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Quite a Ride

Octogenarian Gale Ginn — former Western-movie riding double, rodeo bronc buster and celebrated teenage cross-country rider — recalls her life in the saddle.

By Jeff Berg

 

At a recent meeting of the Southwestern Cowboys Association in Arizona, Gale Ginn was told that she is the oldest member with the best memory.

Quite a compliment, and one that probably shows what lots of fresh air while on horseback will do for you.

Gale Ginn as a girl-possibly about the time she rode solo some 240 miles, half the length of Arizona.

Ginn, during her first 80 or so youthful years, has been on horseback much of that time. She once rode by herself nearly half the length of Arizona when she was only 13 years old. Ginn, who now lives in Las Cruces, also worked as a riding double in several Western feature films that were shot in Arizona in the 1950s — films that starred the likes of Alan Ladd, Shelley Winters and Charles Bickford. More recently, after she turned 80, she painted a large outside mural on a building in the village of Do¤a Ana.

She learned to be a bronco rider as a youngster, though exactly how she learned involves a bit of family history. "My Dad was in the cavalry and stationed in El Paso, but he and my mother split the sheets when I was six months old," Ginn relates. "My stepfather, 'Pecos' Higgins, was a showman. He went to England with the 101 Wild West Show, and he was also a bit of drinker. It was Pecos who made a bronc rider out of me."

 

When Ginn was 12, her mom and stepdad "Pecos," who had stopped drinking by this time, lived in the White Mountains of Arizona, in the Pinetop-Piñon area, east and north of Phoenix. It was decided that young Gale should go live with her grandparents, who lived in the Pearce area in the southeast corner of the state. Even though she wanted to go, she wasn't going to go without her horse.

"Pecos knew that my pony wasn't strong enough for that trip, so I was given another horse, Calico, to ride," she recalls. "He mapped out the trip for me, gave me seven postcards and $5 cash."

And off she went. She would use only six of the postcards.

Though she was by now only 13 years old, Gale was told not to worry about anything, as various stockmen and ranch families whom Pecos knew would help her and give her a place to stay and something to eat.

Her first night out was at a place called White River. She didn't know anyone there, but a good family took her in, fed her and provided a lunch for the next day. Night two was to be spent with folks at Black River, but the family whom Pecos had recommended had long since left the area. Noting on her map that it was "only" another 18 miles to Hilltop, where the next old pals of Pecos were supposed to live, Ginn rode on. She arrived in Hilltop at last — only to find out that those folks had moved away two years previously, too. She did finally manage to spend the night with a local stockman, named Hi Brown, and his wife.

On day four, she finally did hook up with one of Pecos' friends, the ominously named Black Jack Traner, who lived near San Carlos, close by the Apache reservation. Ginn remembers, "Pecos had not seen Black Jack for eight to 10 years, and he had a new bride, who took one look at me and when I said, 'I'm supposed to spend the night', she said, 'I don't think so.'"

Seems that even then Gale Ginn was an attractive woman — and Black Jack's new bride apparently sniffed competition in the air.

"So, Black Jack took me over to some stockmen and their wives, who washed my clothes and fed me."

The next leg of the trip was to have Gale cover 60 miles, all on horseback, and Black Jack gave her his Stetson to wear on the long ride. "I never wore a hat, so I just tied it on my saddle." The hat would play a key role later in the journey, however.

"Black Jack told me to take the cutoff to Coolidge Dam, but I missed the cutoff." She finally came upon a store, where she broke out part of her $5 bankroll to buy a bottle of Delaware Punch and a candy bar.

"The bottle was too hot to hold after a while," she says.

Her adventure continued, and she hitched a ride on a truck that was returning from hauling a load of pigs. Another cowboy, Burt Hinton, who had already heard about "a girl on a paint horse," was driving the truck. About 10 miles from the Hinton home near Bylas, the truck went under an overpass. That spooked her horse. Calico reared — bruising Ginn's shoulder — and tried to jump out of the truck, which didn't have sideboards. She rode Calico the rest of the way to the Hintons' to spend the night.

The next night, not knowing anyone in the Safford area, Ginn looked for the biggest haystack and asked the owners if she could feed her horse and spend the night. At first they thought she was a runaway, but after she explained her situation, she and Calico were fed and bedded down for the night.

Later, as she rode near Bowie, Ariz., Ginn employed the unused Stetson to shade Calico's eyes from the lights that would temporarily blind her equine companion.

Further travails were overcome, and after a night in a tourist court in Willcox that cost only one of her initial five dollars, another friendly neighbor gave the travelers a ride to Pearce, south of Willcox, to where her grandparents lived.

"We got off the truck, which he parked in an irrigation ditch, so Calico could jump out of it easily," she says. "I mounted up and rode up to the house, hootin' and hollerin'. My grandmother was speechless — she later had an absolute fit — but I was there and I had my horse."

The 13-year-old Gale Ginn's trip took six days. To drive from the Pinetop area to Pearce today would be a journey of about 240 miles.

Later, Ginn worked and managed the Sulphur Springs Valley Ranch, which had about 100 head of mother cows. Her aunt worked at a nearby dude ranch. Some folks from New York, a Mr. and Mrs. Dean, heard about the story of her long solo ride and wrote an article about it, which they sent to the Republican Gazette newspaper in Phoenix. It was converted into a cartoon-like strip by Reg Manning, a nationally known cartoonist, and was read nationwide. Mrs. Dean was quite upset that the story had been turned into a cartoon!

 

Gale stayed with her grandparents through high school, working on local ranches and getting a reputation as an outstanding horsewoman.

"I rode broncs in rodeos only for show," Ginn recalls rather humbly. "There's not much to it, but my reputation helped me get into the movies."

Ginn appeared in two 1950s Westerns, Branded in 1950, with Alan Ladd and Mona Freeman, for whom Ginn was the riding double, and Untamed Frontier in 1952, with Joseph Cotten and a horse-shy Shelley Winters.

She seems a bit more partial to the cast of Branded than that of Untamed Frontier.

"Alan Ladd was very nice and complimented me a lot," Ginn says. "Mona Freeman was scared to death of horses, and would not get on one."

On the other hand, she recalls, "Joseph Cotten drank, and once he got drunk and slipped and fell in the bathtub."

As for Shelley Winters, "They paid me $50 a day to make her look good, and another $50 for working with her. We were shooting in early February, and on cold days she wouldn't even get out of her trailer!

"I never cared for western movies much," Ginn confesses. "They were always riding the horses at a dead run, and I know that's not accurate. But one day I asked the director of Branded (Rudolph Maté) about that, and he said, 'Well, I have a whole life story to tell in 90 minutes!'"

That seemed to answer Ginn's question satisfactorily.

 

In the years after her turn in the movies, Gale Ginn stayed involved with ranch work and horses. She moved to the Las Cruces area about 30 years ago.

Like her mother, Ginn has a talent for painting, and her small, cozy home is filled with paintings by both women, along with a number of photos of family members from over the years. A number of cats scramble in and out of the house, and a couple of semi-retired dogs lounge in the yard, not far from the geese and a temporarily adopted baby goat.

Just a few years ago, Ginn painted a huge mural on an outside wall of a feed store in Do_a Ana. It was her first such undertaking, and clearly displays her talent with the brush. She also has a good ear for music and can play the piano, guitar and mandolin.

Gale has written a book about her life that she feels will be published soon, so we have to make our interview brief, so as to not spill all the beans.

But she does share a number of stories about her family and speaks proudly of her daughter, two grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, most of whom continue the family traditions of life on horseback and working in the arts.

Ginn, who also writes her own poetry, shares a small volume of cowboy poetry that was written by Pecos Higgins. She recites some of her stepfather's lines from memory.

One of the poems is called "The Old Camp Fire," which Pecos wrote after he quit drinking and found a new calling, at the age of 70. The last two verses read:

"Many smart men done their thinking

By a camp fire Warm and Bright,

Many Cowboys thawed their Bodies out

On a cold and Wintry Night.

The Old Timers used them at Camp Meetings

Where they Gathered to Praise their God

And Prayed for their children to do so

Long after they was under the sod.

The Campfire and the Camp Meetings

Are still on earth to stay

They was invented by Our Saviour

From Back in the early day

Come Help us enjoy the Camp fire

With fellowship, Poems and Song

And Jesus, Your Friend, as true to you

As the summer days are long."

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg, who coordinates the Saturday-afternoon CineMatinee movie series at the Fountain Theatre in Mesilla, thanks Jim Moore and Dean Lively for introducing him to Gale Ginn, and for Moore's help with this article.

 

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