Sister's Last Stand

The Legend of Eulalia Bourne Lives On In The Galiuro Mountains.
By Kevin Franklin

IT'S ONE THING to be thwarted by washed-out roads, hostile natives or natural disasters of one sort or another. It's quite another to grind to a halt in response to a small metallic sign: "Road Closed."

Out There More often than not, I'm inclined to investigate exactly why signs claim roads to be closed. However, this sign was placed here by a mining company.

Apparently the BHP mining company is doing some exploratory drilling around Copper Creek, a semi-abandoned collection of mine workings in the Galiuro Mountains 50 miles northeast of Tucson. The sign most likely means we'd drive 10 miles down this dirt road to find a drilling operation in the middle of the road.

If you've ever seen a drill rig, you'd know its potential for blockading any of these mountain tracks. During operation, the semi-portable derrick on the back of a five-ton truck will be firmly planted in the road and can have several thousand feet of drill pipe sunk into the ground. More importantly, it invariably comes with a pack of ornery operators. Some might be inclined to ask these guys, stuck out here for days drilling holes and carrying large pipe wrenches, to move their little truck. I wouldn't.

After a brief powwow, we decide to heed the sign and take the detour into Copper Creek--but not before serendipity strikes.

A man and his family roll up in their car.

"Hey, road's closed," he says.

So we gathered.

After chatting for a while, Juan Ramirez introduces himself. Juan worked for BHP, formerly Magma Copper, for 25 years on the refinery tank at their smelter downstream on the San Pedro River. But much of his free time is spent roaming through the Galiuros and surrounding terrain.

"I know it like the back of my palm," he says.

He also lets it be known he was friends with Eulalia "Sister" Bourne. Although she died in 1984, Sister is still a legend in these hills. She picked up the nickname because a young sibling of hers could not pronounce Eulalia. (Puts "spaghetti" to shame, doesn't it?)

Sister lived most of her adult life in Arizona, living in small country towns and working as a school teacher from 1914 to 1957. Some places she taught, like Helvetia and Sasco, have long since turned to rubble. But the students outlasted the schools, and, according to several Arizona Historical Society documents, they threw several reunion parties for Bourne, whom they said had a huge impact on their lives. After retiring from teaching, Sister kept working as a cattle rancher and writing books. The University of Arizona Press published Woman In Levis, Nine Months Is A Year, Ranch School Teacher and The Blue Colt.

Not only could she punch cows and keep unruly students in line, but apparently she turned quite a few heads, too. In her writing she recounts a story about one lovesick cowboy who brandished a pistol at her. She promptly grabbed the gun and threw it down a well. In another incident, two other suitors tried to ambush her, but also failed. How much of this is Arizona storytelling is hard to say. One thing is for sure, the lady was no pushover. She continued running cattle, mostly by herself on her little GF Bar Ranch, after breaking--over the years--both arms, wrists, a hip, and a few ribs and dislodging a kidney.

But according to historical accounts, and Ramirez's testimony, what local folks remember her for most is her irrepressible nature.

A true frontier woman, this West Texan refused to be bullied by administrators in the education department in Tucson during her teaching career.

"There was a military-like chain of command," Bourne said in a 1978 newspaper interview. "At the bottom stood the classroom teacher. She could not promote or retain a pupil, give a party, use her own initiative or make any initiative without getting permission from those above her."

So rather than be subverted, Sister boogied out of Tucson and began teaching in rural schools, where she was able to maintain a certain level of autonomy--although she did have to endure some small-town restrictions: She once lost a job for dancing to jazz music.

Presumably, two ex-husbands also found out she had a mind of her own.

She even scorned the cruelty inflicted on rodeo animals--no small stand for a member of the Arizona Cattlemen's Association.

Before the GF Bar, she had a ranch out in Peppersauce Canyon. Magma Copper wanted the land, and she fought them for three-and-a-half years before accepting three-and-a-half sections in the Galiuro Mountains in exchange.

It's no wonder then, that when Magma again came knocking, she was quite the haggler. She went back and forth with the company representative for hours until they finally consented to giving her $1,000 in non-refundable up-front money and allowing her and her cattle to stay on the land until she died.

She outstubborned the stubborn Magma agent, Maxie Anderson. The one-eyed Anderson eventually went on to make the first trans-Atlantic and non-stop trans-North American hot air balloon crossings, in 1978 and 1980 respectively. The resolute Anderson gave Bourne a medallion after his Atlantic crossing, one mule to another.

Ramirez explains there's nothing left to see of Sister's ranch in the mountains, just up the road from where we stand. After her death, it was vandalized and eventually bulldozed into nothing. I suspect it may be a little harder for the ages to erase her indellible handprint from Arizona's history. TW

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