolled barley and two flakes of hay. It is documented that Snowball lived to be forty-five years old.
Alvin Lann went on to be one of Arizona’s best cowboys. He was especially well known as a rough-country hand and caught many wild cows. For fifteen years he managed the NO Ranch, at the southern foot of the rough Bradshaw range, back when it was still a big outfit running from the top near Crown King to the banks of the Agua Fria River and nearly to present day Morristown. In those days, over 2000 cows wore the NO brand.