Home On The Range

Cowtown Keeylocko--Where The Wild And Slightly Strange Go To Howl.
By Mari Wadsworth, Photos by Nate Neering

EVER HEARD TELL of a town called Keeylocko? It's a living, working slice of the Old West located on the high lonesome about 40 miles southwest of Tucson, near the Coyote and Baboquivari mountains. If you arrive early, you just might happen across founder, proprietor and sole resident, cattle rancher Ed Keeylocko, who's up with the roosters every morning takin' care of business.

On this particular morning, he's got the generator going, pumping water to wash dishes in the outdoor sink adjacent to the living quarters--a gutted trailer worked over with a Wild West shell Keeylocko fashioned with his own hands. The smoking, gas-powered engine, presumably the town's only source of electrical power, makes introductions difficult. But Keeylocko smiles warmly and reaches out a soapy hand. "Welcome to Cowtown Keeylocko!" he beams.

From where we stand, less than a mile in from the dirt road turn-off with the hand-painted sign of town rules, a cluster of eight buildings is visible. Makeshift structures of weathered wood and corrugated tin, they seem to recall happier times...the bygone days of a town buzzing with activity, of cowboys haggling for ropes and saddles, of livestock lowing under hot iron brands, of whiskey drinking and card playing...days that, well, never really existed, as such.

With the exception of Keeylocko Days, an annual BBQ, rodeo and musical event drawing hundreds of folks from, as Ed vows grandly, "every place you can imagine," Cowtown Keeylocko has remained, for the last 20 years, pretty much as it is on this lazy Saturday: empty, dusty and full of dreams.

ED KEEYLOCKO'S WHAT you call an "idea man." Ask him a question and you won't get much information, but he'll spin one helluva yarn. Ol' Ed takes those ideas straight up and, on this particular morning, with a snort of E&J brandy in a Styrofoam cup. Keeylocko's been passing around the same stories for years, and at one time or another a variety of local media seem to have swallowed them whole: how he started his own town back in the mid-'70s when bidding dropped significantly the first time this black cowboy showed up at the cattle auction to sell his stock; how he went on to earn a degree in agriculture from the UA after spending two decades in the U.S. Army; and how he dreams of developing a new breed of "predatory cattle," a breed so fierce and strong it'll defend itself against wolves and mountain lions, ending all this environmental protection nonsense once and for all.

"I want to give them back their horns," he says.

On this last point, he explains his philosophy with intonations worthy of a Southern Baptist preacher: "Domestic livestock...that's a bad word, domestication. You had better undomesticate things if you want to be around on this planet, killin' everything with your poisons and pesticides and everything else that you gotta kill to protect this animal. Look at the sheep--he's been docile since Christ. He couldn't protect nothin'. If you don't put that (wildness) back, we'll kill everything off trying to protect everything," a point he finishes off ominously with a reference to mad cow disease.

The 67-year-old Keeylocko's stories have become somewhat of a local legend; and as such, it doesn't really matter whether there's more than a corner of truth to them. Like I said, Ed's an idea man.

COMFORTABLY SEATED IN the Blue Dog Saloon, we're treated to a day in the life of this dying breed of western visionary. "That day at the auction, a man says to me, 'You should build your own town. Then you can charge whatever price you want.' I says to him, 'Building a town, that's a good idea. I'll do exactly that.' And they all sort of laughed up their sleeves, but nobody laughs today. I did build a town, and I do sell my stuff in my town...I haven't completed the town yet, but the town has a vision.

"This is a working cowtown. We hold auctions here...We haven't been doing that in the last five years, because the price of feed is so high, but we got a big farm, just eight miles from here. We're working on bringing the farm up. Then we'll start buying again. Then you can come here and see auctions, and people bringing everything from a billy goat to an elephant. If they want to sell it, we'll transfer it. And that's what cowtowns have always done."

It's a solitary life, with long days of hard work tempered by long hours alone to consider the town's economy and future. And don't be misled by cowtown's one-man, one-dog, one-horse population: Keeylocko not only speaks in the third person, he seems to see in the third person as well; following his gaze out the broken-out windows to the town's center, you can tell his mind is already filling in the blanks.

"Muddy Waters is a mercantile, a trade company. We sell hay, saddles, medicine for horses. Salt Wounds over there, that's the veterinarian--a representative vet for when we have rodeos and things. And the paramedics are there. I don't know which you doctor first, the horse or the cowboy, because the arena is rough, and hard. And a lot of times the cowboys are complaining because they say the arena's too hard, but this is a mountain. And I say, 'Well boys, I can't put goose downs up here for y'all to fall on. I know it's a rough place, but this is the way the West was."

Other buildings include the Blue Dog Saloon, jailhouse and the Historical Chronological Society, which he says specializes in out-of-print books and ancient civilizations from the Americas, Africa and ancient Rome. "We do a lot of our own research here," he says.

When asked if he owns the land, Keeylocko is firm. "You bet, you bet, you bet, you betcha," he says. He skirts around detailed questions, presumably because they're just not very interesting; but a 1992 story in The Arizona Daily Star reports that he leases at least 14,000 acres of this desolate spread. Like everything else about Keeylocko, the exact operations and logistics of this working cowtown are a bit of a mystery...perhaps even to Ed.

In a televised, six-minute Arizona Illustrated segment back in May 1995, a grinning Keeylocko says to the camera, "I don't have a blueprint for this. I see everything in my mind, then we set out to build it."

Our reverie of the town's past and future is interrupted by a reporter's query about some wandering pigs. "Oh yeah, yeah, damn pigs," he says nonchalantly. But glancing out the window, Ed notices the pair are trotting toward the kitchen, and lights out after them. "Get out of there! Hee-ya, hee-ya!" he yells, his dog North whining encouragement. In his absence, we take time to soak up the ambiance of the Blue Dog Saloon.

Beams of sunlight filter through gaps in the wood and pinholes in the tin roof, and billions of dust particles rise from the dirt floor to dance in them. A handprinted sign warns patrons to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and scorpions, flies buzz amiably about the sticky countertop, and a warm breeze eases through window openings long ago relieved of the burden of glass. The eastern walls are decorated with yellowed photographs and faded newspaper clippings of a young Ed, as serviceman, cowboy and town spokesman. And there on the mantle of the enormous fireplace, a framed document certifies that Ed Keeylocko is an ordained minister of World Christianship Ministries, a bona fide church with its own P.O. box. It's the kind of place where you feel right at home, especially when you're miles away from any place else.

By now Keeylocko's restored the pigs to their proper place and returned to his Styrofoam cup behind the bar.

"People think they can hack this sort of life," he says evenly. "This is tough. It don't bother me that it's hot, for example. But there's little things they have to have (like electricity). There's no television.

"Winds up here reach 80 miles an hour; the tin, the roofs, they blow off every now and then. I wondered if (the state of) Utah would send me a bill someday and say, 'Come and pick up some of your tin.' It flies up there," he chuckles. "(The town's) a way that we just leave it. We don't want to change it. But I watch people in here, and they just can't stand the heat. So I'll have to do somethin' about that. I'll figure it out. I'll figure it out to do it a natural way."

This "natural way" is more than just living without creature comforts. It's how Keeylocko keeps his town, enforces a code of western civility he expects his guests to respect and, most importantly, how he raises his livestock.

"I have always believed in natural things. But now that it's noted throughout the world--in Israel, Australia, New Zealand, and everywhere--we're gonna continue doin' that...building the town, bringing people here for the quality of the product and to see an authentic cowtown." The grand event, Keeylocko Days, has gathered every third week in October for the past 15 years. This past year they moved it to November, and changed the focus to promote "natural beef," which he claims to be all range-fed cattle free of steroids and hormones. Arizona Grown, a "Farm to Family Directory" published by the Arizona Department of Agriculture, lists Cowtown Keeylocko as one of the state's best for beef, pork, poultry and honey. Mind you, the pamphlet is the product of the Office of Commodity Development and Promotion, in conjunction with the Arizona Office of Tourism. It's a paid listing, not a regulatory service.

But on this point, Keeylocko can probably be taken at his word. He runs a tight operation, and times are getting leaner. "A 50-pound bag of corn is $11. That's ridiculous. And it keeps rising and rising. And they keep blaming it on the high cost of fuel, or I-don't-know-what they're blaming it on. And so I'm beginning to find--just like when they wouldn't buy my cattle--I'm going to produce my own feed. And until then, I will stop everything until I can produce my own--hay, corn, milo and things you need for cattle feed, and then I'm going to put in a produce garden 'cuz people like to come pick tomatoes, and beans, and chiles. So I've started that, but it's always a battle out here. There are some forces of...people, persons...that don't want me to do that. They've been putting obstacles in my way," he says mysteriously, declining to get into specifics.

We've moved outside, now, to find a spot in the shade between the distant Baboquivari Mountains and the adjacent boot tree, a marvel of cowboy footwear rode hard and put up wet. It's been a rough day of drinking for us city folk, and the conversation takes a back seat to the skeletal boot tree and the sound of wind chimes.

When asked what he does out there all alone after the sun goes down, Ed responds by heading off a few paces to face the mountains. "Mostly, we just howl!" he says. Up to this point, Keeylocko's been a charming storyteller, with his clipped words and soft, South Carolina accent. But when he calls North, a wolf-like creature, to his side and the two of them start howling wistfully in tandem, we're entranced.

"When people listen to me, they think I'm weird. Well, I'm a little strange, I know that," he allows, then settles into one of his throaty, infectious bouts of laughter. "I accept the fact that I'm a little strange. When I was about eight years old, my momma said she was gonna get rich off me. She said she was gonna put me in a cage and take me to the middle of town and tell everybody if they didn't give her some money she was gonna let me out."

Well, Ed's found his own way to the center of town, and it's not likely to bring him a fortune. But it just might make him a legend.

Cowtown Keeylocko is approximately 41 miles west on Ajo. At mile marker 142, turn left onto Coleman Road. Continue less than a mile to a sign on the right that says, "Cowtown Keeylocko--3 Whoops and A Holler." Follow the signs into town. For information, call 1-520-429-5778. TW

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