GEORGE M. STEPHENS
By Kerry Ross Boren
I have always admired the elderly more than youth and numbered more of them among my friends - even when I myself was younger. I have ever found them to be, with their experience of years, more honest, more direct, more sincere than puerile youth. The diversity and extent of their collective wisdom overwhelms, and through their memories, if one but listens, is afforded the unequaled opportunity to live again the essence of history.
Such a man was my great old friend, George M. Stephens. George and I had a great many things in common, not the least of which was our birthplace ---Green River, Wyoming - even though he was born there more than a century ago, fifty years before me. We had both spent our youth in remote Daggett County, Utah - a county which he had helped to create - and we were both passionate lovers of nature and history. About the only thing we didn't share in common was our ages, and that didn't seem to matter.
George kept a private museum in the basement of his Green River home, together with a lapidary of extensive proportions. His entire collection was fantastic, consisting of everything from a Japanese sword dating from the year 1615 to more modern memorabilia. In fact, a perusal of his museum list - now in the possession of the Sweetwater County Museum - is a microcosm of his character and interests: Japanese occupation currency; a 1917 bonus coupon "Bon De Un Franc"; 50,000 German Marks; play money, ten; books - Wyoming Cattle Trails by Homsher-, The Old West Speaks, by Driggs, a study of Jackson paintains; The Ghost Towns of Wyoming, by Pence and Homsher-, This was sheep Ranching, by Paul. There were also Indian stone beads, fringed buckskin gloves, porcupine quills, a cribbage board, and a business card for "Goodman & Frank, Wines, Liquors, Cigars, South Pass City."
His museum also contained one of the largest collections of branding irons in Wyoming: he once gave me a running iron used by Butch Cassidy to alter the brands on some of the state's best livestock. Rivaling his branding collection was his assemblage of personal awards, buttons and ribbons, denoting a lifetime of achievements: Wyoming Gem & Mineral Show, June 2-4,1961; red ribbon, Sweetwater County Fair-, Wyoming Wool Growers Association, blue ribbon, Nov. 11-13, 1947; 22nd Annual Convention of the American Legion, August 15-17,1940; Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear Device Proving Grounds, Nevada, March 1953; Covered Wagon Centennial Celebration- Pioneer- July 4-5, 1930; to George M. Stephens, County Commissioner; and several of his peace officer badges.
Add to those a myriad of photographs, a calendar - "Geo. M. Stephens, General Merchandise, Manila, Utah 1925" - WWI and WW11 masks, railroad lanterns, miner's lamps, swords, bayonets, rifles, pistols, billy clubs, carrier pigeon capsules, cowbells, spurs, and surveyor's equipment, and you have a very slight concept of the extent of his museum's contents. And, of course, there were his handmade lapidary jewelry, jade, agates and a myriad of geodes (once he took me out to Twelve-Mile Butte and showed me his secret geode ground).
I had known George most of my life, as a friend of my father, whose age he was; but I came to know him best during the last twenty years of his life, before his death in 1980 at the age of eighty‑eight. He was a trove of personal history knowledge upon which I drew for my own interests and thereby fortunately preserved. What follows is but a small exhibit from the museum of his mind.
George Milton Stephens was born November 24, 1892 at Green River, Wyoming, the son of George and Rosina Fidelia Stephens. He had a sister named Josie who was two years older. He was a whopping twelve pounds at birth (even though I beat him out at twelve-and-one-half), and eventually became one of five children in the family ‑two girls and three boys. He spent the first two years of his schooling at Green River.
With a large family to support, George Sr. moved them to a ditch camp where he had found work. In December 1899, he became seriously ill, and his coughing became so intense that he died of hemorrhage of the lungs.
The family found themselves stranded at the Lucerne Valley Irrigation project in northeastern Utah, in what was then Uintah County. Tragedy struck again not long after when five-year-old Rubin died of a stomach ailment.
George, at the tender age of seven, delivered milk on horse-back to the various camps to help support his family. The men saddled his horse and tied four gallons of milk to the saddle, then placed George astride the horse, sending him on his way by a slap on the animal's rump.
His widowed mother, Rosina, known as Rose, was left with four children to raise: Jessie was nine, George seven, Raymond three, and Dot Lind on year old. Rose packed up her family and returned to Green River where she planned to live by selling her late husband's horses and taking in sewing.
One crisp September morning a knock was heard at the door and little Raymond opened it to greet a tall mustached man.
You better not come in," the little boy said to him.
Oh," retorted the man, smiling, "Why?"
Cause a big black bear is in here.*
Oh my, then I guess I better go back," the man said, as he playfully turned to leave.
"No you can come in," little Raymond blurted out, "cause it's only a little pink rabbit."
Thus did George Delbert Solomon make his introduction to the family. Solomon had recently returned from serving as nag-bearer of Torrey's Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, to find that rustlers had cleared his ranch of horses. He had come to Green River to buy Rose's little remuda. Within a short time, George D. Solomon and Rose Stephen were wed.
George Solomon - little George's new step-father- was an amazing character. He had been a lumberjack in Michigan before coming West to work on the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. He served as a hunter for the railroad camps, then for the military. Shortly after 1880 Solomon had three friends - Cleophas Dowd, Garibaldi "Bee" Gamble, and Zebulon "Zeb" Edwards- took on the Al Connor gang in a gunfight, killing five of them and driving two others away. The victors then split the land between them for ranches, Solomon establishing his in Connor Basin, where he now moved his new family.
George Solomon was a long-time friend of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, and as a boy, little George remembered sitting on the amiable outlaw's knee, listening to him play a harmonica. Whenever Butch stopped by the Solomon ranch, he brought the children candy.
George was surrounded by colorful characters during his youth. One of the most influential of these was his grandfather-Rose's father- James Monroe Puffer. After his wife died at Beaver, Utah, on April 15, 1892, Puffer came to live with his daughter and her family, and following Rose's second marriage, he lived with them on the Connor Basin ranch in the shadow of the majestic Uintah Mountains.
James Puffer was a whiskey drinking, tobacco chewing, coarse old mountaineer who had trapped furs with Jim Bridger and lived among the Indians. On a trip to Canada, he had "hooked up" with an old Indian chief named Beaver Adz, and the two of them, having trailed a band of horse thieves into central Utah, liked the country and settled there. The two of Beaver, which they founded, was named in honor of the old chief.
George used to delight in telling a story related to him by his grandfather. When Old Man Puffer- as he was familiarly known - and Beaver Adz were trailing the horse thieves through drifted snow, the old Indian jumped down from his horse at one point and examined the tracks left by the fugitives. He amazed Puffer by revealing that the thieves were two young men in their twenties and an older man, past sixty.
When they caught up to the thieves, and captured them, it proved to be an older man and his two sons. Amazed at the old chieftain's wisdom in discerning this, even down to their ages, Puffer asked his Indian companion how he knew. Beaver Adz replied dryly that the three men and stopped to relieve themselves on a snow bank.
"Two men pee far out," the old chief explained. "Young men. Other man pee close to shoes - old man."
When Old Man Puffer arrived in the town of Manila, Utah, it was inhabited mostly by Mormons. The Mormon women were outraged by his cursing and tobacco spitting habits, not to mention his occasional whiskey bouts, and constantly warned him that his intemperate habits would shorten his life. When Old Man Puffer eventually died at something like 104 years of age, the Relief Society women demurred, "See, we told him that his evil habits would kill him!"
At the age of nine years, George would ride ten miles and back to bring the weekly Salt Lake Tribune newspaper to the ranch. Occasionally he would go fishing or swimming in Sheep Creek with the children of Cleophas Dowd until the latter was murdered on his canyon ranch by one Charlie Reascr. George's stepfather, George Solomon, was justice of the peace at the time and held a coroner's inquest,
finding Reaser not guilty by reason of self-defense; Solomon was feuding with Dowd at the time and although he knew it was murder, he passed "frontier justice." After the inquest, Solomon and Reaser celebrated by getting drunk. On the ride home in Sol's buckboard, he somehow lost his false teeth.
On May 22, 1902, ten-year-old George rode hell-bent across state lines to fetch Maggie Large, an Indian midwife, to deliver his sister Matilda, the first of Rose's children by George Solomon. On August 2, 1904, another girl, Lillon, was born.
My father, Edward Boren, was a year younger than George, and they remained lifelong friends. My father attended school with George and his sister Jessie, first in a long cabin schoolhouse at Manila and later in a unique schoolhouse known variously as "The Little Red Schoolhouse" and "The Stateline School."
At this time, students were scattered over a wide area throughout Lucerne Valley in Utah and along Henry's Fork in Wyoming. To save money, the school boards of both states - Sweetwater County, Wyoming, and Uintah County, Utah - constructed a school exactly on the state line (the state line ran cast to west along the ridgepole of the roof) and shared expenses. Students from Wyoming sat on the north side of the room, those from Utah on the south. This circumstance led to many interesting situations. Utah had corporal punishment laws; Wyoming did not. Consequently, unruly Utah students were merely dragged across the room into Wyoming and soundly thrashed. It was just such a thrashing that caused my father to leave school in the sixth grade.
Old Sol taught George everything he needed to know about horses. He learned to catch wild horses on the range, which were plentiful in those times, and started his own herd. In spite of a broken collar bone from being bucked off, he broke and trained his own mount&
By 1910, when he was not yet eighteen. George owned his own ranch and was thinking of buying his first automobile. One day, a few years later, he left for Green River with a friend to make the purchase. Along the way his friend, Alonzo "Lonnie" Jarvie, said, quite as serious as George had ever seen him: "George, as you know I have been called to serve my country and as I am leaving today, there is something you must know. I know this may sound odd, but I honestly feel as if I am not coming back, and if I don't, I want you to have two fine horses of mine."
Lonnie's promotion came true.. My father ran into him following a skirmish in the battle for Argonne-Meuse on the French-German border during World War 1. They were both glad to meet someone from home. My father was standing behind Lonnie in a coffee line when a mortar decapitated him, his head dropping into the coffee bucket.
George teamed up with a man named Ray Huntington to supply horses to the government for the war, obtaining some forty head from Fort Bridger. There were three large horse ranches in the region at the time, belonging to Phil Mass, John Wade and Shade Large. The latter also had fine draft mules.
George was a witness in 1916 at the trial of a notorious rustler, a former fringe member of the Wild Bunch, who was operating a horse stealing gang from Canada to Mexico. This man turned state's evidence against men who had been buying the livestock and was summarily released. He didn't live long after. He was murdered and his body was not found for an extended period. When it was, his gun had rusted; George kept it - the First of many museum pieces he was to collect ever the years.
One week before Christmas 1916, George Solomon left on his annual pilgrimage to buy Christmas gifts for the family. Sometimes he would go to Green River and bring back, in addition to presents, a case of oranges or apples as a treat for the children, which they greatly anticipated. This year Sol went to Evanston because, in addition to buying gifts, he intended to pay off the mortgage on the ranch. He never returned. No trace of him was ever found.
The banks immediately foreclosed and the ranch was lost. At twenty-four, George carried the responsibility of the family. By now he was the owner of two ranches and a sizeable herd of livestock. George sold his cattle and bought a home for his mother and siblings in Green River. There was enough money left over for him to buy - for $412 - a shiny red Model T touring car.
World War I was raging throughout Europe and George was called to duty. He served from April 2, 1918 until February 17, 1919, and was stationed at Camp Boyd, Texas. His service began a lifelong interest in war memorabilia.
George returned home from the war to rind both of his ranches looted of everything of value except one cook stove. He has good friends and good credit and went to work at $75 a month in an attempt to recoup his losses. But in a few years the Great Depression took the rest of his assets, as it did many others. He sold one ranch for $700, and another of 148 acres for only $3,300. Water rights alone were worth $4500 but they were included in the sale price. Cows worth $60 were selling for $20.
To make matters worse, George had invested heavily in a general store at Manila. "I went broke," he said. "I had to close down with money on the books, and the expenses stayed the same." To help pay the bills he was elected Sheriff in Daggett County, Utah, as well as Assessor and Coroner, during 1920 and 1921.
He helped to create Utah's newest county. Formerly the north slope of the high Uintah s had been a part of Uintah County, with the county scat at Vernal. But the 13,000 foot barrier range kept the residents of the region isolated from county services. George had purchased a new ranch and needed to record a title. Vernal, the county seat, was sixty miles over the mountains, but George had to drive fifty‑five miles north to Green River, Wyoming, from where he took a Union Pacific train nearly 200 miles to Salt Lake City, transfer to a Denver & Rio Grande train another 300 miles to Mark, Colorado, a narrow gauge from Mack to Watson, Colorado, some 80 miles, then taking the mail stage from Watson, ferrying the Green River, to eventually arrive at Vernal. To reach the county scat, 60 miles away, he had to make a round trip of nearly 1,500 miles! George sponsored a petition drive which set apart the slope region as a new county - Daggett, named for Ellsworth P. Daggett, Surveyor-General of Utah - with Manila as the county seat.
George's career as a lawman had begun early, at the age of twenty-one, when he became a county deputy. His immediate supervisor was Chief Deputy Edward Tolten, the local Mormon bishop, who proved to be something of a pushover for the local element. George found himself shouldering the burden of enforcing local ordinances.
Once he was called upon to pursue three men driving some stolen horses through the area. He followed them north over Taylor Mountain. "I knew the trails," George related later, "and caught up with them after riding twenty miles. Two of the men were well armed while the other did not have a gun. I rode close to the armed men and told them, 'Don't look back or else.' The third man was told to keep the horses going. I soon found out this third man was a woman and a good hand with horses. I was alone as usual and had some ten miles to go to get to a telephone. The two men knew they were to stay together and not look back. When we arrived at Burnt Fork (Wyoming) where Lily Pearson was the Postmaster, she did the calling for me. They were later cared for by other officers. I could not put them in jail for we had only one cell, of solid cement block, so that meant another twenty miles to travel, but we managed well with no trouble."
George's courage as an officer was unquestioned and went unchallenged until he came up against a woman. In late December 1913, people began to arrive from all around the region to attend a Christmas and New Year's celebration being held at Linwood, Utah. The little community of Linwood (named for a line of cottonwood trees planted by George Solomon) had grown up around an old trapper's cabin on Henry's Fork of the Green River.
Among the guests at Minnie Crouse's boarding house and hotel were Emerson Wells and his wife Josephine, nee Bassett, of Brown's Park. "Josie" had already gone through several husbands, and would acquire several more, driving most of them off at the point of a gun. She was a beautiful woman, cultured, disarmingly charming, and a former girlfriend of the outlaw Butch Cassidy.
A New Year's Eve dance was held in the octagonal dance hall called the "Roundhouse," situated within Utah, a stone's throw from the Wyoming State line. Nearby, Bob Swift's "Bucket 0' Blood" Saloon dispensed "buckets o' booze" until the dancehall was reeling with inebriates.
In the early hours of New Year's Day 1914, Josie argued with her husband over his drinking too much, and together they left the dance and returned to their hotel room. Josie put him to bed and returned to the dance. The following morning she took him up a cup of coffee and reported that he was ill. Shortly thereafter he died.
Emerson Wells showed all the symptoms of strychnine poisoning. Ed Tolton served as the local coroner and he made a cursory examination of the body and recovered a small brown vial of strychnine in the hotel room where it had fallen behind a bed table. He attempted to interrogate the wife of the deceased, but she intimidated him and he withdrew.
Being midwinter and unable to get over the mountain to Vernal. Tolten made the long cold ride to Green River, Wyoming to arrange for a coroner's inquest, on a technically of jurisdiction involving the nearness of the state line. No sooner had Tolten departed than Josic loaded her deceased husband's body into the back of her wagon with the help of her Mexican hired men, Joe Good (Jose Bueno), and departed hastily in a blizzard for Brown's Park. There she held an expedited funeral service and put Emerson hurriedly under ground.
The Sweetwater County court issued a warrant for Josie to appear at an inquest, and an exhumation order for the body of Emerson Wells. Ed Tolten, not to be disparaged for his timidness after all, he was merely a school teacher - passed the responsibility down to his new deputy, twenty-one year-old George M. Stephens.
George wasn't exactly ecstatic about the duty, not for any foreboding on danger from a woman, but because it entailed a miserably cold forty mile ride and a fording of the Green River by horseback in mid‑winter. Nevertheless, he answered the call.
When he arrived at Brown's Park, an isolated mountain valley on the Green River, notorious in years past as an outlaw stronghold, he was exhausted and nearly frozen. However, his problems had only begun. Hiring several men to assist, he went to the Lodore Cemetery to exhume the body of Emerson Wells, only to find that someone had opened the grave already and the body was gone. From the cemetery he rode directly to the home of Josic Wells on Willow Creek to serve the warrant.
Josie met him at the door with a Winchester in hand, demanding to know his business. He identified himself as a county deputy and stated that he had a warrant for her arrest and had come to take her to Green River to assure her appearance at a coroner's inquest.
"You're just a kid," Josic replied. "I'm not going anywhere with you."
When George insisted that he had a job to do, she did her best to intimidate him, but he held his ground. He tried to present her with the paperwork, but she told him where he could put it. George refused to leave without having performed his duty. Josie pointed the Winchester at his head and cocked the hammer back.
"I'll tell you what," she told him. "You tell me when the inquest to going to be held, and I give you my word I'll be there. If that isn't good enough for you, the next inquest will be your own!"
Digression being the better part of valor, and not knowing how to compel a woman by force, George could only warn her that if she failed to appear at the inquest, he would have to come back for her with help.
On the day of the inquest, Josie appeared as promised, but George remembered the circumstances as being somewhat unique, to say the least:
"Josie arrived in her buckboard, walked into the courtroom and took a seat right up front. She was wearing a six‑shooter on her hip and cradled her Winchester across her lap. Needless to say, a verdict of not guilty was brought down in her case because, with her husband's body missing, foul play could not be proved. I can't say that I wasn't relieved. I didn't look forward to going back to Brown's Park to bring her in."
George added the bottle of strychnine to his museum collection.
In 1924 George was married. He and his wife Arvilla moved to Green River where he went to work for the Union Pacific Railroad. He worked for the UPRR from 1925 to 1935 at which time he obtained a leave, sold his ranch and went back to the business of law enforcement. He became Under Sheriff of Sweetwater County.
George recalled an incident in May 1940: "My wife was with me when I arrested a man for murder. I left my gun in the car with her while I went into a shack where the man was. I knew him so we had no trouble. After his sentence I never heard of him again."
During the same year he shot two horses from under the same man. "He wasn't a bad man," George said with characteristic charity. 'He later settled down, married, and raised a good family.'
Two Oklahoma fugitives wanted for robbery and grand larceny were trailed by law enforcement officers to the Green River country, and had taken refuge in a cave. the lawman called upon George to guide them through the trackless country. Short of food and water, the officers were for turning back, but George persisted, and they eventually arrived at the cave.
Boldly, George laid aside his gun and entered the cave alone, even though challenged by the two fugitives. He eventually talked them into giving themselves up, and took them to a nearby ranch for a good meal.
"I came to know them while they were in jail and they proved to be very good men," George said. "I believed they had a reason for taking the outfits they did." He always saw the best in those who broke the law and supported their reform. It paid off.
After serving a short time in the penitentiary the two Oklahoma lawbreakers came back to Green River and went to the courthouse looking for George. They weren't seeking revenge. They called George Stephens "the best officer we have ever met.""We became good friends after that," George stated simply.
George served as under sheriff of Sweetwater County from September 193S to September 1942.. The accounts of his many experiences would fill volumes. He also served as Sweetwater County Civil Defense Coordinator and Director during 1942 and 1943.
During 1948 and 1949 George directed the use of a Sherman tank for the National Guard. During that severe winter, when snow piled in twenty foot drifts on the plains, word reached Green River of a man taken seriously ill in his shack far out in the country. IN 34 degrees below zero weather, George commandeered the Sherman tank, talked Jack McDonald - a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge into driving it, and rescued the sick man in time to save his life.
By this time George had returned to work for the Union Pacific Railroad, from which he retired in 1967. Between the years 1943 to 1951 he was elected City Councilman of Green River four times, and between 1947 and 1967 he won five elections as County Commissioner of Sweetwater County. He had been a member of the American Legion since 1925, and a member of the National Association of County Officials. He was a member of the National Association of Counties for Water and Air Pollution, as well as a committeeman of that group, and was President of the Sweetwater County Historical Society for 1966.
George and Arvilla Stephens were the parents of three girls and one boy. Following his retirement in 1967 at the age of seventy-five, George devoted all of his time to his two great loves history and rock hounding. In one of his display cases of lapidary samples he hung a sign: "Old Rock Hounds Never Die, They Just Slowly Petrify."
It was after his retirement in 1967 that I spent the most time with George. We had a comfortable friendship. He introduced me to many another of my elderly acquaintances, including William Yates, who lived nearby ‑ another fount of historical knowledge.
George and I went rock hounding together, sought out old graves, ranches, and historic sites, and visited many an old‑timer to pick their brains for morsels of history. We retraced the Oregon Trail around South Pass, hunted out an old ferry site on the Green River, and toured through Brown's Park.
But I remember George best for a story he related, a story he told only to a few intimate friends. That story is, in his own words, as follows:
"I started my general store in Manila in 1921. It was either in 1924 or 1925 that a black Model T Ford touring car pulled up in front of the store, pulling a little two-wheeled trailer piled high with camping equipment. Two men got out of the car and came inside. Both of them were wearing dark glasses, which is something you didn't see too often in those days. One of the men, a little taller and thinner than the other, wandered around the counters, picking out some grocery items, while the heavier man approached the checkout counter where I was sitting, working on the books and accounts.
"This man asked me about different people around the valley, mostly old-timers, and wanted to know about each one, whether they were living or dead, and if alive, where they lived. I got the impression he had been away for a long time, and even though he looked vaguely familiar. I couldn't place his face.
"The two men bought a few supplies and paid for them, and I wrote out a receipt from my receipt book and handed them a copy. On the top of my receipts was printed Gco. M. Stephens- General Merchandise- Manila- Utah, and I seen the heavy set man looking at it carefully. After a minute or two he looked up and asked, 'Are you George Solomon's boy?' I said I was, and he took off his glasses, saying 'You don't remember me, do you?' I told him he looked familiar to me but I couldn't make him out. 'I used to bounce you on my knee,' he said, and the moment he said that, I recognized him. It was Butch Cassidy! The man with him was Elzy Lay. They had been camping over in Sheep Creek Canyon and they were on their way to Green River to look up some of their old acquaintances...
"I told Butch that if he had showed up a year or so earlier, when I was Sheriff of Daggett County, I would have had to arrest him. He laughed and said, 'By God, I'll bet you would do it, too!' Just between you and me, I'm glad I didn't have to make that choice."
George M. Stephens died at Riverton, Wyoming in April 1980. He was then in his eighty-eighth year of age. His sister Matilda probably summarized him best when she wrote: "His honesty, dependability, stability, and sincerity is solid. A man you can take at his word. George has acclaimed a heritage of friends."
I am proud to have been one of them.
Personal interviews and reminiscences of George M. Stephens
Sweetwater County Museum, Green River, Wyo., repository of Gco. M. Stephens' collection.
"Chewin' the Fat," by Adrian Reynolds, Green River Sta , April 30,1980.
"A Sister's Memories of George Stephens," by Matilda (Solomon) Lacy, Golden, Missouri, in the Green River Sta , April 30, 1980.
Interviews with: Minnie Crouse Rasmussen; Josephine Bassett Morris; Tom Welch; William Yates; Wilford Tolten; Edward Boren; others.